Academic Book Reviews Deserve Some Respect

They are an investment in the scholarly community and in ourselves as researchers, Victoria Addis argues.

October 3, 2019
 
 
Istockphoto.com/traitov

The academic book review has long had a status issue, both in the United States and elsewhere. With the advent in the U.K., where I'm based, of the Research Excellence Framework, a process of research assessment that has inevitably reshaped ideas of what has value and what takes priority in academic work, this has only been amplified -- book reviews cannot be entered into the exercise. And if you listen to voices such as Karen Kelsky, who’s been a tenured professor at two public universities in America (Illinois and Oregon), hiring panels and promotion committees are similarly uninterested.

So if writing academic book reviews isn’t likely to do much for your career, why should you continue to produce them? Particularly at a time when academics are more overburdened than ever, struggling to balance increasingly heavy workloads with a growing pressure to publish?

Beyond their undeniable value to the scholarly community and academic publishing, book reviews can provide impetus for debate and discussion and add to current conversations in a given field. Institutionally recognized or not, they are an important avenue for scholarly engagement, and one we should not allow to become diluted by low expectations of the form.

Given their relatively short length, reviews can operate at the cutting edge of research in a way that other forms of scholarly publishing cannot. A book review may take less than a month to write and can usually be published relatively quickly. Reviews, therefore, offer the opportunity for spirited back-and-forth, which can enliven scholarly debate and draw the interest of a wide audience to a niche area -- as occurred in the 2016 exchange between Sir Brian Vickers, author of The One King Lear, and his reviewer (initially via live-tweet), Holger Syme. Vickers, incidentally, is no stranger to courting controversy through his responses to book reviews, having previously clashed with other scholars over the issue of Shakespeare’s sexuality.

Rather than framing those examples as entertaining spats, it is important to recognize that such exchanges, and critical reviews in and of themselves, can work to meaningfully progress scholarship in a field. One of the more famous disputes of recent years, between philosophers John Searle and Jacques Derrida, was advanced significantly through Searle’s 1983 piece “The World Turned Upside-Down” -- a review of On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism After Structuralism by Jonathan Culler, a professor of English and comparative literature at Cornell University. That Searle used that review as a vehicle to further his objections to deconstruction demonstrates that the book review is an active, almost live space for ideas and opinions. As Benjamin Peters, assistant professor at the University of Tulsa, has argued, book reviews are “the closest thing scholars have to a showdown at high noon … but at the patient pace of print.”

While nonspecialists may not naturally flock to the reviews section of a journal or a magazine without such public rivalries, University of Cambridge professor Mary Beard’s Confronting the Classics has shown how easily academic book reviews can translate to a wider audience. Bringing together a range of revised and carefully curated book reviews from across her career, Confronting the Classics offers a master class in writing reviews that are both engaging and scholarly, balancing strong opinions with academic rigor, knowledge and insight. Anyone familiar with Beard’s book can have no doubt as to the value of book reviews to the scholarly community.

Far from being hack work for graduate students, a good review situates new work within the context of the discipline, draws out its key arguments and contributions to knowledge, and offers an informed critique of any issues that a book’s approach or conclusions raise. Any scholar who has spent years writing a book in contribution to a discipline is entitled to the respect implicit in such thoughtful, critical reviews, and as members of a scholarly community, it falls to us to show that respect to our colleagues.

If altruism isn’t motivation enough, writing book reviews is also of real value to the reviewer. Reviews can display, and often require, a command of their discipline that both emerging and established scholars must strive to foster and maintain. The process of writing a review encourages researchers not only to engage deeply with the new scholarship they are reviewing but also to think more broadly about where it fits in relation to established directions and new trends in their field.

Reviewing books provides a focal point for deeper thinking and an avenue through which to share those thoughts in a brief and accessible way. Rather than absorbing time better spent writing journal articles, reviewing academic books actively underpins the kind of critical thinking, deep subject knowledge and exposure to current trends that are essential to longer outputs. The practice ultimately facilitates, and is almost a natural by-product of, the kind of thorough and detailed research we naturally undertake as scholars. We should therefore view it not as an intellectual cul-de-sac but as part of a holistic scholarly process.

Academic book reviews deserve to be taken seriously, and reviewers at all career stages should be encouraged to aim for innovation and creativity when writing them. Why not offer prizes in recognition of reviews that push at these boundaries? Or workshops on how to write successful reviews for journals or mainstream literary publications?

After all, academe is about more than career progression. It is about investing in ourselves, in our colleagues and in intellectual progress -- all of which can be achieved through the pursuit of excellence in academic book reviewing.

Bio

Victoria Addis is completing a Ph.D. in English at the University of Leeds.

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

Back to Top