Is the crisis in academic publishing also a crisis in book reviewing?

Miriam Burstein of the Valve and Little Professor has just put up a very useful post about Profession ’07’s collection of responses to the “Report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion,” both of which, I think,  deserve to be widely discussed.  I was a little surprised, in fact, that the Report generated so little comments, but perhaps this is all old news to people.

 Burstein noticed something that caught my eye, as well, while I was reading the Report: how the devaluation of book reviewing had led to some perverse results for academic publishing and the dissemination of scholarship generally.  Departments tend not to count such service, journals themselves are cutting down on review space, while fewer and fewer senior scholars can take time from their “official” (meaning counted) publications and research to read, let alone discuss and publicize, major critical works outside their own fields of specialization.  Here is Burstein’s take:

on the subject of book reviewing, the committee worries that “senior scholars” have largely jumped ship, leaving the decks to “graduate students or junior scholars in the field, who may not be sufficiently specialized in the subject or treatment of the book to draft anything other than a summary” (56).  Understandably, the committee worries about the effects of this shift on the tenure prospects of young faculty.  But allow me to make a very cranky and entirely anecdotal observation, based on what is no doubt insufficient experience (one year working at Modern Philology).  During my time wielding a blue pencil, I found that faculty at all ranks were capable of producing mediocre to excellent reviews.  However, the only true clunkers came from established scholars. And by “clunkers,” I mean reviews dreadful enough that I could use them as spicy anecdotes during job interviews (leaving the scholars in question anonymous, of course):  reviews loaded with grammatical errors, reviews that pimped the scholar’s own work and ignored the book purportedly under discussion, reviews that were almost entirely incoherent, reviews that appeared to have been written by freshmen.    Junior faculty have professional reasons–beyond whatever sense of obligation to the discipline they feel–to invest themselves in writing serious book reviews.  Senior faculty, not as much.  Again, it’s not that senior faculty always wrote the worst reviews, but that the worst reviews were always by senior faculty.

Burstein observes, in effect, that our usual expectations of performance are reversed when it comes to institutionally devalued work: we assume that the most honored and highly rewarded faculty do the best job when it comes to reviews, but this assumes that they will ignore the way incentives are structured in their departments, or how reputations are maintained in their fields.  A dangerous assumption, I think.

We also talked about this problem at our NEASECS panel earlier this year, when I mentioned that for all the potential problems introduced by academic blogging (logrolling, backscratching, insufficiently critical dialogue, or conversely, off-topic or overly polemical discussions inadequately vetted by non-experts), I saw many of the same problems with print reviews nowadays, with the added problem that they tended to appear years after books went out of print.  So I do think that academic bloggers can play some role in disseminating information about new academic research, if not the entire role.  But having done both, I can easily see the problems with both forms of dissemination.

 What I haven’t seen anywhere, however, is an acknowledgment that the problems with academic reviewing are only a part of a more general decline of book reviewing, as newspapers and periodicals of all kinds are folding or substantially reducing their review sections for general readers.  There have already been a series of warnings about the decline of newspaper reviews, which I regard as the disappearance of a generally unnoticed infrastructure of print culture that we have taken for granted since the eighteenth century.  These changes might very well help to contribute to the “death of the reader” that we have been hearing so much about lately.   Indeed, if we are justified in talking about something as general and epochal as “print culture,” academics are no more immune to its vagaries and historical shifts than anyone else.   (UPDATE: for Caleb Crain’s blogging follow-up to his excellent NYer piece, “Twilight of the Books” referenced above, see here).

(UPDATE #2: Hmm, this isn’t what I had in mind (h/t 3quarksdaily).



3 responses to “Is the crisis in academic publishing also a crisis in book reviewing?

  1. I think you’re right: the decline of book reviewing is a reflection of a collapsing literary culture (unfortunately the “death of the reader” link is borked). I don’t know how fair it is to turn a dearth of readers into the death of the reader, but certainly more people nowadays seem to talk about books they haven’t read–or at least they’re worse at pretending they’ve read them.

    But the flipside of the decline of book reviews, as the Guardian article seems to suggest, is a decline in the art of polemic, something I’ll probably blog about soon. Polemic as a mode of discourse requires a very delicate skill: when it uses ad hominems, for instance, it doesn’t merely spew random insults but rather turns the opponent’s arguments into fodder for personal mockery. A good example of this is The German Ideology. Marx was a great polemicist, as was Ayn Rand, but Nietzsche probably perfected the genre.

    We can’t even understand the attention that past literary cultures, from Juvenal to Dr. Johnson, paid to crafting a quality polemic. On the one hand we have crude insult-slinging, which probably finds its ideal in YouTube comments. On the other, we have academic milieus where everyone is polite and tries to be maximally objective and impersonal. Polemics belong to neither world.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts. (thanks for the compliment in the other post–I aspire to deserve it!)

  2. Hi Greg,

    The link, which was to Caleb Crain’s NYer piece, has been fixed, so by all means take a look.

    Foucault has a great exchange on polemics in one of his interviews, which was collected in the Foucault reader. I don’t have it handy, but as I recall he said that polemics tend not to produce innovative solutions/resolutions among the participants, because they tend to devolve into mutual recriminations over legitimacy.

    Polemics require more than abuse: they require irony and the stylistic grace to carry them off to an unpersuaded audience. In a word, they require rhetoric, and this is what the transparency model of critical language will not allow.

    But should book reviews be the place where polemics take place?


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