Re-viewing Reviewing

By Christina Morin

My musings on networking on Monday led me to ponder other sometimes difficult professional situations in which we find ourselves, and one with which I am grappling even now, as I write this piece – namely, reviewing. There’s something so thrilling about getting a monograph normally priced at €85 for free, that I frequently find myself soliciting coveted texts from various reviews editors. Of course, in my excitement, I forget that nothing ever comes completely free. As with Ryanair, in fact, I find that I always underestimate the cost, getting sucked in by the thought of cheap goods (in this case, scholarly studies rather than flights) without fully considering the ramifications. In short, I forget that this is an exchange economy and that the ‘price’ of my supposedly free book is a review.

It’s not that I find writing such pieces particularly difficult, especially when the book in question is well-written, well-edited, and well-argued, but I do find reviews incredibly time consuming. Perhaps it’s just me, but I read a book very differently when I’m reviewing it than I do if I’m simply reading it for my own ongoing research. I’m much more thorough in my reading (meaning I don’t skip any paragraphs or pages!), take copious notes, and think very carefully about how best to underline the text’s strengths while still pointing out its potential deficiencies or weaknesses. What I’m aiming for is an objective account of the book in question, written with a view to the professional expertise I share with the author. The point of a review is, as I understand it, to highlight the book’s contribution to existing scholarship and, thus, its value for fellow scholars.

Easier said than done, of course. In writing a review, issues of professional standing – both of reviewed and reviewee – can sometimes cloud objectivity.  There’s a fine line, I think, that must be toed between being, on the one hand, overly solicitous and fawning (especially true when reviewing the book of a respected elder colleague) and, on the other, offensively dismissive and overly argumentative. Err on the side of the first, and your review will come across as sycophantic and obsequious, with the risk of garnering a reputation as a completely partial and unreliable judge of scholarship. If you go the other way, however, and throw caution to the wind, you risk shooting yourself in the foot and injuring yourself in the opinion of peers, colleagues, and even future potential employers.

It’s a risky, time-consuming business, and I can understand why so many academics shy away from it. At the same time, though, reviewing can also be a valuable and useful scholastic endeavour. Reading texts so closely means paying attention to sections I might otherwise have skipped on the assumption that they weren’t directly related to my current work. In so doing, I have often found new insights and perspectives, an important primary or secondary text to read, and/or a complementary argument that might further my research in unexpected ways. At the very least, reviewing – like peer reviewing for journals and presses – is a largely enjoyable way of keeping abreast of new research in the often times isolated bubble of my own work and its already lengthy reading lists.

As with Ryanair, therefore, reviewing and I have a love hate relationship. Every time I take on a review (or book a flight with Ryanair), I go through three stages. The first is delight at receiving my FREE copy of the book to be reviewed. The second is growing frustration and annoyance at the investment reviewing said book demands. The third is complete disgust at submitting the review, followed by ardent vows never to review again. Until the enticement of another much-desired book drags me back in again, I stand firm in my resolution. The problem is, of course, I just can’t resist the temptation of a FREE book, and so the cycle begins again.

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6 Responses to “Re-viewing Reviewing”

  1. Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Re-viewing Reviewing Says:

    […] “… There’s something so thrilling about getting a monograph normally priced at €85 for free, that I frequently find myself soliciting coveted texts from various reviews editors. Of course, in my excitement, I forget that nothing ever comes completely free. As with Ryanair, in fact, I find that I always underestimate the cost …” (more) […]

  2. Frank Says:

    Recently someone asked me to review a book. When I contacted the journal publisher, they declined the offer of a review of this book but suggested another book. Although the book was not one that I would normally read, I enjoyed the experience of reviewing it as it challenged me to exit my historical comfort zone and confront history of the recent past (1970 to 2000).

  3. Chris O'Brien Says:

    The big fault of Irish reviewing is the fear of young scholars that if they annoy someone important than their career will suffer. Hence often very bland reviews.

  4. Tina Says:

    I suspect, Chris, that this is an issue for young scholars everywhere, rather than simply an Ireland-specific problem. I think, though, that there’s a special art to reviewing that involves accurately judging the divide between extremes (obsequiousness and just as partial over-criticality) and thus writing something that both stands for itself and speaks to your scholarly integrity. Easier said than done, of course, especially as there’s no way of telling how individuals will react.

  5. Terry McDermott Says:

    One thing is for certain: someone always remembers a bad review! As you say Tina, there is that worry about whether the chance of a nice, free book is worth the hassle of really judging it critically.
    I think the worst reviews are the ones that pick at error after error and give the impression that the book was a collection of mistakes, rather than engaging critically with its argument, and if neccesary, pointing out major errors. The second worst are those that are obviously currying favour with the author!

  6. synergic Says:

    Hurrah, that’s what I was looking for, what a information!

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