Decision time

Some months ago I did a post about why I don’t want another short-term contract in academia. The logical consequence of that was to apply only for jobs with a future. With June coming to an end, there are unlikely to be more of them advertised this year than the two for which I’ve just sent applications off, and the logical consequence of that is … well, you get the idea.

It feels a bit strange to be writing about this already. One doesn’t want quite to give up hope that it might work out. One is also worried about being misunderstood. The vagaries of ECR life and the job market definitely need more time than I’ve got now to strike the right balance between the inequities that quite obviously do exist and the positive experiences, between the times I’ve not done myself justice and the cases of plain bad luck, and all the various combinations thereof.

For now, I’m just surprised by how simple this is. I am happy to be without the disillusionment and frustration. For too long, the intellectual part of me has been morphing into a construct on which to fall back in order to keep trying, a kind of compensation for all manner of external circumstances; now it becomes something more genuine, more true to its own nature.

It’s the right time. And yet, true to the academic ways, I find myself close to 11 pm worrying away at a draft article that, as far as the grant agreement is concerned, does not need to be anything more than a draft article. I get the feeling that drawing a line is going to be harder than – in a sense, at least – I’d want it to be …

Gazing up to heaven in Braunschweig

That medieval cathedrals were places of colour, is one of those facts that one learns relatively quickly but does not necessarily understand. Or perhaps one thinks one understands it, until one has been confronted with it perceptually and realizes how little one did.

Such was the minor revelation when we dropped into the cathedral in Braunschweig on Sunday morning. We’d been to a wedding the day before, an occasion that provided a much-needed sense of perspective at this particular juncture. What happened next seemed to complement that by reminding me why I became interested in the Middle Ages all those years ago.

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The whole cathedral is a treasure because it survived World War 2 practically unscathed. The paintings, including those in the photograph, are admittedly the result of several stages of restoration and reconstruction that began in the mid-nineteenth century – but the scale and atmosphere they create are nonetheless astonishing.

The sense of being immersed in images, stories, and ideas brings the architecture alive. It changes the way one perceives the space, prompting engagement and drawing one in. Think, for instance, of how the placement of the twelfth-century memorial to Henry the Lion and Mathilde of England means that the couple are ‘looking’ up to the heavenly Jerusalem painted above them …

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The ins and outs of medieval Christian art history are, like those of religious writing, not always the most accessible to the non-expert. Experiences such as this are a good reminder of why they should be. There’s an element of imagination in it all, of course: in how the paintings came to be the way they are today and in the way I, at least, responded to them. This does not have to be a bad thing. Our visiting colleague Jeff Rider is, indeed, currently working on ways of thinking about such encounters with the past, and I’ll need to ponder further how his reflection on ‘use’ and ‘happiness’ relates to my own interest in the role of imagination in them. At any event: it was with a sensation of enriched being that I went out into the sweltering heat and set off through a deserted city to collect our bags from the hotel and pick up a cab to the station.

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Credits and sources: Photo by Isabel! — Background information on Cathedral website — Friedrich Weber and Joachim Hempel, ‘Der ikonographische Blickwinkel – oder Heinrichs des Löwen Memorialkirche’, pp. 9–11 of Harald Wolter-von dem Knesebeck and Joachim Hempel (eds), Die Wandmalereien im Braunschweiger Dom St. Blasii (free offprint from Cathedral shop).

A happy coincidence in the SDU reading room

On my first proper visit to the library at SDU, I went to hunt down ‘the reading room’ (as it was called in a recent email) to consult an interlibrary loan that could be read only under supervision. I was back there again on Wednesday doing much the same thing – ‘there’ in a manner of speaking, because the latest development in the reading room’s shifting shape involves, it transpired, moving into the home of what used to be FabLab next to the main library entrance.

This led to a certain uncertainty about where the books actually were. That was not the end of the puzzles, because when we did get to the magic cabinet, I identified my book at once by the title on its spine, yet found that it looked very different from what I was expecting.

It was one of those moments of delayed realization when the brain needs a split second to catch up with itself, to recompute ‘that’s the right name and it’s in red on a grey cover’ into ‘that’s the right name but it’s in red on a grey cover’.

Things, at this point, began to make sense. I had already been wondering why a recent and not particularly exotic publication had been confined to the library at all. Add to this the fact that the binding was starting to loosen and the text was set in Fraktur, and it was pretty obvious that this was the wrong book. Somewhere in the system, the date and place of publication that disambiguated the volume I needed from this imposter with the same title, must have been overlooked.

Just one of those things – except that there was something about the tangible fragility of this one that kept it in my hands (it definitely wanted to be handled, cradled, rather than laid on a desk). It was the product of a different age, typographically, in its language, in the kind of visual modernity with which its medieval illustrations were recast; no doubt also in its scholarship as well.

The hoops I’d gone through to get at this book were only part of the story that had brought it to me, I realized, when I found a folded printout of the interlibrary correspondence between two pages. The home library had been reluctant to release the book at all because of its condition, but someone had pressed the case on the basis that a really serious researcher wanted to see it (!). There was a little burst of joy in understanding the Danish, and an awareness of the gratitude owed to whoever was doing that for me behind the scenes, that made me continue looking and reading.

The book seemed to be an attempt to follow medieval culture through a whole calendar year, taking a different topic for each day and beginning with a monk walking into the new year on 1 January. Reading it reminded me, leaping over a conceptual gap (or was it?), of how much I had been thinking, during my time here, about different ways of writing literary history, influenced at least in part by research that questions straightforward linear teleologies in historiography.

The possibilities began to reappear again, the half-thought-out concepts – not just with time as their guiding principle – the different structures and paths from the ones we’re used to. Such approaches are arguably even more important when multiple languages are considered together. It was good to be thinking about these big questions again, during what is otherwise a period of quite detailed research on specific texts. It was also a tiny bit poignant, for this trip to consult an interlibrary loan that one could read only under supervision after hunting down the reading room was, to close as it were a frame, probably one of the last proper visits I make to the library at SDU.

Winding up

Has the gentle reader noticed a tailing away of posts here in the recent past? I have, and it has a very simple explanation. The end of a contract, the end – at least on paper – of a project, is not the best driver of motivation.

It is a curious state in which to find oneself in the context of a fellowship programme in which so much is made of developing career perspectives. That is exactly why the project blog is, I believe, the right place to talk about it.

In whose interest is it that quite substantial amounts of money are being poured into fixed-term peripatetic posts by funding bodies – rather than into positions that offer long-term perspectives and a true opportunity to produce sustainable creative thinking and generation of knowledge? The question is in part a rhetorical one … but not completely.

 

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Does anyone want to hazard a guess as to the likelihood of postdoctoral positions leading to a tenure-track job?


 

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It goes without saying (should it?) that I’ll do my very best to make the remaining few months a success: the Berlin conference, and the final article on the uneasy relationship between narrative coherence and literary historiographies of the Baltic. As for how much time and energy on top of that goes into the blog rather than what happens in September – well, we’ll see.

Ecology, criticised …

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beecr.jpegI spent the week before Easter tackling Alexander Beecroft’s An Ecology of World Literature: From Antiquity to the Present Day – our reading group text this spring – properly from cover to cover. Here are some of my thoughts on it – not in the manner of a review, but more informally. First come general points, then comments on the individual chapters.

1. I liked the idea of ‘borrowing’ ecology as a framework for describing and explaining literary history in terms of complex interrelationships rather than narrow causal explanations. I also thought the concept of biomes worked well for thinking about literary cultures across wide divisions in time and space. However, I became more sceptical when, later in the book, biological concepts such as genetic diversity were applied in a narrower way in order to understand and predict certain developments. I’m all in favour of turning to the sciences for inspiration about new ways of thinking about literature and literary history – but I do not believe this should cross over into analysing them as if they were biological phenomena.

I also felt that the word ‘ecology’ tended toward emptiness on occasion, particularly in its adjectival form: preposing ‘ecological’ to X should not become a rhetorical device for acknowleding that X is complex without having to tease out the forms and workings of that complexity.  That one encounters cybernetic metaphors (information reduction) as well, and reads very little about the role of the natural world in literary history, further made me wonder just what conceptual framework we are actually dealing with.

2. I am not convinced that a study of literature in terms of circulation (one of the primary aspects foregrounded in the book) does justice to it as a creative art form – but I accept that others may feel differently. Either way, there remains a problem of definition, because literature is in practice not understood just as the circulation of texts: the book also treats it as, for example, the practices employed by readers (something rather different) and, on occasion, begins analysing features such as style or plot structure after all. It’s almost as if Beecroft realizes in writing that the reductive ‘circulation’ approach isn’t enough, but doesn’t go so far as explicitly (re)formulating his understanding of literature to take this into account.

3. The status of the descriptors for the various ecologies (‘epichoric’, ‘panchroic’, and so on) is problematic. One encounters them preposed to a variety of different terms: to ‘language’ or ‘register’ as well as ‘literature’, for example. Perhaps, in the context of this study, there is a certain fluidity between all three of those terms – but equally, the global ecology chapter in particular did make me wonder whether the issues it discussed are really equivalent where language and literature alike are concerned.

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4. Overall, I enjoyed the first four chapters, on epichoric, panchoric, cosmopolitan, and vernacular literatures. But there were times when I found the tendency toward selective focus reductive. There was, for instance, no space for examples from and developments in the German tradition with which I am most familiar. Take the treatment of vernacular manifestos, which concentrates on Dante and Ramon Vidal. What about Otfrid von Weißenburg’s reflections on the vernacular in the dedicatory letter of his Evangelienbuch? Is it omitted because it is too early? Because it doesn’t fit the concept as it’s being used by Beecroft? Or simply because it was one example too many to include?

It is very important to stress that this is not the criticism of somebody picking holes by pointing out omissions from the field in which he happens himself to specialize. That’s just not fair in the case of an undertaking of this kind. The point is more abstract than that. It concerns the way in which the balance between selectivity and generalization is handled, the fact that such questions arise – but fall, if you will, in empty air. There seems not to be any framework for addressing the fact that readers will have them.

The importance of creating such a framework when it comes to the valdity and transferability of a theory, is obvious; perhaps less immediately so are the consequences that the failure to do so has on a different (meta?) level. Not least in the current climate, in which strategic decisions are being made to support particular languages more than others, there is something very unsettling about research that passes, as obviously as it does silently, over certain fields as if this were a self-evident thing to do. It is worth repeating that this is not a value judgement about the act per se of focusing on particular fields in a project of this scope, and nor is it suggesting that there is necessarily anything sinister involved in so doing. Research can never cover everything, and is shaped by coincidences as much as by neat plans. There will always be a post-factum element to any rationalization about the finished product – but this does not obviate the need for engagement with, and articulation of, the dynamic of inclusion and exclusion that characterizes it.

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5. I found that the last two chapters, on national and global ecologies, stepped down a gear. I can’t help thinking that this is related to the fact that these ecologies, unlike their more general predecessors, are linked to specific historical circumstances … but I need to think that through further. At any event: non-sequiturs began to appear, readability decreased, and the argumentation became less adventurous and less convincing. The examples with which the national literature chapter begins are just one illustration of this. Beecroft juxtaposes extracts from the first novels written in English and French from what is now Canada. The aim is to illustrate the ‘mutual invisibility of English-Canadian and Québécois cultures’. Some details are puzzling.

In the English passage, Frances Brookes writes of the (apparent) lack of human presence ‘up the river St. Lawrence, during a course of more than two hundred miles’. In the French passage, Philippe Aubert de Gaspé fils writes of a ‘cottage … hidden from view for travelers by a pine grove which protects it from the north wind’. As Beecroft himself notes, this latter location (St.-Jean-Port-Joli) lies further up the river, beyond the 200 miles in the first quotation. So far, so good — until one encounters the following synopsis of the two scenes: ‘the English ship gliding past the French village; the former seemingly unaware of the existence of the latter, which in turn has screened itself from the view of outside visitors’. This is problematic in three respects. First, it is a misrepresentation: the English quotation, as we’ve seen, actually describes the English voyage on a different stretch of river from that on which the French ‘village’ is situated. Second, the reader is left in some confusion as to what kind of settlement is involved: Beecroft refers to St.-Jean-Port-Joli first as a ‘town’, then quotes the French novel with its reference to a ‘cottage’, and then paraphases that in turn as a ‘village’. Third, writing that this place has ‘screened itself from the view of outside visitors’ arguably distorts the primary source, in which concealment is merely the side-effect of an effort to gain protection from the wind.

Now, it may well be that the wider textual context of both quotations would defuse the first two criticisms – that all would become clear if one read the surrounding material in both novels. It certainly is the case that the quotation about concealment and protection from the wind has an ambiguity that permits the paraphrase criticized. But that rather misses the point: in a book about literature, one expects features like ambiguity to be noted, and one expects accuracy in the uses to which quotations from primary texts are put. I don’t think that the wider point Beecroft is making suffers particularly from the iffy presentation in this case. But the ‘trust’ that one needs when reading a comparative book such as this, the confidence that one can rely on what is being said about sources with which one is not familiar, does.

6. So to the final chapter. This was – ironically perhaps, given that of all of them it concentrates most closely on the circulation that is foregrounded in the Introduction – purgatorial. It is in large part an enumeration of the relative strengths (in the subjective and objective senses) and future prospects of various languages and literatures. The combination of relatively banal remarks such as ‘For a language to survive and thrive, it must be spoken by young people, and ideally in many domains of their lives’ on the one hand, with grandiose references to ‘my “plot of globalization”’ on the other, did not endear itself to me. It’s not that the underlying question of ‘what happens next?’ isn’t interesting. It’s more that when one tries to envisage future developments, the qualitative unpredictability of literature as a creative art form is more obvious than ever … not least in a chapter whose argument – and this is precisely the point – is grounded so firmly in quantitative statistics about speakers, translations, and such like.

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Where does that leave me? There is a great deal that I liked about the book, and a lot that I learned from it. The discussions of Greek and Chinese material, in particular, are very interesting in the best sense of the word. The trouble, I think, can be traced back to the expectations that the title and subtitle create. They both lay claim – the former geographically, the latter chronologically – if not to a totality, then at least a comprehensiveness that stands at odds with the selectivity of material and approaches that the book actually presents. What I take away from it is something akin to a partial toolkit – a bundle of very useful concepts and questions to think about, extend, apply and interrogate without being certain that all of them are necessarily the best ones for the job. Is this closing switch in metaphor away from an ‘ecology’ just a stylistic awkwardness on my part? I don’t think so.

Why the ‘Parzival’ prologue?

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How many medievalists does it take to use the video machine?!

The Middle High German I chose for this year’s #WhanThatAprilleDay17 initiative was a rhymed couplet from the very beginning of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival.

Ist zwîvel herzen nâchgebûr, / daz muoz der sêle werden sûr.

(If doubt is near neighbour to the heart, that may turn sour on the soul.)

The quotation is from the Lachmann/Nellmann edition, the translated by Cyril Edwards; see here for other contributions to the virtual event by my colleagues at CML.

Being critical of canons and classics is all well and good. Like it or not, however, there are some works of art that have taken on a cultural life of their own, something resembling a second existence on a level removed from just the time and place in which they came into being. The Odyssey and the Winterreise are two examples, and Parzival, for me, is another. There are the reinventions of the material over the centuries, the engagement with themes such as destiny and error, the sense of a distinctive voice that is hard to quantify …

There is also a personal connection – not merely in the relevance of that couplet now but also in the fact that this was one of the texts with which my encounter with medieval Germany began. Very long ago it seems, that sense of discovery of a world enigmatically at once distant and familiar, and the excitement of learning and scholarship as an opening of minds. It’s inseparable from the clarity of the air in late autumn in an English university city, before secrecy and competitiveness and all the rest of it came into view.

Personal engagement with literature is not really the done thing in the field, particularly when there is so much chronological distance to complicate matters, so that’s enough of that for now. But before next dismissing such thinking as unscholarly, perhaps we might take a moment to reflect on how many Festschrifts are published with titles that use a quotation from a primary text as a message or allusion to the honorand?

Reviewing open peer review

I see – thank you, twitter! – that Elsevier is planning to roll-out optional peer review for its journals in the next few years. Moves in this direction have much to commend them. The concept of unbiased evaluation of one’s work by one’s peers, in which impersonal objectivity goes hand-in-hand with anonymity, is one of the ideals that we all know to be problematic but collectively tend not to do anything about.

Let’s start with a basic distinction. I’m sure most of us have encountered – and can tell the difference – between reasoned, sensible criticism and its less substantiated counterparts motivated by factors such as personal preference, lack of interest in a particular approach, delaying tactics, and the like. We might call the former ‘constructively’, the latter ‘destructively’ negative peer review.

Publishing the peer reviews of accepted articles would mean that we could make our own judgement about how they stand in relation to these two poles. On that basis, we would decide how much credence to give to a negative review in forming our own opinion of the article to which it relates. Much the same goes for the positive counterpart of the above distinction – that between well-grounded and vacuous, gushing praise – and how it would shape readings of review and article together. If we were lucky, we might even be given an explanation of the reasoning behind acceptance in cases where reviews differed considerably from one another.

But what about the articles that are rejected? It’s not clear to me how they figure in the approaches Elsevier has been exploring so far. It is all well and good to make available the peer reviews of articles that are accepted, but in a sense it merely reinforces the status quo. We can now arrive at a view of the reviewing process – but only post factum, and then only in those cases where the outcome was a favourable one. I find this unsettling.

Would the possibility of their remarks being published be enough to dissuade reviewers who are contemplating the destructive approach? I am not sure. And besides, it is not that simple. Suppose, for instance, that an article were rejected by a journal after the views of its editors overruled a strong endorsement to publish in the external peer review. Should readers and authors know about this and have the chance to make up their own mind?

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There’s no easy answer. I am not sure that it lies in authors paying to be published immediately with peer review coming afterward (as in one initiative mentioned in the researchinformation.info article I linked earlier). The role of anonymity also needs reflection: will early-career scholars hesitate to be critical if they know they will be identified? (See here for a good account of such issues.) And of course, uncomfortable as it may be for the ‘open everything’ contingent, we need to remember that professional value judgements matter and to acknowledge that there is bad as well as good scholarship.

One to come back to, I suppose. Comparative and cross-language research on the Middle Ages isn’t always the easiest thing to place in the established scene, so thinking these things through is really important when it comes to creating forums – maybe the pipedream of a new online journal – to accommodate it.

Comparative ~ Philology

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It is almost a commonplace these days for us medievalists to point out that national literatures and national philologies have their roots in wider political developments in nineteenth-century Europe. Not that that makes the point any less valid, but the more often one hears it, the more obvious the need becomes to formulate constructively an alternative approach to the premodern texts. At the same time, uncritically restating the problematic legacy of early scholarship runs the risk of engendering a rather too comfortable sense of our own progressiveness. It would be a shame if this led to certain kinds of research being marginalized.

One field that strikes me as particularly vulnerable in this respect is comparative philology, precisely because so much of the groundwork was done from the late eighteenth-century onward and precisely because much of it was intertwined with the colonialism, orientalism, and nation-building that we’re trying to think beyond (Sir William Jones is one well-known example).

The trouble is that things just aren’t that simple. Yes, there is a pattern of thought that is common to working out what proto-languages looked like, to the Lachmannian reconstruction of textual archetypes, and to the need of growing national consciousnesses to identify origins. And yes, it’s easy to mock linguistic reconstruction as having hybristic aspirations to factual certainty (whether everyone who does it has such aspirations, is a different matter).

Yet it is not always just a case of building castles in the air. Here is one great example of that. In the nineteenth century, Ferdinand de Saussure observed that postulating a new group of sounds in Proto Indo-European (PIE) would explain nicely some puzzling verb irregularities. These sounds are now known as laryngeals because of their presumed origin at the back of the oral space (cf. ‘larynx’). Their existence was hypothetical for many, many years … until, after the ‘discovery’ of Hittite, it was noted – we’re now in the 1920s –by Jerzy Kuryłowicz that this language preserves a particular sound exactly where one would expect a laryngeal to have been in PIE.

The opposite is also possible, of course. Take the glottalic theory. Roman Jakobson essentially observed that the presumed PIE consonant system did not make linguistic sense. More plausible, it was later suggested, was that instead of b, for example, PIE had a p pronounced together with a glottal stop (the unwritten sound you get at the beginning of ‘Apfel’ in German). The jury is still out on this one, not least because languages have since been ‘discovered’ that have the very kind of consonant repertoire that Jakobson took issue with …

I hope these two examples show that those nineteenth-century types were not always wrong, that theories do change, and that historical linguists still disagree about things today. The names, by the way, also serve as a reminder that it would be unwise to identify this kind of research too closely with any particular national tradition of scholarship.

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Having thus cleared the ground, I want to talk a bit about how comparative philology could be drawn back into comparative research projects that look beyond Europe as defined by modern national borders. My own interest in PIE over the past few years actually began as a pretty narrow linguistic one – I wanted to understand the evolution of the Old Norse I was learning, and to see better how it related to the German I already knew – but more and more I have found myself thinking about how it relates to much wider questions that me and my colleagues in Odense and York are asking. The ponderings below are ideas in an early stage of formulation, no more.

• Can the linguistic stories make our perspectives more rounded, more comprehensive? One of the books we’ve been discussing a lot is Sheldon Pollock’s Language of the Gods in the World of Men (my own copy is in the post), in particular the parallels it draws between Sanskrit and Latin. Does the fact that these languages are related affect how we think about such arguments? Should it? Do differently nuanced language relationships change how we conceive of the notion of a ‘vernacular’ in any particular case?

• How does recalling linguistic history affect the boundaries we are trying to realign? How might the simple fact that (for example) English, German, and Old Norse (not to mention Dutch, Gothic, and others) are related, create a frame, or even just an impetus, to bring together on an equal footing material that has not always been represented equally in the past (links between Old Norse and German literature or between Old Norse and English, for instance, are reasonably well known; but what about German and English? Think North Sea as guiding spatial concept…).

• And what about notions of Europe and the structuring of literary history? How might the comparative history of languages and the relationships between them – and remember this is not just ‘Europe’ in the modern sense we are talking about – shape new perspectives on considering the relevant literatures and cultures alongside one another?

You will note that this thinking aloud does not involve the intricacies of particular sound-laws, ablaut grades, and such like. But the point is that such detailed philological work is what the bigger picture rests on. One cannot really have one without the other.


The theories and examples I mentioned are introduced in most textbooks; a particularly good one is Benjamin W. Fortson IV’s Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction (2nd edn, 2009).

Reckoning

At some point in the past few months, I realized that I am not interested in another academic contract without a future. It was a decision that more or less made itself. It will be nine years this summer since my thesis was finished; three research fellowships, two books, and four teaching jobs later, my views of the profession and my prospects in it are not what they were. Why?

More than anything else, perhaps, it has been increasing encounters with realities that seem far removed from the integrity that academia cultivates in its self-image (think of the spirit of fairness in how we see such things as double marking, peer review, or plagiarism). This disjunction appears, for example, in the operation of the job market, in the culture of competition to which ever-narrowing specialisation can lead, and in dismissive attitudes to how students and teaching figure in what we do.

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Cogs in a system: the end of my previous full-time position

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Healthy scepticism, even a degree of disillusionment, is different from cynicism. I still love my medieval poets, and I would still love to teach and research in a university context that benefitted in equal measure my students, my employer, and me. Think permanent or tenure-track job.

Yet such opportunities have become increasingly exclusive. The figures below from a Guardian investigation last year are but one reflection of that. The situation is on the point of becoming untenable.

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There are, I believe, things that can be done. Funding bodies could become a vehicle for change: what would early-career grants look like if, rather than – intentionally or not – supporting the normalization of insecurity, they led to sustainable career paths and the long-term generation of knowledge?

As a community, we could think about how hiring processes could become more transparent. How about a climate that is comfortable with more openly articulating why it is not always just about merit? The rights and wrongs of that are a separate and complex question; my point here is simply that having a balanced discussion about them is difficult when things slip out informally and/or post factum. And having that discussion matters more than ever when it comes to fields whose future is under threat and in which long-term opportunities are few and far between.

We might also ask why, in the UK at least, higher education politics and management appear to have become something akin to a parallel universe in which policy-making is a game divorced both from the reality of many working in the field and from the ideals they associate with it. We could look at pay for a start. UCU’s report on senior salaries for 2015/2016 (p. 2), for instance, makes sobering reading alongside the above stats on precarious employment:

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Those are but three suggestions. Not everyone will agree with them. But they might get a discussion going, and I submit that that is what matters. We need to talk candidly about what is happening. Not to joke about the inequities, not to trivialize them as a matter of ‘luck’, and not to pretend they don’t exist by not mentioning them at all.

What makes a good review

In slow mode, I’ve been reading a German Studies monograph for review. It’s been a while since I last did this … and many years since I first did it … I certainly see things differently having written two books in the meantime and learned a lot about the profession in the process.

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So I thought it would be worth recording, along with personal experience to make it a little less dry, some thoughts about what makes a good review – partly for myself, partly for anyone out there just starting out. I don’t claim to be following all of them all of the time. Some of them may even be contradictory. But still, they are aspirations, principles the spirit of which I’ve come to feel is quite important.

Be conscious of the background. Is this the author’s first book, or have they written several? Does it have its roots in a doctoral thesis, or perhaps a Habilitationsschrift? One should, I think, take experience into account; and one should remember that there are pragmatic constraints on what can be done to convert work originally intended to satisfy examiners into a book for a broader readership.

Read carefully. I suppose one could say this about all the reading we do, be it of colleagues’ research, primary texts, students’ work … there is just never enough time. Even so – if one is going to write a public appraisal of a peer’s book, it is only fair to read it as carefully as is reasonably possible before forming an assessment. The otherwise balanced review of my Kaiserchronik book in Medium Ævum (2015), for instance, claimed my approach had a ‘major problem’ because it ‘preselect[s] only those episodes that lend themselves especially well to the demonstration of the narratological principle in question’ (p. 353). Insinuating that an author selected his evidence to fit his theory is no small matter, particularly in a case such as this where his research did not, in fact, procede in that manner. It is the more unfortunate because it overlooks my own words on the selection of episodes in the Introduction (pp. 23–24). I chose them not only to illustrate the narrative diversity of the Kaiserchronik, but also because they are about ‘well-known historical figures’, because they give equal weight to both parts of the text (whereas previous studies focused on only the first), and because they are well suited to presenting ‘readings that concentrate on how the story is told rather than on its historicity or the didactic message associated with it’.

Get on with it. Book reviews have a marked tendency to slip down and down the list of priorities – but try not to put them off for too long. A good journal editor will be aware of this and remind you proactively. Reviews – if they are good ones, at any rate – matter for book authors when it comes to job applications, tenure, probation exercises, and the like. So try try not to put if off for too long.

Avoid gratuitous fault-finding. Criticism where criticism is due is important – but picking holes for the sake of it is not, in my view, helpful. There is a level at which typos become common enough to require flagging as poor presentation – I remember one very unfortunate case of a book I reviewed where the bibliography was littered with errors and misprinted characters that should have been noticed. But that doesn’t mean one should be hunting for them from the outset, or go seeking them out as an easy way to ground a subjectively negative judgement that one can’t formulate in more substantial terms.

The same goes for things like the comprehensiveness of a research review or bibliography. Some people are very keen to make complaints along the lines of ‘why has recent work X has not been mentioned?’, for instance. I think we need to be pragmatic here, and remember that there are pressures in the job market that mean authors can’t keep updating things forever. We should also be mindful of the real-world circumstances that can get in the way of that idealized comprehensive research review. Ill-disposed readers, for example, can employ delaying tactics. If a publisher does not recognize this but lets things drag on, early-career authors simply do not, once a commitment to publish is finally made, have the luxury of taking time to update things to account for interim developments.

Approach the book on its own terms. By this I mean engaging with the book with respect to what it seeks to do, the argument it makes and the perspective it adopts, rather than assessing it in terms of what we might want it to be. On one level, that means not criticizing a book for failing to achieve something to which it did not aspire anyway. That review of my Kaiserchronik monograph, for instance, also found fault with the fact that it is ‘unclear what exactly the […] findings represent: only their respective episode, or general narrative principles governing the entire Kaiserchronik’ – yet I write in my Introduction (p. 24) that I do not seek to provide an ‘exhaustive survey of all the techniques employed in the Kaiserchronik’. To say, as the reviewer does, that further work would be needed on them, is eminently sensible; but there is no need to spin that as a failing of my own.

But I also have something more general in mind. Try to get a feel for what the book sets out to do as a whole, what its author finds interesting, what ideas it communicates – and evaluate it on that basis. I know some reviewers will feel otherwise about this, and it may well be that differences in academic culture (say between Auslandsgermanistik and German Studies in Germany) come into play too. I just know that I, as a reader, am far more stimulated by a book that is inventive, readable, and stimulating – than I am by one that manages to cover every possible avenue of criticism but as a result ends up saying very little at all.  

Be creative. Try not only to summarize and identify positives and negatives, but also to add something new. It might be describing the context of the book in the current critical discussion for non-specialist readers, or explaining why the primary text the book is about is important in the first place. It could also be formulating an idea or bigger picture that the book’s author seems to be aiming toward, but doesn’t quite articulate fully. Or it might even be commenting on aspects of the book as object, and thus sending a signal to publishers about what does and doesn’t work.