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.

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