John Stackhouse of Regent College in Vancouver offers some pros and cons about book reviewing and explains why he no longer does it. The whole piece is worth reading, but here is a taste to whet your appetite:
…generally I have avoided reviewing because of these very bad experiences of peers reacting with what to me seemed disproportionate rage, however modulated, over reviews that, I swear, were mostly positive.
Beware, then, the perils of offending in your review. Either go for broke because you are determined to boost or demolish, or phrase things very, very carefully. Indeed, it is a good practice to imagine the author reading what you are writing as you are writing it, and especially before you hit “SEND” and it leaves your computer for the vast beyond. I wish I could simply say, “Review and let the chips fall where they may,” but the chips might fall on your head, and some reviewers, at least, ought to think about that before they criticize another person’s work in public. Of all people, graduate students and junior scholars especially must keep a tight rein on their newly developing critical capacities and think twice, thrice, and more times before they decide to take Professor Big Shot down a peg or two. Professor Big Shot is just that, and spitting into the wind of his fury might not be worth the satisfaction of assessing his book judiciously in the out-of-the-way journal that one of his acolytes noticed and brought to his attention….
I am sympathetic to Stackhouse. I can’t tell you how many times I have written a B or B+ review of a book in a journal or at the blog and have received an e-mail or a proverbial cold shoulder from the author in response. Having said that, I have not abandoned the genre.
I also agree with Stackhouse’s remarks about graduate students and junior faculty writing scathing reviews of works by senior scholars. Granted, in an ideal world, where ideas are separated from the people who write them or the professional venues in which they are espoused, anyone should be able to say anything about the merits of an argument in a book and article. But we don’t live in that world. Academic sub-disciplines can be small and campy communities. As Stackhouse says earlier in his article, people remember negative reviews and some people even remember negative reviews written about the work of their colleagues and friends in the profession. It is sad that this the case. Of course graduate students and junior faculty have the academic freedom to write a negative review, but such freedom may come with professional consequences.
If Stackhouse, a tenured full professor with an endowed chair, is worried about all of this, maybe we should be too.
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