Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Book Review Strikes Back

I don't normally do book reviews. At least, I haven't in the past. For real: I'm finishing my ninth year post-Ph.D., and I've done a total of five book reviews my entire career, and that's including the one I did in grad school. One reason for this is that I'd just rather spend my time writing my own stuff. But really, a big reason is that I just never felt qualified to review someone else's book. What could I know?

Recently, however, things have changed. I know something about a few fields of inquiry. I know how to write a review, and what readers need. Most of all, after writing my own book, I know what a book ought to look like.

Since arriving at this newly confident place a couple years ago, I've had the opportunity to review one really excellent book. I like to think that I "got" the thing that was really cool about the book, and that I communicated it well to readers. But last month, I also put those skills to use on a book that I didn't think was as well put-together.

Let me tell you, it's a lot easier to write a review of a really excellent book.

With this second book, I found myself struggling to balance my professional mandate to write a review that was honest about the book's strengths and weaknesses with a personal desire to be... nice. "How would you feel if someone wrote this about your book?", that little voice in my head said. "Surely you can find a way to soften that a bit?" said a voice that sounded a lot like my mother. "Are you sure you know what you're talking about here? After all, you work on field A, and this is really A-prime" said another voice that sounded like the one grad school professor who terrified the crap out of me in my orals. "If you can't write a nice review, maybe you should just send it back and let someone else do the review" said a little girl's voice hiding behind the door. And, most doubt-inducing of all was the voice that seemed to come from everywhere: "What if the author's tenure ends up riding on this review?"

So, I sent my draft to Voice of Reason (who had recently asked me for feedback on a similar review she was writing). And she read it, and helped me shape it. The result was professional in tone, and spent some time pointing out the two best features of the book. But it was also critical where it needed to be critical -- again, with a professional tone, but clearly critical. "How would I feel if I got this review?", I asked myself again, in my own voice, and this time I tried to answer the question. I decided that I wouldn't be happy. But I also wouldn't be devastated or personally wounded. And I also decided that I'd put enough in there for a tenure committee to read it however they were inclined to read it anyway. And I sent it off.

And today, I got an e-mail from an editorial assistant from the same publication, thanking me for the review, and also letting me know that they had just received back a review of my book that they were going to publish soon... written by the author of the book I had just reviewed.

I'm think I'm just going to think of this as if it were a theatrical farce, happening to someone else, and sit back and laugh. Because that's really the only thing to do at this point.


squadratomagico said...

The two reviews are passing each other in the editorial stage, though, right? So, the other person cannot write a "revenge review" of you, and also cannot believe that you are writing your review of hir work in response to anything s/he writes, right?

If you have to exchange book reviews, I'd say this is the best of all possible worlds. But, I understand how weird it must feel!

I once agreed to review a book I found rather unoriginal, by an author who had just *died.* Awkwaaard!!

Dr. Koshary said...

It's hilarious that you and the other author are swapping book reviews. Farce sums it up! I'm expecting to read on your blog in a few months that you feel guilty because that author is over the moon about your book. And then we can tell you to drop the guilt and just enjoy it. :D

feMOMhist said...

umm did some ed ass't do this on purpose. I must admit it is interesting concept one would think it should be more open and transparent if on purpose. If an accident, well that is just odd.

Comrade Physioprof said...


Notorious Ph.D. said...

It could be worse: I just read a review (of another, unrelated book) that refers to its subject book as "shallow and superficial throughout."

Ouch. I feel considerably less harsh now.

Historiann said...

The only book review I regret is the one negative review I've ever published.

But like you, I just don't review all that many books. Now, book mss. and articles being considered for publication? Apparently, I'm yer go-to gal. Writing reviews of works in progress is so much more satisfying, because you feel like your interventions might help someone. (And if the authors and editors don't like my advice, they can just ignore it, right?)