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Ask Dr. Editor

The book review is dead

To make a humanities book review work for you, defy the conventional.

BY LETITIA HENVILLE | DEC 08 2020

Question

When I was in grad school, my supervisor said that I shouldn’t write book reviews for journals. Now that I’m on the TT, I’m hearing the same thing: book reviews don’t carry any professional weight. Yet I’m expected to include reviews of my own book in my tenure file, especially ones published in the big journals – which suggests that they are valuable. So, do book reviews matter? Should I volunteer to write one?

Anonymous (Religious studies)

Dr. Editor’s response:

Book reviews proliferate in the humanities, so some people – journal editors, at least – must think they matter! If you can dedicate time to writing a book review without taking away from your own publications, you could do so, if you have a good reason. This good reason can be whatever you like:

  • the book seems to say something new and unexpected, and you’d enjoy reviewing it;
  • you want to give selflessly to the scholarly community;
  • you want to publish in a particular journal;
  • you owe someone a favour; or,
  • you see writing this review as one way of engaging with and contributing to your discipline.

There are lots of good reasons to avoid writing book reviews, and lots of advice-givers who will tell you not to spend your time on them (e.g. Kelsky, 2014). Those arguments have merit, especially in the neoliberal academy, in which value is determined by measurements of “impactful outputs.” If you’ve published more book reviews than peer-reviewed journal articles or book chapters, then your CV will look suspiciously unbalanced during your tenure review.

That said, though, the book review’s status as an uncounted publication provides you with a flexibility and freedom that sometimes isn’t found in pieces which must pass peer review. Let’s examine the conventions of the academic book review before considering ways in which being unconventional may work for you.

Conventional book reviews

Book reviews can be written to a formula: a concise summary, a critical assessment or critique, and a recommendation to the reader that attests to the book’s credibility. There are any number of articles describing these conventions in detail (e.g. Brienza, 2015; Belcher, 2003). In 1,000 or so words, the book reviewer is meant to evaluate the contribution the book is making to the discipline, situate its arguments in a broad context and point to particular strengths or weaknesses of the book’s analyses, evidence, citation and the like.

James Hartley, an emeritus professor of psychology at Keele University, has written extensively on academic book reviews (see 2003; 2005; 2006; 2010; 2017); his table “Items Valued in Book Reviews” (2006, p. 1200), below, outlines readers’ expectations for book review content across the disciplines:

Dr. Hartley’s 2006 paper also identifies the top 10 reasons why researchers across the disciplines write book reviews. The number one reason? “I [was] asked to by the editor” (p. 1201). My hope is that you’ll be a bit more intentional with how you choose to spend your time and write book reviews only when you can do so without detriment to your peer-reviewed publications and have a good reason.

Unconventional book reviews

Writing a book review for a journal is something akin to a pass/fail assignment in an undergraduate course. It’s clear what you need to do to produce work that is “good enough”: reproduce the conventional; demonstrate mastery of the discipline and genre. But a pass/fail assignment is also an opportunity to try something risky that may not work.

So what might an unconventional book review look like? The reviews editor of Educational Philosophy and Theory, Sean Sturm “welcome[s] experiments in the writing of book reviews that move beyond the customary formula and speak to this ethos of dialogue and openness” (2020, p. 3). Dr. Sturm lists — and cites — examples of what these unconventional reviews might do:

  • collaborate, for example, by written or oral dialogue (see Herd & Wilkins, 2015; Samer & Carlson, 2013), duoethnography (see Latz & Murray, 2012) or other forms of collective writing (Jandric et al., 2017);
  • interview or include responses from authors (see Zylinska, 1999; Rhodes, 2005);
  • use the review as a “point of departure” for their own thinking or writing, a practice much maligned by editors (Ashley, 2002; Cortada, 1998);
  • reflect on how the book has affected or might affect oneself, one’s teaching or, indeed, one’s writing (see Rankin, 2010);
  • “remix” the book (see Lee, 2010; McCarthy, 2015), a form of what Samuels and McGann (1999) call “deformative criticism”;
  • read one book through another (see Sehgal, 2014; Murris, 2017 [PDF]), a kind of textual “diffraction” (Barad, 2014); and even just
  • employ hypertext or non-textual media (see Laux, 2018), as in artography (Springgay, Irwin, Leggo, & Gouzouasis, 2018). (p. 4)

What excites me about Dr. Sturm’s examples is that their authors can be innovative in form, structure and content while still giving their readers what they want from a book review — that is, the content outlined in Dr. Hartley’s table, above. Dr. Sturm echoes Ronald Chenail’s argument (2010) that you can approach a book for review the same way you approach any other primary source or piece of evidence in your discipline — even drawing on your creativity, if you wish.

And there’s evidence that unconventional book reviews are more likely to further scholarly conversations than conventional ones. In 2011, Zuccala & Leeuwen showed that literature and history book reviews that integrate sources other than the book being reviewed are more likely to be cited than reviews that only cite the one book. Yet this latter type of review has become increasingly common as the number of book reviews published increased.

Zuccala & Leeuwen’s analysis suggests that book reviews do have the potential to be influential within a discipline, and that potential increases when you don’t do what most advice-givers say academic book reviews should do. If you want to write an average book review, follow the average guidance. If you want your book review to matter in your discipline — even if it’s in the wrong category on your CV — then you should write something unusual, something collaborative or original or expansive.

I agree with Rachel Toor, who argued that “[t]he monograph and book-review sausage factories are not, I think, the best use of our collective cerebral resources” (2012). Don’t take the sausage-factory approach – that form of book review is mere deadwood on your CV. Your readers will thank you — and maybe even cite you.

ABOUT LETITIA HENVILLE
Letitia Henville
Ask Dr. Editor is a monthly column by Letitia Henville, a freelance academic editor at shortishard.ca. She earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto. Have a question about academic writing or editing? Send it to her at shortishard.ca/contact or on Twitter @lertitia.
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  1. Philip Holden / December 9, 2020 at 14:27

    I’d also add — as someone who has survived the neoliberal academy, had a successful career, and moved on to other things — that book reviews can do a couple of very useful things. You can consciously promote less well-known work, and thus help build a community rather than always competing as an individual against metrics. And doing a book review is a very useful exercise in reading closely a text that you might otherwise skim – your engagement is greater, and that engagement can be used as the basis for using the insights of the text in scholarly work that “counts”.

  2. Howard Doughty / December 11, 2020 at 11:39

    Potential book review writers should also consider why people read book reviews. After all, even such an egocentric exercise as writing, if it is to be of value to anyone including the writer, must be undertaken with the audience in mind and thus, perhaps, lead to consequences that are anything but selfish.

    Full disclosure: I’ve been a regular reader of “The New York Review of Books” since 1967 and a subscriber since 1979 as well as a frequent reader of “The London Review of Books,” “The Los Angeles Review of Books,” and a number of similar “upper middlebrow” periodicals for decades. In addition, the book review sections of major professional journals are the first things I look at when I open a fresh issue. And, of course, the Op-Ed columns are the first things I read in daily newspapers and mass magazines, along with the “Letters-to-the-Editor” in whatever publication prints them.

    I sometimes think of this habit as opening door and entering the foyer of some larger building of a intellectual thought, scholarship, and research inviting me to move into its deeper, more demanding recesses once I’ve acclimatized from the helter-skelter of the outside world.

    More seriously, however, book reviews that rise above the level of the academic equivalent of the “five-paragraph essay” (cf. the multiple departments of “H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online”, which summarize the “main points” and offer a desultory assessment in the concluding 150 words) can, I believe, provide an excellent “general education” for the non-professionals, novices and experts alike.

    They appeal to the generalist, the holistic scholar, and the attentive public, keeping us all abreast of innovations and ongoing discussions in any field – the Humanities, the Social Sciences, the Natural Sciences, the “professions,” regardless of discipline or specialty.

    Speaking knowledgeably and without condescension to this broad audience is not only a noble activity in itself, but it can be immensely rewarding. I am, for example, frequently reminded of a comment by paleontologist and evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) who said that his major research work – a project that took him years to complete – had been cited by a distressingly few scientists, but that a casual reference to an incident in professional baseball (https://www.nytimes.com/1984/11/10/opinion/the-strike-that-was-low-and-outside.html also included with subsequent comment in his collection, “The Flamingo’s Smile,” 1984) sparked not only the largest number of replies he ever received from readers, but became the focus of countless debates in college and university courses on ethics as well as serious interchanges in professional publications. So, Gould’s many volumes of essays and reviews did immense good by helping to break down the barriers between C, P. Snow’s lamentable “two cultures.” Gould proved more than anyone the fallacy that “scientists” can’t write and “humanists” can’t think.”

    The same can be said for book reviews. In a world where reputations are built on “knowing more and more about less and less,” the narrowly focused scholar – especially those who also wish to become better teachers – can do far worse that attend to book reviews and “review essays” as exploratory adventures that will help them to expand their own intellectual range and invigorate their pedagogical practices with fresh ideas, pertinent comparisons, and (in Kenneth Burke’s language) “incongruous perspectives” that can, in the hands of a skilled teacher render great service to audiences not yet confined to a single “silo.”