Friday, 11 July 2014

The highs and lows of being a scholarly book reviewer...

Book reviewing has played a significant role in my academic trajectory so far. Over the past few years, I have published reviews of various tomes, both academic and non-academic, in such peer-reviewed journals as The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, Correspondences: An Online Journal for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism, Papers from the Institute of Archaeology, Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture, and the Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review (I keep a list updated here). Book reviews appearing in such journals play an important role in the world of academia, allowing time-strapped scholars to gain a quick, critical overview of a publication that they themselves simply don't have the time to read. It also has many benefits for the reviewer themselves; not only do they gain copies of works that might otherwise be out of their price range (and let's face it, academia is hardly a path to prosperity), but it enables them to deepen their knowledge of a subject and develop skills in critical analysis that should aid them when they come to authoring their own papers and books. I would also argue that it can benefit a book's author too, as they can gain constructive criticism from their knowledgeable peers, thus enabling them to recognise any flaws that their work might suffer from and hopefully avoid them in future. At the same time, they can gain praise and acknowledgement for all their hard work, which is an emotional boost if nothing else. And then, of course, there are the benefits to the publisher, who are provided with extra publicity for their publication (and remember: all publicity is good publicity), which I would hope can encourage sales, either by individuals or, more likely, by university libraries.

Of course, this all means that the good book reviewer must do two distinct things. First, they must offer a thorough overview of the work in question, outlining its structure and its main arguments and/or findings. This is primarily for other scholars, who probably won't have the time to read every publication that is relevant to their field of research. Second, the reviewer must critique the work, focusing in particular on any perceived flaws that are present in its evidence and argument, as well as in other areas such as its readability and quality of prose. This is for both the wider scholarly community and the book's author themselves. When I do my reviewing, I always make a point of trying to highlight what I see as both good and bad aspects of every book. I never want to author a review that is wholly negative or solely positive; I'll either look for the silver lining in a grey sky or point out how a lovely sunny day could possibly be improved. Connected to this, I'll try to see a positive aspect to something that might otherwise be seen as a flaw; for instance, I might have criticisms of a book for not meeting the standards of academic scholarship, but then I'll try and turn that around by pointing out that this particular work would be good for a non-academic audience!

However, one of the more difficult aspects of book reviewing is receiving responses from the book's original authors. This has now happened to me twice, in each instance from authors who do not work within the confines of academia. This can be a really awkward and uncomfortable situation, particularly if the authors are not happy with my review. I have been fortunate in that one of those who contacted me was doing so in order to offer their thanks for what was a rather glowing review of their work; they also informed me that they fully accepted my few constructive criticisms. However, in the second instance, the response that I received was a little colder; this author did not accept the criticisms that I had expressed of their work, and sent me an email to inform me of this fact.  As a writer myself, I can certainly appreciate that we invest a lot of time and emotional attachment in our work, and thus it can be disheartening to learn of others' criticisms of it, particularly if we do not think that those criticisms are valid. However, it put me in a somewhat uncomfortable position; I've gone to the effort of reviewing the book (in a few cases having paid for the work myself in order to help a fledgling scholarly journal out), and have always sought to be honest and fair-minded, and thus don't particularly want to be drawn into a protracted argument or debate on the issue. Furthermore, when I signed up to review the work, I never expected to be put face-to-face (or email-to-email) with the author themselves; that wasn't part of the deal. But is it fair for an author to actively challenge, or even contact, the book reviewer ? In the wider sphere of academia, there seems to be an unspoken rule that it is largely deemed bad practice to do so, although should this apply to those operating within the realms of independent scholarship too ? I don't have answers to these questions, but I felt the personal need to air them nonetheless.

Book reviewing is part and parcel of academic life. Although I have encountered scholars who find it tedious and of little value, I have also met just as many who deem it an important opportunity, whether you are on the lower rungs of the academic ladder (like myself) or have worked yourself up into the higher echelons. For any aspiring academics and/or established independent scholars out there who might be reading this, I would certainly recommend the act of book reviewing to both improve their own literary and critical thinking skills as well as to contribute to the wider world of scholarship.


  1. I also review for a wide variety of publications, most of them literary. I don't write academic reviews, and maybe that's the difference, but I think you're missing another person reviews benefit: the general reader.

    For a lot of people, reviews and social sharing of reviews is how people find out about new books, and a detailed review gives a thorough account of what the reader can expect. Whether or not the reader agrees with the presentation of the book in the review is immaterial -- I've bought several books another reviewer has panned because I was interested in the subject and suspected the things that reviewer hated were things I'd appreciate. in my view, the purpose of a review is to tell the reader what a book is about and how well it succeeds on its own terms (whatever those may be -- and of course they differ by genre and audience).

    It's also considered bad practice in the literary community for authors to jump on reviewers, especially when they do so in public forums, which is happening more often as these platforms become more readily available. If reviewers feel they have to couch their criticisms, who does that benefit? The author doesn't receive honest feedback, nor does the publisher, and the reader is left with an incomplete or perhaps even incorrect impression of the book.

    Anyway, thanks for this great post. I'm a new reader to this blog, and I don't know what's taken me so long to find it, but I'm glad I have.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Nico! It's always a pleasure to see new readers of this blog, and I hope that you enjoy the various things that I offer here.

      I'd agree wholeheartedly that with most book reviews, the “general reader” (i.e. a non-academic reader) gets a lot of benefit. However, I do believe that academic book reviews (by which I mean book reviews published in academic, peer-reviewed journals), are somewhat different due to the nature of academic publishing. Academic publishing houses are out to make money; they're businesses, and that's just what businesses do. They typically publish peer-reviewed journals containing research articles, review articles, and book reviews, and then charge money for readers to access them. The downside to this is that it does dissuade many people, including most "general readers", from reading book reviews published in peer-reviewed journals; after all, how many people are going to pay £12 to read a single book review ? Not many. However, academics affiliated with universities and similar institutions can often read these reviews and other publications through the institutional subscriptions purchased by their libraries. For this reason, such publications get an academic readership but not much of a general one.

      There are exceptions to this. There are some peer-reviewed journals who operate on an open access basis, and whose papers and reviews are therefore available for free online; a good example of this is "Correspondences: An Online Journal for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism". There are also some academic publishers, who, while charging people to read research papers, do allow free access to their book reviews; this is the model adopted by Equinox Publishing, who bring out "The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies". I personally prefer these models because they allow my book reviews to be freely available across the internet, thus enabling them to gain a “general readership”. However, at the same time I accept that these models are in the minority, and that as such most academic book reviews simply won't get the wider readership.

    2. I'd argue that commercial publishers are also out to make money, but I take your point.

      Occultists will spend hundreds of dollars on a grimoire bound in goat skin, but an academic book about the history of the practice for $60 seems prohibitive, if they even come across it.

      It's funny, I read quite a few academic books on occultism and its history, but there are fewer opportunities to review them for more commercial publications. For my site, Spiral Nature, I've had a difficult time acquiring review copies of books I know my readers would love, if only they knew about them.

    3. Oh I'd undoubtedly agree that commercial publishers are also out to make money; it's just that the prices of their publications tend toward being quite a bit lower than those often brought out by academic publishers. Which might perhaps be why some of them are less happy handing out free review copies, particularly to outlets other than long-established peer-review journals.