Friday, August 21, 2009


I'm still working on this book review. I've never reviewed a book with problems, so I don't really know what the protocol is, or what I ought to do. So please, people who have published many reviews, write in and tell me what I should do.

Here's the deal:

1. It's an edited anthology that was produced in Europe. The introduction has two or three interesting historical observations on the topic, but not much analysis. It doesn't pose any provocative questions or attempt to answer them with the essays in the volume, which is kind of what I thought anthologies were supposed to do. But maybe European anthologies have a different critical approach. Maybe they're less concerned with asking enormous questions and trying to redefine the Renaissance in a ground-breaking way, the way we North American and British folks keep trying to do (and failing). So resisting a grand recit actually would be kind of refreshing, come to think of it.

2. It's full of errors. I wouldn't mind the copy-editing mistakes, but there are some really big ones. For instance, an essay all about Renaissance emblems and poetry repeatedly uses the term energeia ("activity") when the author really means enargeia ("visibility"). Although enargeia is energeia's henchman - "visibility" makes "activity" possible - it's clear that the author of this essay neither understands the difference between the two, nor their relationship. The same article confuses ut pictura poesis (Horace's equation of poetry with painting, which is really about PERSPECTIVE) with poema pictura loquens ("a poem is a talking picture"), a mistake a lot of people make, which never gets corrected because no one reads ancient languages for REAL anymore, or bothers to read the whole of Horace's Ars Poetica and compare it with Plutarch. This really, really bugs me. But maybe I'm overreacting.

3. Sadly, I wish I could write to the editors and tell them about all the mistakes so that they can fix them. This book probably shouldn't have gone to press with so many errors.

So- do I write to the journal who gave me the review and tell them the book shouldn't be reviewed? Or do I review it and mention all its faults in the gentlest way possible? I mean, 500 of my 700 words would be summary anyway . . .

Fellow writers and scholars, please weigh in.


plam said...

I don't really know what to do in such a situation (we rarely have published reviews in computer science) but I also hate it when there are technical inaccuracies in published work, or in political discourse for that matter. It really bugs me!

Flavia said...

If you really feel that you can't review this book, you can certainly tell the journal as much--and that might make you the happiest of the possible options! But you can't tell the journal that the book "shouldn't be reviewed," and I think it would be unwise to contact the editors directly. That ship has sailed.

The best approach, it seems to me, is to give a flat summary of the book: its professed aims, its organization, the topics of the essays, etc. And then in a (short) paragraph at the end say something like, "although this is a laudable project that raises many thought-provoking questions, it's weakened by X, Y, and Z."

I wouldn't single any essays out--or would do so only in general terms, with reference to the types of problems they manifest. Fact is, anyone going to a particular essay, who knows anything about the topic, will immediately see all its specific flaws. It's not your job to point them out, and doing so in a 700-word essay will only make you look petty (even if you're 100% right). A few well-chosen sentences, in as emotionless a tone as you can manage, are enough.

Good luck!

Pamphilia said...

Thanks, Flavia, for this excellent advice. I think maybe I was over-reacting before. I'll hop to it and get this review out of the way.

Toronto said...

I think Flavia is right, but that's also what's wrong with the whole business of reviewing: if something is riddled with errors, it is really a reviewer's job to point that out. I don't need a review for a synopsis (I can usually get those elsewhere), but it would be useful to know if a particular book is worth reading or hopelessly flawed (I may still disagree with the reviewer, but at least I will have been warned...). The TLS still publishes such reviews, even if they all too often get people who don't know what they're talking about, which makes for an unfortunate combination. But I actually think the whole non-committal, neutral school of reviewing that dominates our field, at least in North America, is somewhat counterproductive.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Perhaps, Toronto. But academic reviewing is an unusual beast, because it has an unusual audience.

First, the primary audience seldom needs to be told what's good or bad. You're writing to an audience of experts and specialists.

Second, a good chunk of the audience will have to read the book, its goodness or badness notwithstanding, as part of a literature review for their own work, and most others won't get to it at all unless it's really a landmark.

Third, it's not really a question of whether the reader buys the book or not. The reader's own pocket money won't be on the line, unless s/he buys everything related to a topic, and libraries need to buy even the alckluster stuff (so that future literature reviewers can consult).

So in practice the goals of academic reviewing are 1) to let other scholars know a new book on topic X exists, and 2) to tip them off if it's something genuinely exciting that they should make an effort to read. Only a major book that's trying to change a debate needs to be engaged deeply.

All of which just goes to say, Flavia is right. Again. (Curse her!)

Anonymous said...

Hmm. Is this a book from a Scandinavian press, by any chance? I think I know the book in question, and you're right. Apart from that I second Flavia, but you could emphasise the flaws a little more, without being petty, IMHO.


Jonathan said...

When a book is that bad, I just send it back. Given the number of good books out there, I usually also tell the editor to not review it, and suggest a better book instead.

Especially as a junior scholar, why pick a fight you don't need? Save your fights for the real scholarly arguments that ought to be had.

Also, on the next post: you should definitely get out of town for your leave, avec chat.

Pamphilia said...

No, not a Scandanavian press- but a European one, and a few of the articles are in said European language. I think I'll review it but be honest. The fact is, it's not a well-known press, it was compiled based on an RSA panel, and I'm sure some scholars will find it useful. I actually found an article I really like in it, too. So on with the review. And Jonathan- I'll be visiting Montreal next month (but probably spending my leave in New York).