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Everyone wants to read reviews, but sometimes it seems that no one wants to write them.
In practice, however, book reviewing often gets treated like the lowliest of responsibilities. It is one of a handful of uncompensated academic tasks that have grown more onerous as institutional demands for our service, teaching, and scholarship have expanded. Worst of all, writing reviews usually doesn’t “count.” Most universities grant published reviews (as well as peer reviews of manuscripts and articles) nominal credit under the category of professional service, which doesn’t make a difference for merit raises and counts only marginally toward promotion or tenure. In general terms, most institutions consider the writing of book reviews to be a nice thing professors do in our spare time.
To be sure, there are exceptions. In rare cases, reviews are considered scholarship and receive a small unit of credit, as colleagues at Eastern Washington and Michigan State Universities, Morehouse College, and the University of California at San Diego have told me. On the other hand, a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin told me that she receives “not a scintilla of credit” for such work.
Rachel Toor spoke for many when she wrote in The Chronicle in 2012, “It’s better to write one good article than to review 20 books.” In addition to being meagerly rewarded, the genre has come under fire for its stylistic limitations. In 2021 Paul Musgrave argued, also in these pages, that “academic book reviews are derivative works with a utilitarian purpose.” Many universities downplay the significance of book reviews yet take the opposite view of slightly longer review essays that appear more rarely in the same academic journals, which likewise situate scholarship in a larger field and assess its scholarly value in book-oriented disciplines. Still, when a friend of mine at an Australian university found herself described as an excellent reviewer of books, she took it as a backhanded insult, as if she was wasting time on work that doesn’t matter. By 2012, administrators at her institution had told her to stop writing them.
Toor and Musgrave make some good points. Reviews can contain perfunctory writing, boring chapter-by-chapter summaries, and criticism so mild it’s almost imperceptible. But having just stepped into the role of book-review editor for the William and Mary Quarterly, I have seen a different side of the genre. A good review illuminates larger insights about how a book intervenes in a broader field of study and tells readers something more than a casual reader might discover. Ideally, a review displays generosity of spirit while also delivering honest assessment of a book’s strengths and weaknesses. That’s particularly important in precarious times when so many first-time authors hope to get a job — or keep one.
We hope that reviewers are not so cowed by an author’s stature or position in a prestigious department that they refrain from criticizing a book and opt instead for easy praise. Nor are reviews the best place to air grudges, no matter how entertaining that can be for people outside the conflict. As editors know, writing a good review is an act of balanced scholarship and appraisal. “Particularly for nonfiction reviewers, attentive to the prose, evidentiary foundation, and argument of a book, reviewing can be the most rewarding way to read,” wrote Karin Wulf, one of my predecessors at the Quarterly, in 2017. She goes on to analyze a particularly effective review written by Annette Gordon-Reed in The New York Review of Books, delineating the structure that “compels the reader to care about the work the author accomplishes.”
But while Gordon-Reed had 3,500 words with which to write a great piece, it’s far more difficult write a good review in only 700 words. When The Journal of American History published two 700-word reviews of the same book in its March 2023 issue (an error, the editor explained; the journal had mistakenly sent it to two different reviewers), the contrast was instructive. The first, by Chris Magra, proffered a generally positive account of Joseph J. Ellis’s The Cause: The American Revolution and Its Discontents, 1773-1783. Magra praised the prose and insisted that although the overall interpretation wasn’t new, the book nevertheless “offers the latest word from scholars seeking factors that brought Americans together to fight against the British Empire.” In a second review, Terry Bouton called the book “basically a recycled version of Ellis’s 2013 book, Revolutionary Summer, with most of the same quotes and anecdotes, told nearly word for word in some passages” and complained in particular about the “odd, little two-to-three-page ‘profiles’ at the end of each chapter that address groups Ellis all but ignores in the main text: women, enslaved people, Indians.” In fact, Ellis explained in the book that to incorporate those peoples fully into the narrative would simply amount to “politically correct isometric exercises” that did not reflect what he saw as their negligible importance to the story. Having these pieces side by side illuminates two means of telling readers what mattered to these reviewers: synthesis vs. originality, a cast of familiar characters vs. incorporating new research.
And yet many successful scholars avoid this kind of work precisely because it is devalued, shunting the labor onto others. When universities discredit the writing of reviews, academics striving to climb the ladder absorb the message that reviews are a sucker’s game and refuse to write them. They know that spending the time reading a new book and writing a review takes us away from the forms of writing that our universities do acknowledge as scholarship. Those same scholars, however, expect that their own books will get reviewed, and they express disappointment and exasperation when reviews are slow to appear.
Authors have good reason to complain when their books seem to go unnoticed. Many of us spend a decade or more researching, writing, and revising manuscripts, often paying out of pocket for research trips or to digitize sources from far-flung archives. One historian told me that after spending 12 years writing her second book, not a single review appeared for more than 20 months — leading her to ask existential questions about the point of it all. The disruptions and anxieties of Covid exaggerated the difficulties inherent in finding reviewers. Many book-review editors still have backlogs of books for which they cannot find reviewers. In other cases, reviewers go AWOL for years after receiving a book, and editors finally throw up their hands. Scholars seeking academic jobs, tenure, and promotion feel this absence acutely, fearful that the lack of a review signals widespread concerns about their work that no one wants to commit to print. “I spent years honing my analysis in that book,” an art historian said recently, only to find that “its publication felt like a big nothing burger.”
Book-review editors like myself experience the whiplash of these contradictory currents firsthand. Some have told me that even as they struggle to find reviewers and chase down delinquent reviews, they have heard anecdotally that book-review sections are the real money makers for their journals, presumably from JSTOR and Project Muse downloads. Likewise, when I canvassed journal readers at a recent conference, almost all told me that they read through the full table of contents of new issues, and that they are just as likely to land first on a review as an article provided the book under review is of interest or they know the reviewer to have valuable insight into the field. Grad students devour reviews even more voraciously, seeking help understanding broader patterns and schools of scholarship. “Everyone wants to read reviews,” one editor confided, “but sometimes it seems that no one wants to write them.”
Many of the academics who are most likely to offer rich, insightful reviews decline to write them. We should seek to change this. Perhaps a widespread effort by those of us in book-oriented fields could persuade those who make decisions about university reward structures to elevate the status of the book review. We should not, of course, receive as much credit for a 1,000-word review as for a 10,000-word article based on original research, but neither should our intellectual labor be dismissed as negligible.
The problems of uncredited labor, heavy commitments, and ballooning expectations for scholarly publishing are profound. Pushing back against dismissive views of book-review writing might be the place to start. Perhaps each of us might go out of our way to celebrate and compliment the illuminating reviews we read. Sending a note to a reviewer to praise their work — or to thank them for a thoughtful review of your own book — helps to encourage writers to keep accepting these jobs. The scholarly book review may be “endangered” to some, but the Hispanic American History Review also established a prize in 2015 for the best book review published in the journal, a model that other professional organizations and journals should consider imitating. Imagine if we could describe a colleague as a brilliant reviewer of books without them perceiving that as a slight.