Category Archives: reviewers reviewed

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).


Now this

just doesn’t happen very often: Verlyn Klinkenborg has written a piece for the New York Times that connects the eighteenth century with speculative fiction. See “When Doris Lessing Meets Lady Mary Wortley Montagu” (Dec. 8/07) for an interesting read about the ways in which we tend to position writers from the past, and how re-imagining them can offer new insights. The wry Montagu is particularly suitable for this somewhat whimsical treatment, while conversely being enough of a heavyweight to survive a comparison with Lessing.


Antiquarians on display at the Royal Academy of Arts

[h/t to Cliopatria for noting these]

Ferdinand Mount, in “The Thinginess of History,” (TLS, 10/10/07) provides a tantalizing review of an RAA exhibit, “Making History: Antiquarians in Britain 1707-2007” that I am unlikely ever to see.    Instead, I will have to content myself with Mount’s review and the gift-shop souvenir book, which will only set me back 22 pounds in soft cover.  That’s not as much thinginess as I would have liked.  And is it ever as satisfying to read about antiquarians as it is to examine the collections that they themselves assembled?  Their lives and their thoughts are on display on those shelves, and we are supposed to know it, a spectatorial experience very different from the ordinary museum walk-through.  Even in an exhibition as careful as this, the routinized contact with the past enforced by museum culture has almost entirely wiped out our understanding of this oddly affectionate, private, proprietary attitude towards “antiquity” and its “remains.”


Hans Gumbrecht on the origins (and end) of literary studies

This week I thought I’d pull up a nice essay from HG (courtesy of Bill Benzon at the Valve and the late, lamented Stanford Humanities Review) , in order to pursue an argument I’ve seen in HG but never seen discussed in other venues.

The essay itself, which was published in 1998, has an interesting (and debatable)  historical argument about the disappearance of the historical and institutional conditions that gave academic literary studies their currency and impetus in the twentieth century. 

If I understand him correctly, the emergence of comparative literature and literary theory in the ’60s and ’70s (and this historical conjunction needs to be studied more carefully, if we wish to talk about the Theory Wars) was initially felt as a “departure towards new horizons,” but this optimism about literary studies and its effects quickly dissipated, at least in mainstream literary studies.

What I find most interesting is that HG finds this kind of collective, historical optimism in some areas of lit studies, but not in others: in fields like African or Caribbean literature, or in Gay or Lesbian studies, but not in the canonical fields:

 If, paradoxically, our social environment—and this may be especially true for the American situation—seems to remain more convinced of the values inherent to literary reading than do most literary critics, the survival of such attitudes among the cultural public should not make us overlook that, as a social form of leisure, literary reading has a greater number of competitors than ever before. Wherever reading is still a lively form of cultural interaction, its social frame of reference is more likely to be that of a repressed or marginalized minority than that of a (more or less triumphant) nation state. Thus, it has been said that literature has failed to play a role in the process of German reunification, but it makes unquestionably strong contributions towards the identity formation of the emerging African societies.12 While literary reading has become key for feminist theory and for the development of new forms of self-reference among gays and lesbians, it faces increasing difficulties in maintaining its place within national programs of education. (my emphasis)

Oddly enough, while these competing (or collaborating) fields are often found in the same English Departments, they differ strongly in their relations to the nation-state (and its educational programs), and this difference in turn affects their ability to introduce student-readers  into palpably “new horizons” of literature.   And this difference is something I’ve noticed in my own department, where my closest collaborations have been with colleagues in ethnic and post-colonial literature.  In any case, I think that HG’s historical account does explain the ways in which studies of the “Long Eighteenth” have developed since the 1980s.


John Dryden in LRB

The latest LRB has a longish essay by Matthew Reynolds on Dryden, which begins quite engagingly with the question of why non-academic readers can’t be bothered to read him.  I would add that most academic readers can’t be bothered to read him either, unless they are already Dryden scholars.  For a number of reasons, Dryden has fallen off of that tacit list of canonicity, the list of writers we are ashamed to admit we have not read.

Reynolds quotes James Winn, his most recent biographer, as saying that ‘Any candid teacher of English literature must admit that many students find little pleasure or stimulation in those few selections from Dryden we now ask them to read.’  But perhaps Dryden would benefit from a different process of selection, one that worked harder to connect the different aspects of his writing and career.

So what should we do as teachers of eighteenth-century literature, especially if we believe, along with Eliot, that ‘We cannot fully enjoy or rightly estimate a hundred years of English poetry unless we fully enjoy Dryden’?  At this point in time, if Dryden is not taught, he will not be read, not even by the specialists.  So what parts of Dryden are we teaching, if anything?

For me, the problem really centers upon selection, and what principles should underlie our choices and our priorities.  How do we go about choosing the portions of a major writer that are at once a) representative and b) accessible to first-time readers. 

And this is where I think Dryden presents two problems that we don’t have with other canonical figures: diffusion and variety.  I think Dryden is really an argumentative rather than a narrative or a lyric poet, and so it becomes particularly important to know who he’s arguing with.  This is most obvious in his satires, which is why these are usually considered his most accessible works, but I think the description fits across the board.  It also accounts for the mediocrity of the plays: if we have any interest in them at all, it’s for their extravagantly rhetorical speeches, which seem to have little connection with the plot turns that motivated them.

Because of this eminently rhetorical quality, Dryden does not lend himself to the kinds of intensive, concentrated close reading or anthologization that have helped to build the reputations of other kinds of writers (think about Congreve or Behn, for example).  Reynolds seems to acknowledge this when he points to the sheer range and difficulty of the genres Dryden excelled at during his long career:

The need for help in fully enjoying Dryden becomes clear as soon as one looks at a list of the genres in which he excelled. Most of them either need prior contextual knowledge (or annotation) to make them comprehensible, or are some distance from what, for the last couple of hundred years, have been the main concerns of poets; or both. There are the literary and political satires (Mac Flecknoe, Absalom and Achitophel). There is panegyric: on Cromwell (Heroic Stanzas), on Charles II (Astraea Redux, To His Sacred Majesty), on the new baby heir to James II (Britannia Rediviva); though never on William and Mary. Theological disputation, first Anglican in complexion (Religio Laici), then Roman Catholic (The Hind and the Panther). Historical chronicle (Annus Mirabilis). Translation: from Homer, Juvenal, Persius, Ovid, Boccaccio, Chaucer and others; and of the complete works of Virgil. And then there are the massed and (except All for Love) rather mediocre plays which took up most of his time and earned much of his money: heroic tragedies (The Conquest of Granada, Aureng-Zebe), tragicomedies (Marriage à la Mode) and farce (An Evening’s Love); and many, many prologues and epilogues to other people’s plays as well as his own. Finally, there are the volumes of accompanying criticism (Of Dramatic Poesy, ‘Discourse Concerning Satire’).

As Reynolds points out, these are all genres that participated fully require intense scholarly mediation before they can be enjoyed, because they were so intensely topical and public at the moment of their first appearance.  This need for mediation probably reduces the potential number of texts covered in a semester, even when it leaves us with the disjecta membra of a long and varied career.

But I also wonder if part of the problem is that we try so hard to give the holistic ‘overview’ of a particular writer, especially the major ones, that we lose sight of the most interesting aspects of their writing.  Along these lines, Reynolds argues for Dryden’s translations as paradoxically the most authentic parts of his writing, an insight which I’d endorse and then extend to his critical prose.  So why not feature these aspects of his writing in a course on translation or criticism, and not just tramp through the footnotes of Absalom and Achitophel?


PS: And just to show that someone is still reading Dryden, there’s a nice post about Annus Mirabilis going on at the Valve right now, courtesy of Adam Roberts.

Lucas Cranach at the Courtauld: Bring the Kids!


But please, keep them away from the honeycombs.  See what happened to Cupid?

I was at the Courtauld last weekend, and saw the Cranach Adam and Eve exhibit, which also included some fine paintings and engravings from Durer.  This show has received plenty of good press, but I liked the Guardian’s review the best, for reasons that you will see.  (Jonathan Jones clearly has a thing for armpits, or maybe just, uh, female armpits).,,2113358,00.html

See what I mean?  Pant, pant, pant.  I do agree with Jones about one thing: for all the sleek, misogynist knowingness of Eve’s offering gesture, there is something baffled and helpless about Adam’s head-scratching, bewildered look.  It’s a brilliantly contrasted pair of expressions.  How could he know? asks Cranach, how could he have had any idea what he was getting into?  Can you really blame him?  etc. etc.  Take a look:


If you’re in London, see the show before it closes Sept. 23rd.


UPDATE: And here’s Peter Scheldjahl’s review of an upcoming Cranach exhibit from the New Yorker, courtesy of 3quarksdaily.