Monday, October 27, 2008

Care and Feeding of the RoC

Today over at Bitter-and-Sweet's, the topic of book MS revisions came up -- primarily because BSGirl is going to play NaRevWriMo, and invites others to join. Which I'm gonna, btw, just as soon as I figure out how.

But the topic soon turned to what I can only describe as "Reviewers on Crack" [hereafter RoC]. What happens when you get an unreasonable reviewer? I've submitted my book to Dream Editor (everyone says so), so I have high hopes that he'll pick people who are rigorous, but reasonable. But it's my nightmare that the MS will go to someone like the person who reviewed my Journal of Excellent Studies article (see here, and here for me trying to be as mature as possible). BSGirl had a similar experience, and her comments section flushed out many others.

Well, this is all very timely, because last week, not one but two close friends with books out for review drew a RoC at two separate major presses. Friend #1 got subspecies A of the RoC: mean, petty, and unhelpful. This reviewer actually used the words "voguish" and "feeble" (I'm reading it -- it's neither of those things). As Friend 1 said, "How is that a helpful criticism?" RoC subspecies A should be fed tea and Xanax before being allowed to pick up a pen. Or, since publishing house budgets might not pay for pharmaceuticals, they should be told what our mothers told us: "How would you feel if someone said that to you?"

Friend #2 got the other major subspecies of the RoC: Utterly Clueless. Friend 2 has written the first study of a region (call it "Erniestan"), running from Historical Period X through Historical period Y, and engaging with Important Phenomenon in a way that really, honestly does challenge current historical understanding. In other words, it's a new case study on one level, but it's one whose main purpose is to show how people have been looking at the big picture in entirely the wrong way. The report came back: why didn't my friend expand her study to include not just Erniestan, but also Bertia, Oscarland, and Snuffleupagopolis. And while she's at it, why not take it up to Historical Period Z (about doubling her time period, with tons and tons of new issues)? RoC subspecies B should be strapped to a chair and forced to read the unabridged version of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire -- all 6 volumes of it -- to learn that just because you can say more doesn't necessarily mean that you should.

Other subspecies out there?

(UPDATE: Just in time for this post, Female Science Professor has a post up at her place about her own encounter with what I would describe as a RoC -- though she's grown-up enough not to put it quite that way.)


AliceAcademic said...

This is a whole new species for me, so I can't identify any subspecies for you... although these sound suspiciously similar to some of the students I've sat through graduate seminars with, ripping to shreds the labors of others with great satisfaction. Since I just submitted my first manuscript, I am going to say my prayers and cross my fingers and hope for the very best.

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

Well, there's the reviewer who points out typos and minor points of interpretation but doesn't actually say whether the MS is any good....

I agree on Utterly Clueless. One thing I tell my grad students over and over is that you can't critique an author for not writing the book that you would have written on the subject. You might disagree with the premise, the method, the evidence, etc., but your critique should be of the work in front of you, not some Platonic form of the perfect book on X.

I beg to differ on subspecies A. I think it's useful to be told that a reader finds a book "voguish" (note that s/he misspelled it) and "feeble." If someone said that to me, I'd nurse my wounded ego for the rest of the day and then, the next morning, try to figure out why the reviewer thought that.

Perhaps s/he is just a dinosaur whom the discipline left behind a generation ago--the rest of the review should tell you that. Or perhaps s/he is a reader who is put off by jargon whose purpose is unclear, or references that seem to come entirely from one subdisciplinary school, or arguments that are based on premises that are neither self-evident nor supported by an argument. If the rest of the report doesn't give clues, I'd tell the editor that the critique isn't useful because it's a mere assertion and request that the editor ask the reviewer to explain him/herself in detail. If the rest of the report explains the judgment, you have two choices: (1) Explain to the editor that you and the reviewer have fundamental differences about the direction and premises of the field, and let the chips fall where they may, or (2) try to address the critiques if you can do so without eviscerating the book. If your work is controversial to the field, or to some subfields, it might be more persuasive if the controversial aspects are couched more diplomatically.

As for Gibbon--would that I had time to do that! Gibbon is a laugh a minute.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

@ Alice: tearing others' papers to shreds is a time-honored grad student tradition. You know what a really weird experience is? Hearing what grad student say about your work. A senior colleague of mine at another university assigned a short article a wrote several years ago for one of her classes, and the discussions took place on a blog -- I read them all, and was amazed to read that "Notorious argues X," when I'd never even though of X.

@ Brian: "vogueish" was my misspelling. Corrected now.

Anonymous said...

If you get a RoC review (assuming it's only one, and that the other review is helpful and reasonable), then your editor will do one of two things: 1) say, "sorry, thanks for playing, but we can't publish a book that Dr. RoC has reviewed so negatively," or 2) say, "let's get a third opinion to break the tie." This means, "I believe in you and I want to publish your book." I'm the tie-breaker for a book ms. that got one positive review and one RoC review. It should be interesting!

If you get response #1 from your editor, you need to move along to another publisher. If you get #2, then the editor is on your side and will likely make it happen.

Susan said...

I agree with Historiann about how you handle it. My version of subspecies A was a "She doesn't know what she's talking about because I don't know her" (Well, that's not what the letter said, but that's how I interpreted it.)
The press was willing to go back for additional reviews (a la Historiann) because they thought it was out of line.
As I did revisions on my book, I occasionally looked at the letter from RoC and tried to address the real issues I could identify.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the phrase "Reviewers On Crack." Somehow just saying it to myself as I try to sort through the utterly insane comments my book received, makes me feel better.

What is strange, though, is that even though I've been the punching bag for many RoCs over my career, I still find myself sometimes falling into the same cruel rhetoric when I review things. What gives? Did I drink the koolaid or something?