I am continually surprised at the poor quality of academic book reviews. With the help of a few friends I’ve compiled this working list of the weakness that I/we find most annoying and common.
1. The glorified table of contents. The review is a chapter by chapter summary without any substantive engagement. The contents of most books can be easily discovered online. There is no longer need for a “review” giving this information. (Confession: the first review I ever wrote was one of these). I’m not suggesting the chapter-by-chapter model is inherently flawed, only that pure summary frequently crowds out analysis.
2. Irrelevant or nitpicking complaints. The reviewer is careful to note that one typo on page 312. This distracts from substantive engagement. Also, it’s good to remember that reviews are important for tenure. This is not the time to be petty.
3. Cliché summary statements. For example, things like “This is sure to become a standard work for years to come” [in addition to being hackneyed, this comment is almost always false].
4. Yellow-bellied refusal to express one’s own opinion regarding the strength of the arguments. This is frequently expressed with the almost tautologous cliché, “Some arguments are more convincing than others.”
5. Condemnation of arguments without stating a single reason why or without explaining what the argument was. Thus, “The arguments of chapters 4 and 5 were less convincing.” Ok. Why?
6. Predetermined outcome. The book has no chance of success because it doesn’t adhere to the favored method or the personal commitments of the reviewer. For example, the book uses post-colonial criticism which the reviewer thinks is a waste of time. Or, the book is written by and for conservative Calvinists, which the reviewer thinks is an affront. Or, the book shows signs of having begun as a dissertation, which causes the reviewer to sniff. If a reviewer thinks any of these things is bad, he or she should write an essay about that (“Why Post-Colonial Criticism is Dumb”). Don’t review a book if you can’t read it on its own terms.
7. Focusing most or all of the review on a secondary or subsidiary argument. This is a temptation when the secondary argument relates to the reviewer’s own interests or expertise. It is understandable when responding off the cuff, say, to a paper at a conference, but not in a published review.
8. Irrelevant self-reference. The reviewer gratuitously reminds us of his own work.
9. Stodgy prose.
While I curse the darkness I should note that The Marginalia Review of Books is lighting a match.
Update: a friend mentioned a common variation of #6: “the review that spends most of its space, or an inordinate amount it, criticizing the book for not saying what the reviewer wishes or thinks the book should have discussed, or might have discussed. While sometimes valid, these sorts or remarks, often framed as critiques, are really just wishes that the author had written a different book (probably because it just occurred to the reviewer that this different book might have been more interesting to him or her).”
Or, as another friend describes complaints about omissions: “‘It would have been nice to see the author do x’. While this is a legitimate complaint if the author has neglected a major issue or been tendentious in his selection of evidence, more often than not this complaint is a projection of the reviewer’s research interests. [Esteemed prof] suggested this was a way of avoiding critical engagement with what the author sets out to do and does. The key question is, does the omission reasonably fall within the ambit of the task the author has set for herself or not?”
Here’s an article making some similar points regarding peer review.