• August 27, 2014

Why Bother Writing Book Reviews?

Careers Illustration - Writing Book Reviews

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

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Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

When a scholarly book comes out, the publisher throws an elaborate launch party, with lobster canapés and Veuve Clicquot, to which all the glittering literati are invited. The author is sent on a multicity tour, where he or she will read at the best independent bookstores in the country and be interviewed on radio and television. The news media will provide "off the book page" treatment: Newspapers and magazines will assign stories that give background on the author, complete with color photos of her at home with the dogs, romping with the kids, or sitting at a desk looking smart in front of well-stocked bookcases. There will be a bidding war for film rights, and when an option is sold, the academic author will be flown out, first class, to take meetings on the coast.

Somewhere there's a parallel universe in which all of that is true. It's a place where academic monographs are valued as much as novels by Stephen King and Stephenie Meyer. But I don't know how to get there.

What really happens when a scholarly book is published?

The author is sent 10 copies, which he gives to close friends. Sometimes her family will take her out for dinner. Maybe a generous colleague will host a potluck. Rarely, a bookstore where the author is a loyal customer will let him read to a handful of students who would like, but can't afford, to buy copies. And then? Nothing.

All you can realistically hope for—but not count on—is that the book will eventually—and this could take months or years—be reviewed in an academic journal. Book reviews are, therefore, important to authors. But who else should care about those reviews? And why should any faculty members, buried under their own work, bother to write one?

It's not for the money. As with other aspects of our peculiar profession, the remuneration for this kind of intellectual labor will not buy you a cup of coffee.

It's not for the recognition. Only those with a specific interest in the field are likely to see the review; you can't impress the other parents in your kid's playgroup, or expect your mother to happen on it by chance.

And it's not for the sake of beefing up your CV. While many people do use reviews as padding, they don't "count" for much in the hiring, tenure, and promotion process.

So why bother to write one?

Because we are expected to do service to the profession. Because we are invested in our fields and want to be involved in a conversation about where they should go. Because it's nice to get a free copy of a book that you are going to want to read anyway, and then be forced to think hard about it. Because reviewing a book is an exercise that many professors stop doing in graduate school; flexing those brain muscles can be a useful experience. And because, for graduate students, a review can be a way to enter into the world of the grown-up academic, writing for a larger (if not large) readership. All good reasons.

Of course it's only in book-heavy disciplines that reviews are a part of the scholarly endeavor. I don't know a lot of physicists or mathematicians who spend time writing or reading them. But in fields like history and literature, where books pop up like morels after a forest fire, book reviews are an important part of academic discourse.

I'm just not sure anymore if that is as it should be.

When I was a book editor, I read a lot of reviews. Some were good and positive, some good and critical, many bad in myriad ways. The hardest to read were those that pointed out something I knew was a problem with the book but couldn't get the author to fix. Many times I would say, "Wouldn't you rather have me point this out now than read it in a published review?" In a recent conversation I had with a university-press editor, she mentioned a book she had chosen to publish based on a proposal and said it had been received with exactly the kind of reviews you always fear. I knew just what she meant.

It's great, as an editor, to have your judgment affirmed. It's great, as an author, to receive the fluffing and attention that comes so rarely in academe. But still, why would anyone bother to write a book review when we are all struggling to get our work done? And OK, by "we" I mean, of course, me and the four other people who will admit to finding this academic gig taxing. Why take on the additional burden of writing something that doesn't bring much in the way of professional goodies, except for the warm fuzzies that come from being a good citizen?

Writing for one of the top journals in your field means that those whom you respect and admire will see your work and, you hope, respect and admire it. Being in good company is always appealing.

When I asked an editor at the top journal in a humanities discipline about how she gets people to write reviews, she affirmed for me the honored-just-to-be-asked quality that makes many of us do things we don't really want to do. For a journal that receives more than 3,000 books a year, and is able to review only a third of them, that editor says, "We require, at a minimum, that anyone whose credentials are added to our database of reviewers hold the Ph.D. or other terminal degree and have published at least one book-length monograph (not an edited text or collection of other scholars' essays)."

When I asked the editor of a smaller, niche journal about reviews, she said she usually clusters books together to be reviewed in a single essay. She thought scholars agreed to write such essays because it "offers opportunities to define the terms of our scholarly discussions. In book reviews, we can highlight—and, in fact, define—new directions for research as they are emerging."

In terms of intellectual agenda-setting, doing that kind of work can be useful and important. And niches can become central, with big change pivoting around them.

But it's hard work to write a book review. It requires art and craft to come up with something that engages in a serious and fair way with the material but also goes beyond the particular work to open out into bigger issues. It's equally hard to make the review—and this is sometimes too much to ask or expect—a pleasure to read.

The question I keep returning to: Is the time spent reviewing other people's books more important than writing your own stuff, making your own contributions?

One of my graduate-student friends has published a number of book reviews, the assignments often passed along by his adviser and other professors. They tell him it's good for him to write reviews. I think what would be good for him is to finish his dissertation. Or work on his own journal articles. Even if you're a starving graduate student, there's no such thing as a free book: The commitment to write a review is much greater than just the time you spend reading the book. Any review you dash off is going to be consigned to mediocrity.

Universities have changed very little in the hundreds of years they've been around, and professors have changed perhaps even less. The historians Anthony T. Grafton and James Grossman have started an important and overdue conversation about the future of graduate education—a conversation that continued at the recent convention of the Modern Language Association and has also been taking place at campuses throughout the country. As the two historians pointed out, many scholars are simply doing what they've always done, training their students to be mini-me versions of themselves. At best, the rest of the world laughs. At worst, well, others have done a good job of laying out the consequences of continuing business as usual in higher education.

You can call me anti-intellectual, or anti-academic, write me off as a grouchy philistine who suffers post-traumatic-stress disorder from reading too many revised dissertations.

But the truth is: I'm weary of the piles of mediocre, post-hole-filling projects. I'm ready to say goodbye to a large percentage of monographs, and ready to be done with reviews of them. I'm hoping for big changes in higher education and scholarship.

If the current climate in publishing and academe requires that scholars be ambitious and accessible, that they write clearly (if not simply) for more than the 15 people in a sub-sub-subfield, then professors will have an opportunity to become engaged in American cultural, social, and political life in meaningful ways. The monograph and book-review sausage factories are not, I think, the best use of our collective cerebral resources. It's better to write one good article than to review 20 books, and even better to write one good book.

Or we could just beat on, boats against the current, doing our part in the shared governance of our intellectual world, reviewing other people's work with the expectation and the hope that someone will take the time to do the same for ours.

Rachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University's writing program, in Spokane. Her Web site is http://racheltoor.com. She writes a monthly column for The Chronicle on publishing and writing, and she welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.

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