The Year’s Work of Reading the Reviewer

More than a dozen years ago I was on a small boat, a caïque, as it crawled across a bay in the Mediterranean. I sat beside one of the major critics of our time and had just read a nasty review penned by this anonymous giant of our discipline. After we chatted about lunch, dinner, and nothing in particular, I asked what had troubled this writer of reviews. In answer, I was told “One could not possibly read all the books they send. A few words, good or bad, are only to give it some attention on the reviews page. I don’t worry much about the details.” And in all fairness, more than a dozen years later I can’t make myself disagree – a bad review fosters interest more than platitudes do.

After three blogs on blind review (being, reading, and enduring the reviewer), what about the book review? How do we read the reviewer? It’s a genre in which many of us start out for first publications, which means public commentary precedes prolonged contemplation, but that’s often the reality of it. It’s also service work that does little to grow a cv in comparison to peer reviewed publications, even though publishers value reviews as a measure, and a well-placed review can influence the reception of a book.

My own background, in review, is mixed. I have only a couple handfuls of traditional published book reviews – in fact, my own books have been reviewed more than I’ve written the standard reviews of others for the back pages of one journal or another. The exception is the ever-productive Year’s Work in English Studies, for which I contribute the Poetry section of the “American Literature: The Twentieth Century” chapter. I’ve reviewed books published each year since 2007, and I’ve been fortunate to edit the chapter as a whole for the past six volumes, now happily at work on the seventh (volume 97). It’s an exercise in scope more than precision, taking up the year’s products as a whole to give a sense of the direction in which the discipline is moving from year to year. The purpose is that overview of the year from the Pearl Poet to Pynchon, just as much as it is a brief evaluative description of individual books.

The self-description of The Year’s Work in English Studies speaks for itself, its service to the English Association, and its purpose in Oxford University Press:

The Year’s Work in English Studies is the qualitative narrative bibliographical review of scholarly work on English language and literatures written in English. It is the largest and most comprehensive work of its kind and the oldest evaluative work of literary criticism. The Year’s Work in English Studies does not merely offer annotated or enumerated bibliography entries, but provides expert, critical commentary supplied for every book covered.” (OUP)

The scope of “American Literature: The Twentieth Century” chapter is a book-length collection of brief reviews. Annually. Relentlessly. Last year the chapter kissed close to 72,000 words on 143 books. I tend to cover 30 or more volumes each year from across a range of presses, occasionally including critical editions or significant reprints, as well as particularly important articles. It’s a return to grad school with comprehensives due at the end of every year… It means I’ve written or am now wrapping up such reviews of some 300+ scholarly books and have edited five-fold that number for reviews by other contributors. Comprehensive exams indeed, and all bundled together annually for anyone to skim through. It is, after all, fast not slow reading.

What makes a useful review?

The most obvious audience for a book review is the author. This is the only person almost certain to read it, and in my experience, to read it before anyone else does. Writers of reviews beware! But with this in mind, the reviewer might think twice about wishing a book weren’t as it is. Every scholar approaches a problem differently. This is why reading a monograph is like peering into the wishes and woes of our colleagues, even more than inspecting their bookshelves… Wishing for more coverage or a different approach is, then, as much a comment to prospective readers as it is a nudge to the author by a reader asking about future work – it also runs the same risk as re-stacking the dishwasher when one’s spouse doesn’t do it “right.” The fix can leave everyone disappointed.

Unlike the writing of peer reviews, the book reviewer offers no suggestions for improvements. The book is done and set free in the world, so at best corrections are for the second edition that rarely occurs in academia. In reality, they’re complaints not correctives. Apart from the author, you’re telling possible readers whether or not this is something to note, and in doing so also shaping those readers’ interpretive schema or predispositions coming to the book.

Because of this, I’ve developed a deep bias about what helps a review. To a degree, it’s descriptive. The review tells the reader something different from the book’s self-description. What is it about rather than what did the author intend it to be about? How does the reviewer see a particular book in relation to trends of the moment and trends over time? In other words, where does it fit and what work does it do (distinct from where the book tells us to put it on our shelves for our peers to inspect and what task it says it meant to achieve)?

In this, it’s like a candid letter of reference. And like a letter of reference, when there’s little to praise, it’s most often better to fall back on description rather than evaluation and recriminations. And when there is something to praise, how do you do it in a way that doesn’t sounds the same as all the echoes filling every other letter and review? I tend to think one accomplishes this by realizing the praise is less important than the contextualization since all superlatives are the very, very best after a while.

A review is also a kind word to librarians. This can mean sales, and library sales are an enormous part of the academic marketplace. It can also mean that when a book has already appeared in full as articles that are likely in an institution’s databases, there’s a duty to say so. No author wants you to, but every reader does. It’s normal to expect parts of a book to appear in articles since this drums up interest and tests the waters, but when every word is already in print (and this does happen), there is a duty to notice it.

Lastly, nearly all academic books are ways of broaching or joining a conversation. The reviewer can ease introductions by reminding interlocutors of each other’s names, where and when they’ve previously met, and by providing some conversation starters. One can as easily say “Mickey and Nyarai, you met last year at Rumbi’s party – didn’t you both study under Professor Dizdar? Remember Tino’s hats?” as “Cold War Modernists and Beleaguered Poets and Leftist Critics, you met Counter-Revolution of the Word in 2008 – you seem to be all rethinking mid-century conflicts, oh and you vacationed together at that lovely winery in California one summer with Late Modernism & Late Modernism. Did the weather hold?”

What are the trends?

Every press, or almost every press, has a special place on the submission page that marks out “We do not accept unrevised dissertations or theses.” Of course they don’t… Yet, there they are.

There are so many excellent books, it’s hard to say what single trend makes them a joy to read. But for the lightly revised dissertations (including the excellent ones), there’s a very definite trend that almost wafts from the cover boards like the smell of an old book. In part because it is an old book in new wrappers. The pressures of the job market and the tenure path intensify the aroma:

  1. defend the dissertation
  2. carve out an article or two for the job market
  3. carve out a couple more for the tenure process
  4. republish the dissertation as a book for tenure

The fifth step is limited to Twitter and conference hallways: criticize adjuncts for not being more research active whilst enjoying the rewards of not really having done any new work since grad school. (That was me coughing beside you…).

This is the very delicate point though. It genuinely helps readers to notice that the “tenure book” reflects a career with little productivity since school days, yet in the same breath how could anyone expect otherwise from colleagues teaching 4+4 and trying to start a “normal” academic life, a family, a mortgage, or the many other human things that are so often delayed in order to earn the PhD? “Gently” is how readers can expect it. And “indirectly” and “gently” is how one can say it when readers ought to know.

I see the second trend as much in applications for adjunct work as I do as a reviewer, and it’s more concerning:

  1. defend the dissertation
  2. carve out an article or two for the job market
  3. publish the dissertation as a book for the job market
  4. start a new book for the tenure process

Time on a postdoc can alter this flow, but the “job book” appears to be a growing phenomenon, especially for mid-level presses aimed almost exclusively to the library market. And there’s nothing wrong with such presses either – they can be much preferred for some good projects. It does, however, give the reader material conditions to consider.

The fourth stage of a brand new book for tenure may seem like the academic ideal (full disclosure: I did this), but it also reflects fast research during the most pressure-filled years of an academic career. It might not be a revised dissertation, but it’s written amidst new course preps and the potentially prickly entrance to the profession. Both are troubled.

This is to say, the reviewer really cannot and should not overlook the nature and needs of the book. Books that fulfill career requirements simply cannot be read the same way as those that come after tenure and therefore without the same material demands on the author. Many of those first or second books are excellent, many are good, and some are perfectly good enough. There are a few others too… But they served their purpose before they were first read in their bound state. And the reviewer shouldn’t forget that the review itself can be added to (or carefully quoted in) the tenure file.

If you want to know the scholarly trends in any given year, I’m sorry, but you’ll have to read the book

What can a review do best?

The most helpful part of the reviews I read is also, in the Year’s Work context, among the most difficult. YWES includes a helpful parenthetical reference habit akin to the polite introduction: “Title (Publisher [Year]; reviewed in YWES Vol.[Year]). This means a review can contextualize a work’s place within the year’s work as well as over time in the reviews of other years’ works. I increasingly write things such as “Melba Cuddy-Kean, Adam Hammond, and Alexandra Peat’s Modernism: Keywords takes its inspiration from Raymond Williams’s Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (Fontana [1976]; reviewed in YWES 56[1977]) but expands to include features and methodologies updated to correspond with the New Modernist studies and digital humanities.” It’s not glowing praise, but I suspect it shapes how readers then turn to the book.

Where this is most productive and also most demanding on the reviewer is stitching a web of connections between books in recent years. When James Clawson notices modernism “is often imagined as entailing a ‘great divide’ between art and daily life” and that “Mary Chapman’s Making Noise, Making News: Suffrage Print Culture and U.S. Modernism” rejects this division, he follows it with a genealogy: “as has been argued in recent years by Irene Gammel’s Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity (MITP [2002]), Bryony Randall’s Modernism, Daily Time, and Everyday Life (UGlasP [2008]), Liesl Olson’s Modernism and the Ordinary (OUP [2009]; reviewed in YWES 90[2011]), and Siobhan Phillips’s The Poetics of the Everyday (ColUP [2010]; reviewed in YWES 91[2012]).” (YWES 95[2016]). I think there’s an emerging trend. I think the reader knows where to find it.

In the same sense, to see the volumes of the collected writings of Robert Duncan in comparison with each other is helpful. Yet, it’s better still to see Duncan’s The H.D. Book and its impact on the recent critical editions of H.D.’s unpublished writings and the palimpsest of monographs about H.D. from the past few years. It is just as helpful to see the Duncan editions now being used in articles, how attention to Ezra Pound’s reading ability in Chinese shapes attention to his Latin, the content changes that occur between the various Cambridge Companions by editors who “make it ‘New’,” the growth of modernist studies into the Cold War, or the differing impacts of books in a series (OUP’s Modernist Literature & Culture, for instance).

The fabric woven by those connections, or what I prefer to think of as a cable knitting, shows books nestled among a series of relations. The cable seems more flexible and interconnected than the links in a chain.

Back on the caïque

I didn’t know what to say to my scholarly senior on that small boat looking across the waters of the Adriatic to Albania. Maybe I was in awe. Maybe I’d had too much sun. After ten years of writing reviews, I now don’t think I’d ask the question at all. Lunch, dinner, and nothing in particular are actually better topics of conversation. But I remember the review, and it provoked me to pick up the book. It was more effective than a summary or verbal obeisance could ever have been.

More and more, I think the praise or condemnation are the least important parts of the book review. Instead I think of its connections, its links, its introduction of an interpretive schema before the reading starts, and its junk pile of interchangeable clippings for administrative and professional uses by authors and presses. These are the review’s real service work. We hardly know when someone reads our articles. Occasionally, kind souls send a note when they do. But the book review gives the author the whisperings of at least one reader in an otherwise strangely silent echo chamber.

Reading the Blind Reader

edited text

I’ve written Letters to a Young Reader of Reviews about being described as “execrable” and also about the time involved in writing these reviews for other readers of reviews, so it’s apt to think a little about what content goes into a reasonable review that tries to be useful.

I can’t say if I’ve written comparatively many or few blind reviews for other people to read and gnash over, mainly because as a profession we don’t seem to talk openly (or even secretively) about the topic much… Academia is secretive, and by and large what happens in blind review stays in blind review, or else I’m simply not in the club that does and hears the talking. That silence can make it difficult to get better at reviewing over time or easier for personal grumpinesses to seem like a reasonable way of opening discussions with colleagues – my thoughts here are the things I’ve done to try to write more useful peer reviews for my colleagues to read.

All in all, I’ve probably been someone’s peer reviewer for a few dozen books and the blind reviewer for somewhere more than double that number of articles. I also edit the “American Literature: The Twentieth Century” chapter of the expansive Year’s Work in English Studies (more on that in a later post), which means I write reviews of some 30–40 publications every year to give a sense of what’s happening across the field (American Poetry) while editing a book-length set of book reviews at the same time. It’s books upon books, really. Annually. Relentlessly. Richly. I’m doing my ninth year of those reviews right now.

So the question is, what’s actually helpful in a reviewer’s comments? What commentary helps to move something from a submission to a publication? After all, if the assessment and comments aren’t helpful to the publisher and author, what was the point of the volunteer labour?

The most obvious question in any assessment is “To print or not to print?” followed by “If not here, where?” I think the second can matter the most. If the work doesn’t suit the journal or press, where would it suit (after suitable revisions). Relatively few works are unpublishable in principle, but many are unsuitable. I’ve seen more than a few works that were well worth printing but certainly not where they’d been sent – getting those to press shouldn’t become a game of What Have I Got In My Pocket.

I also try to imagine myself as the author receiving the comments, and not so that I can better appreciate writers tears (I have no taste for it, and I don’t want to develop one). It’s much too easy to communicate poorly or to say something harshly that was not intended – “I have shot mine arrowroot o’er the horse” or other terrors of autocorrect can make the corrective into the crass. If I have a point, I try to say “This is the main point” or more often “I consider this the key revision to make” and “These are now suggestions for the author to consider as s/he sees fit.” The review, unlike the writing, does not need lovely prose. Likewise, and exactly as with student papers, I aim to restate the thesis in my comments with the explicit proviso that if I get it wrong, the author might wish to take steps to prevent me from being wrong in this way again.

Have you cited my friends?

When government policy sets up “impact assessments” that count citations (even those like “Any idiot would know not to trust Gifford (73)”), it creates a pressure to put pressure on others to cite. Rather than “why haven’t you cited me,” I think a better question is “What will readers expect to see?” or some form of “What revision is this project making in the established discourse?” followed up quickly with “If it’s making that revision, what works does it need to signal to make that change?”

Most importantly, if a previous scholar’s work needs a response in the article, I say so directly and emphasize that it’s my opinion that readers are likely to expect it – in contrast, if it really only merits a casual footnote at the author’s discretion, I say that instead. And if it really is only shoring up the fragments of a failed policy on “impact assessment,” the simple “It would be kind to cite Q, R, & S as part of this conversation” makes the same point. It also gives the author a chance to be seen by the editor in an act of kindness.

To cull or to cultivate?

I tend to hesitate more and more before asking for expansions or further developments in articles. It feels too much like asking an article to be more like my articles… I worry about that and as a consequence ask myself twice if that’s actually what I’m doing (“Am I just saying how I’d go about this task?”) then ask it once more for good measure.

Instead, I find myself suggesting cuts. Much like a conference paper, I very rarely look back to discover I’ve written in the margins of a journal or print off “Couldn’t this be longer?” As with the conference paper, no one takes offense if you wrap up at the 17 minute mark. And if the author really does have two distinct arguments, it’s a kindness to point out s/he really has two articles worth of work here, not just one.

Am I the right reader?

The most pressing question I ask myself as a blind reviewer is whether or not I’m the right reader. Do my own predilections and preferences lead me to like or dislike something that the target audience would feel very differently about? How does this shape my evaluation as distinct from my taste? Most especially, if I disagree with the author, have I given her or him the respect of actually saying so explicitly in the review and then outlining a reasonable way to manage those disagreements without changing his or her position? Have I shown a pathway for a positive assessment of things contrary to my own stance? Have I also made is clear to the editor that I disagree and should be read in light of that?

In a sense, much of this comes down to whether peer review is a way of broaching a conversation or guarding a portal. Conversations may have their appropriate places and polite conventions, but they are also based on some shared identity through analogy – those analogies make us a community of colleagues even amidst great differences. Guards tend toward silence and emphasize what keeps us apart.

Being the Blind Reader

Rejected Stamp

I’ve heard a lot about the slow professor, and there’s much merit to it, but sometimes I suspect our slowness and our haste both hide our procrastination… We hurry one thing we’ve procrastinated over and slow down what could be wrapped up in a sitting. I’ve often been guilty of working feverishly to meet a deadline that I could easily have met earlier, and I’m just as likely to carry a project on for a decade to make sure the details are “just so” when maybe they don’t need to be.

Where this matters to anyone other than myself is peer review.

Peer review is too often one of the speed bumps in the process of disseminating research, though there are certainly best practices. We might instead call it traffic calming when there’s a “need to speed” that takes too many risks, but more often than not it’s the reason everything I send out comes back a year or more later. It’s the reason why an article sent off to a major journal might come back 18 months later with a “decline to review” or another might wait 10 months, from one summer to the next, before being accepted as it stands. Is the quality and integrity of the review process actually served in that timeline? Might a 2 week turn around be just the same?

“Might a 2 week turn around be just the same?”

I’ve noticed as a writer and reviewer a tendency for reviews to get done in that feverish rush at the very end of the deadline (and in a deliberate passive voice…). As an author, it’s a great frustration to be told peer review can take up to 6 months, which typically means receiving the reviews six months and two weeks later. Yet as a reviewer, that deadline has just as often meant feverishly wrapping up the review in a single sitting after receiving the editor’s helpful reminder about tardiness once the six months are up.

I realized I had become the reviewer I didn’t want reading my own work. I should have known better.

I made a quasi-promise to myself three years ago to resolve that contradiction. When asked to review an article, I either decline or complete the review by the end of the next day. It’s not really a matter of hurrying or spending more or less time – it’s simply when the time is allocated. I could race at the end of the deadline or just read the materials on the train the same day I receive them and send off comments the next morning (sometimes even that night). The latter actually leaves me the time to be slow where it counts: writing. As for the authors, I’m sure they still wait until two weeks after the deadline following a kindly reminder from the editor, but at least I give her an excuse to write “Reader A finished up 6 months ago. Could you kindly supply your comments?” (apologies to all Reader Bs everywhere).

“When asked to review an article, I either decline or complete the review by the end of the next day.”

For more than a dozen articles over the past two years, I’ve met my next day deadline. It also means I haven’t needed to hurry to meet any overdue deadlines. So, in a surprising way, the review that goes back the next day is, I’d argue, more thoughtful and thorough than the one that comes 6 months later. I’m also not sure if doing a blind review every couple of months is a high or low volume, though I suspect the practice may lead to an increase over time. Despite that risk, I’d encourage everyone to hurry up so that we can all slow down a little.

Books are a different matter. The reader is typically paid, and miraculously, it seems that the blind review of books is speedier than blind review of articles — it couldn’t possibly be the promise of cash or free books… I have no promises to myself for deadlines with books, but the score of manuscripts for which I’ve done peer review over the past few years have generally gone back within a month. It’s more delicate when a book really needs some serious revisions, and I have even passed the deadline — what I haven’t done is take that time and not provide the work. If I need more time, it’s for the writing, not the reading. And looking back for the sake of writing this post, I realize most of my feedback has been chapter length. A short chapter, but still.

Lastly, lest this seem like the humblebrag endemic to the twitterverse, this doesn’t hold true for writing. I get it done when it’s done. I learned a lot from teaching freewriting in my composition classes, and in that sense I believe that not-writing is simply not writing (rather than the graceful slow professor’s contemplation prior to the inspired pen touching paper). Yet even when there are deadlines, actively writing doesn’t mean the written work is finished when the paper runs out — unlike the timer on my toaster oven, the ringing bell doesn’t signify completion. Thankfully, with the peer review done, I can take that time as I need it.

Speeding up has done more than anything else to help me be able to slow down.

Prior Blogs


I have mainly contributed to other blogs, so this seems the place to give a list:

Gifford, James. “Miller’s Coat & Orwell’s Plongeur.” Hotems: Hotels & the Modern Subject: 1890–1940. National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. Web. 18 July 2022.

———. “The Queen’s Hotel as Hospitality’s Third Space: Lawrence Durrell’s Black Book and Michael de Larrabeiti’s Borribles.” Hotems: Hotels and the Modern Subject: 1890–1940. National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. 18 March 2022.

———. “Terrace Nostoi.” Quarantine Review. 1 January 2021.

———. “On Reading Monsters.” Humanities Commons. 3 February 2020.

———. “Fantastic Neoliberalism! Or, Redistributing the Dragon’s Hoard?” Humanities Commons. 19 July 2018.

———. “A Frightful Hobgoblin Stalks Through Modernism?” Humanities Commons. 26 August 2017.

———. “On or About November 2016, Modernist Studies Changed.” In These Times. Modernism/modernity Print Plus. Web. 2 February 2017.

———. “A Frightful Hobgoblin Stalks Through Modernism?The Modernist Review. British Association of Modernist Studies. Web. 30 September 2016.

———. “Discoverable Keywords of the New Modernist Studies.” Journals Blog. University of Toronto Press. Web. 8 September 2016.

———. “Once More to Another Lake…” MLA Commons. 26 August 2016.

———. “The Year’s Work of Reading the Reviewer.” MLA Commons. 28 July 2016.

———. “Reading the Blind Reader.” MLA Commons. 19 July 2016.

———. “Being the Blind Reader.” MLA Commons. 13 July 2016.

———. “Boring, Risible, Execrable, & Those are Just Its Good Qualities: Letters to a Younger Reader of Reviews.” There’s a Hole in the Bucket. University of Alberta Press. Web. 30 November 2015.

———. “Open Hemingway.” Modernist Versions Project. University of Victoria. Web. 22 July 2015.

———. “BCcampus Open Textbook Summit 2015.” Modernist Versions Project. University of Victoria. Web. 3 June 2015.

———. “Most Valuable Publication? Versions and Critical Editions.” Modernist Versions Project. University of Victoria. Web. 23 June 2014.

———. “A Durreallian Dictionary.” Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. University of Oxford. Web. 7 November 2013.

———. “THE COMPLEAT ANGLER.” Modernist Versions Project. YoU: Year of Ulysses. University of Victoria. Web. 21 September 2012.