The Art of the Book Review: John Barton

How writing reviews is like writing references.

Apart from books and articles, academics do two main kinds of writing: references and reviews. It seems to me that they are very similar activities. Both, when done right, involve four components.

First, the referee/reviewer must describe the candidate/book. Committees that appoint to academic positions are immediately suspicious of referees who appear not to know the candidate other than superficially. Readers of book reviews will be dismayed by reviews that suggest the reviewer has not really (or has not at all) read the book. Sydney Smith famously said that actually reading the book you are to review prejudices the mind, (also attributed, naturally, to Oscar Wilde) but though this is a good bon mot it belongs to reviewing as a form of self-advertisement, not to serious academic reviewing. One journal for which I review tells its reviewers to remember to include a line or two saying what the book is about, as ‘some recent reviews have left our readers puzzled’. But a line or two is normally too little by far. A good review tells the reader whether the book is worth reading, but it should be ‘evidence-based’: the reader needs to get a fair idea of the contents, the main argument, and the way the argument is presented. Far too many reviews launch into comment before offering an adequate description of what is actually there. I don’t say that the description can’t be mingled with comment, especially if one thinks the book is poor, but the reader does need to get a fair idea of what the author is trying to do. As we might put it in terms that come naturally to a biblical specialist, at least some of the review should be spent on exegesis of the book, setting out its main lines of thought in a way the author would recognize, and with some attention to why he or she thought it worth writing the book in the first place. There is plenty of time to say that the author was mistaken to attempt it, but not before the reader is told clearly what it was that was being attempted.

Secondly, readers, like referees, need to know whether the candidate/book is any good, and of course this will often make up the greater part of the reference/review. Again, however, evidence needs to be cited. One is unimpressed by a referee who says simply that a candidate is very good or very bad, though it must be admitted there are attractive ways of doing the latter, as in the no doubt apocryphal ‘You will be very lucky to get this man to work for you’. Reviews that excoriate books without conveying anything more than that the reviewer really doesn’t like them, or has a private quarrel with the author, can similarly be entertaining (‘Once put down, this book is impossible to pick up again’); but they don’t contribute to anyone’s knowledge, and they are unfair and thus immoral. There is a place for very damning reviews, and we’ve all written them, but reviewers need to carry the readers with them by showing just why the work is so bad. They should also be open to the possibility that the book is good, which seems not to cross the minds of some reviewers. We should not simply praise the work of our friends and run down the work of our enemies, but try to deliver a just judgement – otherwise the currency of academic discourse is devalued.

Thirdly, it is useful, even if not always essential, to compare the candidate with the rest of the field. ‘Is he/she in the top 10% of people you have taught?’ is sometimes a crude question, but there is some point in it, especially if it is filled out with comparisons with actual people. Where a book is concerned, reviewers who can set them in a wider context of scholarship do the readers a favour. What is the distinctive contribution of this book; does it advance the subject in relation to other works on the market; is it a ground-breaking/significant/substantial/unimportant addition to the literature that already exists? My impression is that reviewers often spend too little time on this issue, and so leave the book under review in a kind of limbo. In this context belong comparisons with one’s own work. The review should not be a way of settling scores, tempting as this is, but it is only fair to the reader to point out how the book concurs with or challenges one’s own publications, and to evaluate it from the perspective of an interested party. In references one declares an interest (‘I have known her since she was six’), and the same should be true in reviews, so that the reader can judge whether prejudice either pro or con may have influenced one’s judgement. This happens all too rarely. It may also be fair to argue that, though the books achieves what it set out to do, that goal was not worth achieving – though I wish reviewers would be a bit more restrained on this issue, since it can amount to saying no more than that the book is not the book one would have written oneself.

Fourthly, it is legitimate to point out problems in style, presentation, spelling, grammar, and production quality, but this should not dominate the review unless some or all are very bad indeed. I still think I was justified in being annoyed when the first paragraph of a review of one of my books commented prominently on the fact that I had used the word ‘onto’, even though I agree ‘on to’ is better. Such things belong in the same category as little incidental comments about candidates for interview, best restricted to the final paragraph if they must be mentioned at all. Of course correcting factual errors is another matter: this is helpful to the author, especially if a second edition is planned.

Apart from the fourth point, the others need not occur in exactly the order I’ve described them, and really good reviewers have the skill to interweave them so as to produce a review that is itself a good piece of writing, not merely a checklist.  But all should occur somewhere in a competent review, if the reviewer is to keep faith with both the author and the journal that commissioned the review.