Friday, May 10, 2013

On the perils of reviewing

This piece by John Stackhouse -- Why You Should Review–and Shouldn’t -- doesn't apply to my situation but is an interesting commentary on academic book reviewing and human nature.  It also recalls to mind the late John Y. Simon's quip that it's better to write a positive endorsement of a bad book than lose a friend.

Remember this the next time the glowing jacket blurbs for a drearily unoriginal book written by a widely admired Civil War historian raises your bile.


  1. I don't mind this so much when it comes to blurbs, because I think we know what those are, at least for the most part. It's a bigger problem if we're talking about an actual review, because those considerations should be irrelevant. There's a flip side, as well. On occasion, I've seen reviews by published academics which take a book to task where the author offers a different slant on a subject wrotten about by the reviewer. Best not to review at all if you can't produce an impartial evaluation.

    1. John,
      Exactly, but I'm not sure how widely it's realized to be just part of the game. I agree that jacket blurbs and formal reviews should always be viewed with different expectations.

      About your other point, I often wonder how academic journals regard reviews by "rivals". One can easily see two sides to the matter. Who better to review a new book than one of a handful of people in the entire world of equal familiarity with the available source material. But, on the other hand given ego and whatever personal and private baggage brought to the table, do such assignments as a practical matter result in better reviews the majority of the time?

    2. Drew: On the second point, I agree that there's a "cost/benefit" analysis to be done. In fact, one review I'm thinking of raised some valid criticism about use of sources which another reviewer may not have noticed. Unfortunately, I came away with the distinct impression that much of the review was colored by professional rivalry rather than an objective assessment.


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