The Endangered Scholarly Book Review

Brian Taylor

April 01, 2012

More and more scholarly journals seem to be shrinking or considering eliminating their book-review sections. That is a sad trend.

As a journal editor, I often correspond with several of my fellow editors, some of whom have told me that they are becoming reluctant to devote increasingly expensive journal space to reviews when that same space could be used for articles. Other editors are eliminating reviews from their journal's print edition and running them exclusively online.

"We're not sure that our readers pay close attention to reviews," said one editor. "And, besides, running a robust review section is labor-intensive because we have to keep track of and edit several works by several authors to fill the space that would otherwise contain a single scholarly article by one author."

Another journal editor told me there were just too many books being published, which makes the task of sifting through them and identifying the ones that should be reviewed both time-consuming and onerous. A third mentioned that he had become frustrated that too many reviews were simple summaries with little actual "reviewing"—that is, thoughtful engagement with, and critical evaluation of, the book's project.

Yet another pointed out that his book-review editor has had difficulty attracting writers, given that the book review is often deemed a lowly beast in the grand scheme of things. Midcareer professors and senior scholars typically are "too busy" to write reviews, opting instead to spend their time on their own books and journal articles. That means a preponderance of review writers are graduate students and new faculty members, a trend that can make a difference in what a review section contributes to the scholarly conversation in a discipline.

Despite the doubts of some of my colleagues, I believe that the book review, done properly, is still a viable and important contribution to intellectual life.

First, writing reviews is an excellent way for advanced doctoral students and new faculty members to develop and practice the intellectual skills involved in scholarly writing. Over the years, I have routinely advised my doctoral students to attempt to publish several reviews of scholarly books in reputable journals. Having such publications certainly gave them an edge in the job market but, equally important, it gave them greater confidence in their ability to process, assess, and contextualize book-length projects. That ability is a higher-order form of literacy that few people—other than academics, editors, and public intellectuals—tend to acquire.

In fact, some editors believe that newly minted professors are especially well suited to write reviews of new works because—having just completed doctoral work—they are (at least theoretically) more abreast of cutting-edge research in the discipline than anyone else. I agree that new Ph.D.'s may be especially well suited to write reviews. Having recently honed the requisite intellectual muscles, they are often most eager to exercise those muscles. That said, in the journal I edit, I always strive to include reviews written by seasoned scholars, too, because they usually offer a perspective that is unavailable to new and emerging scholars.

Second, and more important, a well-crafted review serves an important function in the scholarly community: It helps all of us make informed decisions about how to use our time wisely. Because so many scholarly works are published, it is simply impossible to keep up with every new book in a given field—a problem that is compounded if your research is multi- or interdisciplinary.

Substantive reviews help busy scholars make informed choices as to which books to read carefully, which to skim, and which to bypass altogether.

Also, scholarly reviews are a good barometer of a book's critical reception. At top research universities, it is not good enough simply to have published a book; for tenure and promotion, the book must have been "well received" by the scholarly community. A major indicator of a book's reception is the number of substantive reviews it receives in reputable journals. Reviewers, therefore, play an important role in the intellectual process that vets what will count as knowledge in their discipline.

Ultimately, the true value of a scholarly book review lies in its proper execution. An inferior review is one that simply describes the book's content, marching through each chapter (Chapter One does this, Chapter Two does that) as if on a mission to get to the end as quickly and efficiently as possible. Too often, the summary is itself subordinated to fault-finding, as if that's what reviewing means.

A genuinely useful review goes beyond a mere summary of a book's content, beyond a mere catalogue of missteps, and provides substantive intellectual engagement with, and evaluation of, its argument. What makes a review a serious contribution to scholarship is the reviewer's contextualization and analysis of the book's value to scholarship in the discipline.

Here are the kinds of tips I typically give doctoral students interested in writing book reviews for scholarly journals:

  • Don't review a book by a friend, colleague, or mentor. That would be a conflict of interest and would not reflect well on you.
  • Don't review a book by a professional rival or foe—another conflict of interest.
  • Don't use the review as an opportunity to eviscerate an author. Some scholars attempt to make their reputations by "taking down" a more accomplished scholar. A scholarly review should be fair, objective, and respectful.
  • Choose a book that has just been published, not one that has been out for many months or more. Because the scholarly publication process typically works relatively slowly, it will take considerable time between when you write your review and when it appears in print, so you don't want to review a book that will be two years old when your review finally appears.
  • After selecting a newly published book in your area of expertise, contact the journal's book-review editor and ask for permission to write a review for publication. Make a case for the importance of the book's subject to scholarship in the discipline and why it would be a good fit for the journal.
  • In your review, keep your description of the book relatively short. While a summary of the book is useful to the reader, the most valuable part of your review is your analysis of its content, so move as quickly as possible into your evaluation. Better yet, integrate your description with your evaluation throughout the review.
  • Keep your readers (fellow scholars in your discipline) in mind as you write the review. Concentrate on what they would want to know about the book, not on extraneous matters, such as your own personal quibbles.
  • Make sure you carefully follow the journal's stated format and typical practices for reviews. You want your review to "fit" with the journal's other reviews.

Another bit of advice that I typically give concerns the difference between a book review and a review essay. While everyone knows that a book review is usually about one book and a review essay is about multiple books, some new scholars assume that the review essay is simply two or more book reviews stitched together.

An effective review essay, like any essay, is a meditation on a subject—in this case a disciplinary topic common to the books under review. Rather than organize your review essay as a succession of mini-reviews, organize it according to the issues raised by the books, or the issues that arise from putting them in conversation with one another. In effect, your essay is an analysis of how well the books collectively and individually deal with the issues in question.

While scholarly publishing has evolved over time—sometimes for the better, sometimes not—it would be a great loss to scholarship if the scholarly review became extinct or got absorbed into the genre of the scholarly "blog" (an oxymoron, in my view). In a Twitter-crazy world, in which reduction is a reigning value, I may be bucking the times, but my journal, at least, will continue to seek to publish substantive scholarly reviews and review essays. I believe we owe that to the scholarly community.

Lynn Worsham is a professor of English at Idaho State University and editor of JAC: A Journal of Rhetoric, Culture, & Politics.