Sunday, August 09, 2009

If you can't say something nice . . . say something mean.

I'm sitting in a cafe just south of Park Slope in Brooklyn, working on two pieces due at the end of the month. It's a lovely space- reminds me very much of the coffee-house where I work in my small Southern town, only much smaller (there is too much extra space in the South). The guy at the counter is from Alabama and serves Sweet Tea and seriously good bluegrass is coming out of the speakers. Were it not for all the cars outside and cute, bespectacled urban hipsters inside, I could be back home. Except that I think I like the South better when it's in Brooklyn.

My pieces are only sort of due August 31- one's a 3,000 word invited article for an online journal, and the other one is a book review which was originally due May 30. I tried to explain this to an MA student who has a crush on me a couple of nights ago. I was out with my friends, a married couple one of whom is a colleague, the other a writer. The student showed up too, and spent a couple of hours chatting with us. My colleague and I were complaining about our deadlines and then we started joking and laughing about how we'll never turn our pieces in on time anyway, because we were invited to do them. The MA student gazed at us with a mixture of shock and admiration, like he was privy to some illicit bit of information about how academics really work. And I'd forgotten all about how scary deadlines used to be, back when I was a student, back when they really mattered (or so I thought). But now that I get asked to do things all the time, of course, everything is so flexible. 'Cause that's how we hot-shot academics roll. (I hope my readers know I'm being silly and sarcastic here: I do take deadlines seriously and only rarely get invited to do anything. Just for clarification).

Anyway, I'm sitting here trying to write a decent review of this book, a collection of nine essays all vaguely pertaining to an organizing topic, and divided into four sections, but the introduction seems cursory, the organizing principle tenuous, and the section themes haphazard. Have you ever started to read a book you're reviewing and begun to think that every sentence (or every other sentence) is false? I'm at that stage right now. The book is decorated with my interjections. As I read each sentence I keep thinking "Really? No way! That is so not true." I can't tell if I'm right about this, or if it's just because I'm in a contrary, doubtful mood, inclined to question anything anyone tells me, whether it's an historical fact, an argument about Renaissance emblems, or a profession of love.

Book reviews don't really count as publications in my world, but they are still necessary. My friend Veralinda calls them exercises of good citizenship. It's just something we do to show that we are part of an (imagined) community of readers, especially at this early stage in our bookless careers. But the problem is that a book review makes a difference in someone else's career- the authors of the book I'm reviewing. And I don't want to ruin their careers since academic ones are so hard to come by. And because I can't afford it because then they could ruin mine. Still this review (graciously passed to me by Veralinda) is for a publication I respect. And I need to start being a good citizen.

At the moment I'm very fond of someone who never tones it down, who speaks his mind honestly and articulately and at times (some might say) insensitively. I have tremendous respect for him, because I cannot stand it when people gloss insults with insincere niceties (bless their hearts). And because I don't think he would speak so honestly if he didn't respect and like me, too. But in the case of my review I think there must be a way for me to write clearly and truthfully about what is wrong with this essay collection and still remain sensitive to the careers I may be tarnishing. I just haven't found it yet.


Toronto said...

That pretty much sums up why I hate doing reviews. If they're short (Renaissance Quarterly length, say), you can always hide behind bland summaries, but anything longer than that is really tricky unless you basically like and/or respect the book.

I agreed to do a review ages ago and subsequently discovered that I really, really detest the book. It's on exactly the sort of thing I work on, though. On the one hand, then I suppose I should be expected to have strong feelings about its arguments, and it would be the intellectually honest and rigorous thing to voice those. But it's such a small sub-field that I don't exactly feel like burning one of the few bridges leading out of (or into) it. So I've been doing the deadline extending thing, ignoring emails from the editor, and will very likely not write the review.

That's also why I feel the "good citizen" argument doesn't work at all for us pre-tenure lot, and why it strikes me as a serious flaw in the system that so many reviews get written by junior faculty looking for some sort of CV filler (or whatever). They're almost guaranteed to lead to bland, non-committal appraisals, because most of us are too afraid to upset people who might play a role in deciding our future. I think reviews should be fair, but they're allowed to be harsh (if not mean). If something's bad, or wrong, or flawed, or poorly argued, we should say that. But since we're not working in a professional vacuum, that's a very hard imperative to follow -- which isn't really true post-tenure.

I look forward to bashing and praising things in a couple of years' time, but for now, I steer clear of reviews as much as I can... (and just write _articles_ attacking well-established scholars. Huh. Might have to rethink all this.)

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