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.
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.