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Rohan McWilliam, On Reviewing

2016 December 1
by lucinda matthews-jones

Rohan McWilliam is Professor of Modern British History at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, and reviews editor of the Journal of Victorian Culture.  He is a past president of the British Association for Victorian Studies.  His comments are made in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of the JVC editorial board.  My thanks to the editors of JVC and my colleagues in the History pathway at Anglia Ruskin for feedback on this blog.

readingReviewing, it’s fair to say, is the unsung side of the academic profession.  We talk a lot about teaching, research and administration but reviewing is relegated to the interstices of scholarly life.  Some scholars will not do it.  Others in the UK (so the dark whisper goes) have been told not to review by their heads of department and just concentrate on writing items that will score in the Research Excellence Framework (REF).  Few reputations have in recent years been made by the act of scholarly reviewing.  Moreover, in the age of the internet, it seems, from my completely unscientific study of colleagues in different institutions, that fewer scholars are reading academic reviews though they may use the web to consult the reception of specific books.  The days seem to be over when scholars made it a priority as part of their working week to visit the current periodicals section of their university library so that they can skim reviews and get a sense of the literature.  In future, scholarly reputations may be based more on appearances in other people’s footnotes than through excellent reviews.  Reviewing can be a distraction from our research unless, of course, the book under review is central to what we happen to be doing.  It takes time and is unpaid.  The one perk is getting a free copy of the book.   It can also cause upset to an author.  We all know stories about academic grudges following dismissive reviews.  Is reviewing really worth the aggravation?  Why do it?

I write as reviews editor of the Journal of Victorian Culture (JVC) and as a regular reviewer in a range of periodicals who believes reviewing is an important part of our craft.  I rarely turn down an opportunity to review, enjoying the challenge and the discipline of reviewing.  I still find it important to read reviews pages of academic journals to really get a sense of the field.  Yet the question persists.  Has the time come for people like me to wake up and smell the coffee?  Hasn’t scholarly reviewing had its day?

I want to argue for the continuing importance of reviewing in academic life. This is not simply an example of analog thinking in a digital age.  Reviewing is a vital craft that should define scholars in all disciplines.  My argument here is specifically about writing for scholarly journals.   Some scholars will find themselves reviewing for newspapers or publications like the Times Literary Supplement.  Writing for the London Review of Books or (especially) the New York Review of Books is one of the highest honours a scholar can receive.  However, this kind of reviewing is slightly different from writing for scholarly journals.  Newspaper editors will often make it clear that they are not concerned with the validity of a particular judgement so much as the capacity of the reviewer to deliver a sparkling article which can entrance the reader.  Newspaper reviews often favour exuberant praise or the disdainful hatchet job.  Scholarly reviewing is different: less showy but, ultimately, more thoughtful.

Let’s start with one of the great hypocrisies of our time: those scholars who won’t write reviews or who have been told not to so that they concentrate on the REF (or other important academic work).  These same people would be upset if their work was not reviewed.  It would represent a form of defeat.  An unreviewed book is the academic equivalent of purgatory.  Good reviews continue to make reputations and bad reviews undermine them.  At the very least, they act as a powerful form of publicity.  Unless a book is reviewed immediately in the press, there is usually a crushing silence that lasts a year as one waits for the scholarly reviews to appear.  I’ve received emails from authors asking that their book be reviewed, fearful that, a year on from publication, no one has noticed them.  In any case, reviews can be a factor in academic promotion; they also show evidence of an international reputation if one is reviewed in journals based in other countries.

Reviewing is also an important site where the scholarly community comes into its own.  Reviewing to some extent makes that community.   This argument should, I hope, speak to readers of JVC because reviewing was an important part of what the Victorian intelligentsia did (even if much of it was unsigned).  We still read the great Victorian reviewers, though the reviews we write are usually not nearly so long as theirs.   Publications like the Edinburgh Review made a profound contribution to political thought in the nineteenth century.[1]  Reviewing remains a site where the intellectual challenges of our time are played out.  They are a place characterised by a refreshing desire to take ideas seriously.  As a reviews editor, I am always grateful for the time and diligence that colleagues put in, weighing the merits of a volume.

So what makes a good review?  First of all, reviewers should read the book.   Surely this is a bit obvious?  Not so.   I have heard scholars proudly proclaim they haven’t actually read the books they review with a kind of swashbuckling bravado that (unusual for me) I don’t admire.  One friend noted that all the examples employed in a review of her book came from the first chapter which was a bit of a give-away.  A serious review in a scholarly journal needs to represent an engaged reading.  For that reason, even a critical review is a gift to the author (even if it does not seem like that) as a scholar has taken time to weigh up their achievement.

We live in an age when (another dark rumour) some scholars only find time to read certain chapters of a book rather than the whole contents.  I reviewed the nineteenth century volumes in the Oxford History of Britain series (by Boyd Hilton, K. Theodore Hoppen and G.R. Searle), conscious that few readers of these loose baggy monsters would read them cover to cover.  This gives reviewers a particular responsibility though I found reading the above works all the way through extremely rewarding.

Whilst there is a difference between scholarly reviewing and reviewing in the press, one should not overstate the difference.  As a reviews editor, I still look for articles that sparkle and always reject the turgid.  Bad writing has no place in our profession.  There has, in any case, been a turn away from some of the jargon-heavy prose that got academic writing a bad reputation in a previous generation.  I encourage contributors to approach their task as a mini essay.  Even a short notice possesses a welcome sense of challenge, conveying the key dimensions of a book in a few words. I would hope scholars can respond to the discipline of the review essay as a form with its own logic and protocols.

A good review should make clear what the book is about but it should do more.  It needs to make the book come alive.  This is true even if it is critical review.  A bald chapter by chapter summary of the contents will not do of itself. It is important to express what is at stake in a book.  A really good review should ideally explore where a book stands within a scholar’s body of work (unless it is a first book).  This is in practice difficult to achieve.  I would not ask a reviewer to read all the previous work by a scholar in order to pronounce upon his or her latest effort.  A reviewer, however, who can spot ongoing themes in a scholar’s work or developments of their larger intellectual scheme, provides a valuable service.  This, at any rate, is the ideal.   What a review should do is explore how a book contributes to the larger field of inquiry.  With some of my own reviews for JVC I have found it useful to ask myself how a book contributes to larger issues within Victorian Studies.  Does the field look different following the publication of a particular book?  That is probably a more viable question for most reviewers.

A review should offer a distinct view of a book.  Some reviews can be merely dutiful.  There are suggestions going around that some reviewers fear saying what they really think about a book if only because it could lead to a punch up in the British Library.   The result is an anodyne piece of prose that does not say much.  Reviewers should see their duty as being to the scholarly community at large, exploring work that is important to find out what makes it tick or critiquing the intellectually shoddy.

As a reviews editor, I look dimly, however, on reviews that effectively say ‘why has this person not written the book I would have written?’  This is the wrong starting point.  There needs to be some identification with the aims of an author and a proper assessment of whether he or she has succeeded.  I do know a number of scholars who employ a de haut en bas style in reviewing that does them no favours.   It is okay to explore the quality of the writing or to admit if a book has its longueurs.   A review should show an understanding of the amount of research that has (or has not) gone into a book.  There is a case that is sometimes made to me that a scholar should not review until they have published a book. Given that I have published some reviews by postgraduates and early career scholars, I have not held to this rule (and I certainly reviewed before I published) but it is a serious point.  A good reviewer needs to have a feel for the journey that any author has taken in seeing a book through from initial idea through to the proof stage.  This avoids unreasonable expectations of what an author can have achieved.

The best reviews ultimately enter into a conversation with a book.  There should be a real sense of the reviewer thinking with the book.  If a review does that, it can also challenge the reader to think and enhance the scholarly conversation.  This is why reviewing remains a craft.

Reviewing monographs is fairly clear-cut.  Reviewing books of articles, as we all have to do, is a necessary, but sometimes less rewarding, task.  Should one try and write something about every article in the book even if they only get a sentence each?  I would counsel against doing this.  It is usually better to focus on the larger themes of the book and the ways in which certain articles exemplify these themes.  Some books of articles hold together better than others.  It is for reviewers to point this out.

Should the reviewer be a specialist in the exact field that the book is in?  There are some books that can probably only be properly assessed by people working in the exact same field, cognisant of the methodological issues raised by a project.  I am thinking of some forms of economic history.  However, in general, I very much believe that an effective scholar should eschew narrowness and take a stand on a variety of different works, pondering their significance for the wider academic community.

A tougher question is what to do about a personal relationship between author and reviewer.  I’ve seen examples of scholars reviewing books by their former PhD students (even on occasion reviewing books based on PhDs they themselves supervised).  How close is too close?  This is a difficult one.  I admit that I prefer reviewing books by people I don’t know. However, this quickly becomes an impossible ordnance.  Over the years, I have gotten to know a large number of people in my field.  I would not want this to disqualify me from reviewing their work.  Fortunately, it has not prevented me from writing what I actually thought.  One of the more critical reviews I have written did not affect a friendship with the book’s author.  I would, however, recuse myself from reviewing a book where I had a significant impact on the book’s composition.  I was recently asked to review a book based on a PhD where I was the external examiner but excused myself on that basis.  I have never been aware of a reviewer taking on a commission from me to enact revenge on a particular author but we all know that this sometimes happens.  JVC has been fairly free of snarkiness or young turks trying to make their reputation by being abusive towards the work of the older generation.  I don’t think that has meant it has lacked intellectual life but it has been characterised by good manners (so far).

Having written about the task of the reviewer, what of the author being reviewed?  I am struck by the fact that there is little etiquette to call upon.  I always make a point of writing to thank anyone who has given me a good review.  However, there seems no particular expectation that this should be done.  The tougher question is what to do about a bad review.  I strongly advise against going into print to complain (and indeed would resist saying anything in private).  By and large, journals do not publish replies (or only do so in exceptional circumstances).  Whilst there can be a case to be made when it comes to correcting the odd factual error, a reply will always read like sour grapes.  It never reflects credit on the author and always make him or her look small.  Better to move on.   More positively, I have known scholars who use criticism they receive in reviews as an opportunity to think more deeply.  Reviews still represent the purest form of feedback on one’s years of toil on a project.  My model would be E.P.  Thompson.  In later editions of The Making of the English Working Class and Whigs and Hunters he published responses to the reviews he received when the books came out.  This is not to say that he always appreciated criticism and there is a lot of intellectual jousting.  Nevertheless, these postscripts represent some of his most important work: a scholar thinking seriously about the issues.  The Institute of Historical Research Reviews in History site features reviews which allow an author to respond if they wish to.  Some of the exchanges get ugly (let’s face it, most of us are only happy with a total rave) but there are also examples of real scholarly exchanges of ideas.

I want to end by writing about being the reviews editor of JVC.  I always try to make sure that the reviews pages cover significant works which will be of interest to Victorianists at large.  In particular, the job requires keeping an eye out for what is new or surprising.  JVC is, however, not just a journal; it is a project.  I therefore prioritise books that that make a conscious effort to be interdisciplinary.  I’m happy to commission reviews of books that belong firmly to a single discipline but the journal is devoted to encouraging the cross-fertilization of intellectual disciplines.  In this scheme of things, should works of literary analysis be evaluated by historians (and vice versa) with, perhaps, examples of the spatial turn being responded to by art historians?  At our best, we have done precisely that in the reviews pages.  In practice, it is difficult to get scholars to move outside disciplinary boundaries though I have come to identify and rely on those scholars who are able to do that.  They will always be welcome to write for us.  In any case, the Victorian Studies community over the years has fostered an intellectual nimbleness of approach which has fed into the reviews pages.

On the whole, I would not say that the style of reviews differs hugely according to discipline.  Reviewers vary a bit in terms of what they try to get out of a book.  JVC has run some great readings of History books by literary scholars, for example.  These are usually sensitive to where the original author is coming from but can sometimes offer an interpretation by a person trained in close readings of texts.   I would never alter the basic content of a review (the views of reviewers are their own) though I happily send it back for revision if I think it is badly written or unclear.  I would not publish a review if it was libellous (or featured gross examples of racism or sexism).  Fortunately, this has never happened.  The prospect of receiving such a review seems unlikely though you never know.

We made a deliberate decision at JVC to feature longer reviews than those in other journals.  I usually give a reviewer 1500 words for a review of a single book or 2000 words for a joint review.  This was meant to foster a more discursive and thoughtful approach to reviewing which I think has given the journal a particular character.  We also pioneered the use of Roundtable discussions of books of particular importance with scholars from different disciplines responding to a volume with the original author responding.

When it comes to finding reviewers, I am lucky in that I have a huge pool of expertise to draw upon in the form of the JVC editorial board.  This helps me find reviewers in disciplines other than my own.  Over the years I have built up strong links with the Victorian Studies communities in Britain, the US, Japan and Australasia which helps.  I have often gone up to people after hearing them at conferences and got them to review.  At the moment, I am very keen to get reviews from scholars who work in museums, galleries and archives.  Getting them to review can be a useful way of extending the scholarly conversation.  In the same way, I would like to feature more reviews of exhibitions (we’ve done a few).  I was delighted to have Valerie Purton discuss the recent BBC television series Dickensian but would be interested in responses to other examples of new-Victorian culture in the form of novels or steampunk happenings.[2]  We need also to respond more to web-based developments which in turn require new skills in reviewing.  These are also matters that can go on JVC Online for rapid response.

Reviewing is a craft that deserves greater recognition within the community.  Each time we reviewers open a book we have to take a position.  We read with the reviewer’s pencil at the ready to underline key points or place question marks in the margin.  We search for that stimulating point or example which can furnish us with a good opening line.  Above all, we look for depth of approach and, ultimately, illumination.  Reviewing represents an important contribution to the intellectual climate of our times. It makes us take a stand. Let’s take it seriously.

[1] John Clive, Scotch Reviewers: The Edinburgh Review, 1802-1815 ,(London: Faber and Faber, 1957).
[2] Valerie Purton, ‘Some Old and Particular Friends’,  Journal of Victorian Culture, vol.21 (2016), pp. 242-246.
2 Responses leave one →
  1. Neil Evans permalink
    December 2, 2016

    This is a very thoughtful piece and makes many good points. Rarely write reviews any more as I find the form of the short review the most time consuming word for word that there is and there’s often not space for any proper discussion. Some (not mine I hope!) fall into a series of cliches. I much prefer longer reviews of more than one book and review essays where possible. Wholeheartedly agree that the book must be read and with the author’s objectives in mind. I used to contribute to the HA’s Annual Review of Historical Literature. This was the whole field for a year; articles as well as books. It was obviously impossible to read everything thoroughly; so lots of skimming and reading key parts. Then, on average, a sentence per book / article. I often checked my view of a book against more substantial reviews when they were published, though that was usually after mine had gone to press. I think it was for reassurance that I hadn’t been unfair by allowing an hour to write about a particular book. (Some I did read, through, of course). I often found my view was very similar. It had different challenges of finding connections and trends; just trying to make it continuous prose as opposed to groups of sentences needed effort. As well as academic reviews I’ve done quite a lot in my time for Welsh journal, Planet which is a general review which covers literature, history, art, politics etc. Readership is diverse, intelligent and educated but non-specialist so it was important to try to find something to say which would resonate more widely. The editor would often allow me to write a short article based on some important recent work (Linda Colley’s Britons, for example) where there was some space to elaborate and make connections. I really enjoyed reading this and it was a nice touch to root the argument in Victorian reviewing!

  2. Herbert Tucker permalink
    December 11, 2016

    It was good of Lucie Matthews-Jones to let us the VICTORIA list know about this essay, and of course very good of Rohan McWilliam to write it in the first place. I won’t even count up the scholarly reviews I’ve written by now, but that’s not because they Don’t Count. They do count, but by a different calculus from what apparently governs the REF. Now and then book reviews count as individual interventions; they count all the time, and en masse, as contributions to the health of a field – of a profession – that still does set its own standards, but won’t if we stop evaluating each other’s work. Think of the next review you accept as an act of gallant defiance in the face of short-term utility maximization. Or think that the next invitation you turn down saps, a little bit, the authority of peer review within the academy, and of the quality judgments on which the vitality of peer-reviewing depends. Be sure that, in that case, another criterion will arise to take its place.

    RMcW covers most of the waterfront. One item that remains invisible in his piece, though, is the invisible reviewing scholars do – and not, believe me, for the money! – for presses when assessing MSS for publication as books. I guess that’s secret peer-review, in some focussed ways more consequential and in other collective ways less so than the publishing of reviews in periodicals.

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