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Home EJIL Analysis When (Not) to Write a Book Review?

When (Not) to Write a Book Review?

Published on August 24, 2011        Author: 

Consider the following hypo:

Let’s say I accept the request from a journal to review a particular book. I know the author, I might consider him a friend, but he is hardly an intimate (I would say there is/should be an absolute ban at least on reviewing books by one’s close personal friends and one’s departmental colleagues; this hypothetical person is neither). Having read the book, however, I think it’s positively awful, with few if any redeeming qualities. If I write the review, be polite but honest and say what I mean it is likely that I will lose or offend a friend. If I blunt my remarks and write something anodyne, I will have kept the friend but I will have failed my professional duty to give the audience my full and honest opinion.

Would it then be ethical for me to tell the journal that I’ve decided not to write the review at all, and renege on my previous commitment? In other words, is it right to have a policy whereby I refuse point-blank to write a review when there is a real conflict of interest, but at the same time write reviews, but only (honest) positive/mildly critical reviews, for people who I’m on friendly terms with? Or should I simply have a policy not to write reviews at all for books by people who I’m friends with – a commitment which obviously gets harder as one’s circle of colleagues expands?

Comments by readers most welcome.

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12 Responses

  1. [...] “Let’s say I accept the request from a journal to review a particular book. I know the author, I might consider him a friend, but he is hardly an intimate (I would say there is/should be an absolute ban at least on reviewing books by one’s close personal friends and one’s departmental colleagues; this hypothetical person is neither) …” (more) [...]

  2. John Morss

    It’s so obvious which book that is !!! (just joking) — look the best policy is to not review books by friends, and in any case (having myself in a previous career written some very negative book reviews which I have later regretted, ie thought afterwards that I was too strong/colourful in my comments .. there are some temptations to stylistic self-indulgence in book reviews), there should be no difficulty in telling the journal that you’ve changed your mind. Excessively negative reviews are unfortunate, but bland reviews are much much worse cheers John

  3. Francesco Messineo

    Marko,

    there was a Third Way, which you have just precluded yourself. Write a review and be very elegant, yet forceful, about your opinion. For example, I would not use the words ‘positively awful’ (you can try with ‘interesting’, as the British do when they mean ‘positively awful’).

    (You’ve precluded such Third Way because any critical book review you’ll write in the next 12 months, however elegantly formulated, will be associated with this post…)

    And anyway, don’t self-censor: entire academic careers have been created by good academic debate starting with a bad review – you could be doing your friend a favour.

    (And did I mention many people like the sight of blood?)

    F

    PS: after this post, I am even more glad to have you in the ‘personal friends’ category, btw.

  4. Marko Milanovic Marko Milanovic

    John and Francesco, thank you both for the comments. May I just reiterate the word ‘hypo’ in the post; I am honestly not facing this dilemma at this point, or in the near future, but am just asking preemptively. And I am frankly not so sure about the Third Way. A polite negative review is still a negative review, even if it’s completely without snark, is not particularly nasty etc. A regrettable fact of academic life is that we are a vain, vain species, and I am pretty sure many authors wouldn’t take a negative review kindly even if it is very polite and proper. (Note in that regard the Calvo-Goller incident, which is admittedly an extreme).

    Which is why my impression at least is that 90-99% of book reviews published are positive; one has to look for code or absence of glowing praise to see that the book is really not that good after all. As a friend mentioned to me in an email, it’s precisely because they are so rare that negative reviews tend to go viral. And if they are particularly nasty with blood in the water etc. that only makes them more appetizing and something to talk about at the water cooler.

  5. Ian Henderson

    I suggest you either write honest reviews all the time or no reviews at all. I would like to know if a book is good, bad, good but missing issues etc. I hope the experts in the field do not opt to not write the review just because it will not be a good review.

    As for the friend issue, again, would you write something about ‘the work’ of a person you do not know but would not write it about the work of someone you do? Assuming you are reviewing the book, you are not commenting on the author’s personality, charm, looks etc. John makes a very good point about stylistic self-indulgence. Review on the merits and be objective in your language.

  6. Alexander Eichener

    With a truthful, honest, dutiful review you might loose one good acquaintance (the word “friend” I use as rarely as it behooves). But with an “anodyne” one (how elegant a word for complacent chaff) you will lose the professional respect and personal esteem of many more colleagues, and of far more substantial ones. Choice is yours.

    I can offer one convenient way out of the dilemma: suggest a young and intrepid reviewer to the editors, who feels that s/he has little to lose. Hir review will very likely be leagues better in quality, precision and sharpness than yours could be.

  7. Marko Milanovic Marko Milanovic

    Ian,

    I agree that honesty is most important, as a book review is essentially a form of public service – the reader wants to know in 2.000 words whether it’s worth his or her time to read a book of 200.000 words. But again, note that objectivity and politeness in the language used cannot really disguise the fact that the review is negative; “being polite” is not an answer to the dilemma.

    Alexander,

    Talking about politeness, one should expect some civility in blog comments as well. I know full well what the choices are, thank you very much, and have indeed spelled them out in the post.

    But you are wrong empirically, I would say, that blunting substantive criticism in book reviews necessarily leads to a loss of professional respect – even if I agree that doing so violates professional responsibility. Again, most book reviews are hardly critical at all, suggesting that reviewers (1) either blunt their remarks, or (2) refuse to write negative reviews. My impression is that both dynamics are at play in academic book reviewing, precisely because everybody knows everybody else, and that was the whole point of the post. I would never do (1), but (2) seems to pose different ethical issues.

    Finally, your way out of the dilemma is no way out at all. ‘Young’ and ‘intrepid’ are words which very, very rarely go together in academia, and especially in book reviewing. It’s precisely the ‘young’, i.e. junior, academics, who have the most to lose if they offend a senior colleague. Many (most?) book reviews these days are indeed written by PhD students, who frequently do them because they get a free book (and they LOVE free books) and a publication in a decent journal. But, at least in my impression, these reviews tend to be the least critical, often just giving a narrative account of the table of contents and a mild comment here and there (‘the book is well researched’ etc.).

  8. Alexander Eichener

    My expectation of a real review (ideally, a review essay or “Besprechungsaufsatz”, rather than a mere annotation or notice) is best worded by the famous – and still upheld – self-characterisation of the Göttingische Gelehrte Anzeigen, unchanged since its ineption a quarter millenium ago: “das Streben nach polyhistorischer Vielseitigkeit, eindringender, strenger und förderlicher Kritik”.
    Which would appear the opposite (not contradictory, but contrary) of the indicated preference of the inquirer.

    Obviously, the first one is the duty of a scholarly journal and of its editors entire, the other one the individual preference of a reviewer. Also, many journals these days prefer the neutral limited presentation style in one or two paragraphs. In such constraint, a substantial critique is rarely possible, and a justified but unsubstantiated “Verriss” could often appear unfair and polemic, not because of its outspokenness and sharpness – both of which qualities are elementary demand to any scholarly or scientific discourse worthy of its name – but because of the lack of foundation and support for its judgement (the same should reversely be held true for unsubstantiated praise and eulogies, but that is just the ideal…).

    It is certainly more enjoyment to write a thoroughly critical review than an anodyne one (which enjoyment John Morss sees self-critically); and many an editor will also enjoy printing the former than the latter, and will hope for reactions and debate. Francesco Messineo has above commented on this maybe baser but still respectable craving in our souls with tongue-in-cheek honesty (I would not have used his metaphor of bloodlust or accident-gawking, but I like it).

    But it is far, far more work, because of the high demand that such a review job poses. An annotation or quick notice with a content overview is quickly done; the annotator does not sweat, and the reviewee is not hurt. And the reader is at least narratively informed that something new on this-and-that-topic is on the market.

    As reviewers however, we do not serve simply the (assumed) readers as customers or individual clients; we serve scholarship and science as a whole, and a constant and ongoing endeavour in progress. Or job is not to satisfy readers and least of all other authors, nor to contribute to social fluff; but to advance research and knowledge.
    Hence probably the above reference of F.M. to “good academic debate”, rather than to connivance, collegiality or corruption. Vanity be damned. :-)

    All this stands under the reserve of YMMV of course, but I can show some reviews that walk the talk… and not merely on a hapless and nigh defenceless plagiarized doctoral thesis.

  9. Ian Henderson

    Marko,

    Sorry, but in my view no dilemma exists. If the style and tone of your review would not (should not) vary regardless of whether you know the person or not, then I fail to see a dilemma. And if an academic (and probably a lawyer) cannot deal with someone having a different view of the law, then they probably cannot afford to be picky about who will be their friend.

    Of course, my non-dilemma perspective might also explain my rather small invitation list for parties!

    Ian

  10. John R Morss

    Years (decades) ago, I believe, Time Lit Supp book reviews were anonymous — unsurprisingly this gave rise to some extreme consequences. But with trusted moderation (eg by the editors of this blog) why not try this out here? Anyone writing an anonymous review would have to take the responsibility seriously… just an idea….

  11. Alexander Eichener

    John, the TLS states that the practice continued up to 1974. Let me quote, since your suggestion is interesting, and since I just learned that anonymity was hotly discussed and contended there, too:

    “But Bruce Richmond’s belief was that anonymity more often protected than endangered good judgement. Anonymous reviewers were less tempted to show off, and in many cases people who would write well about a book but who might have refused to do so under their own name—whether for professional reasons or just out of the kind of reticence which Richmond himself embodied—could be persuaded to do so by knowing that their identity would be protected. Under anonymity, talent could come before acknowledged expertise. As T. S. Eliot was to put it, “one gradually became an authority in the field allotted.” It was for the TLS that the young Eliot wrote some of his most influential essays on seventeenth-century drama and literature, benefiting along the way from what he called “the discipline of anonymity”: “I am firmly convinced that every young literary critic should learn to write for some periodical in which his contributions will be anonymous…”
    Source: http://www.tls.psmedia.com/first.asp — Very interesting, the whole page – click it.

  12. Irini Papanicolopulu Irini

    Marko,

    thank you for starting this interesting discussion. Though somewhat late, I would like to add just a few remarks.

    It all depends on what you consider a review to be about. In my (very personal) opinion, real reviews should discuss the contents of the book, rather than the style, and every critique should be supported by reasons and evidence. Thus:
    - saying the book is awful (fullstop) is helpful only to ruin a friendship, without obtaining the respect of colleagues;
    - saying it is awful because it is badly written (without citing examples) produces the same consequences as above;
    - saying it is awful just because the author does not share the reviewer’s views is not helpful;
    - saying it is awful because the author does not follow the reviewer’s style is not to the point (and, after all, if one wants to enjoy reading, one should turn to literature, rather than law).
    But the most important thing (personal opinion, again) is not to class as “awful” the book that one simply “does not like”. I do not like many writings, but this does not mean they are without merit; it is just a personal feeling.
    This said, it is really very difficult to find a book which is straightforward “awful”, though I would agree that there are a number of “not so good” books, or books that “could have been written differently” (and of course “better” in my opinion!). As a rule, I try not to review books by friends but, if obliged, I would make the most of their good aspects, though also mentioning what I believe could have been done, if not better, differently.

    Finally, two caveats. I would not be so nasty with “nice” reviewers, as some modesty is very helpful for a reviewer, if only to protect against possible misinterpretations (and I think we all can make errors; of course then it is the “unclear writing” that has caused them! ). Also, I would not attribute such an important role to book reviews, with all due respect to the persons who spend time reading the book and preparing the review. When I read one, the first thing I do is to see who has written it, remind myself of their style/tone/interests/studies, and only in the light of these elements read and evaluate the review. Sometimes a bad review written by a person, the work of which I do not share, is the greatest commendation!