A missing element in academic book reviews?


Books (Photo credit: Roo Reynolds)

We are gearing up for the launch of Marginalia: A Review of Books in History, Theology & Religion later this month, so we’ve been debating and contemplating the components of a good book review. I will avoid doing that here, because others have done and will do. But one thing to which I’d like to draw attention is an element often missing from academic book reviews, and that is a judgment on the author’s style.

There are several reasons why this could be overlooked or intentionally ignored.

Many academics write in English as a second or third language, and so condemn us monolingual Anglos. It’s impressive being on the Continent, because even though Brits are better with European languages than Americans or Aussies or Kiwis, a Dutch or Belgian or French or German or X, Y, or Z scholar will often put us to shame by speaking one language at home, another in an academic conference, writing in yet another, and watching films in, gasp, another. So it could be that scholars are reluctant to refer to the style of a book for fear it may not be the author’s first language. Nonetheless, this should not, it would seem to me, be a reason to abandon stylistic criticism altogether. Some gentle comments could be made, but even if we decided never to critique a non-native English writer, it would still leave hundreds of books per year which we know are written by native Anglos.

It could also be that reviewers are reluctant to criticise style because they feel their own writing is not a brilliant example of prose. I would stand in this category. I suppose human nature is such that the author whose book is being reviewed, and others who would disagree with the reviewer’s view of the book, could make the reviewer to feel that he has no place criticising style when his own is substandard.

But is this not what we need in order to improve ourselves? Should we be so insecure that we cannot welcome others to take our writing to the woodshed, to show us how we could have written clearer, tighter, and more imaginatively, in addition to showing us how our arguments may not have convinced? For those of us who know we do not write as well as we would like, should our own weaknesses deter us from criticising another’s weaknesses? If we’re all waiting for perfection before we speak, it will be a quiet world.

One of the values of writing book reviews is that it forces us to read more attentively and to examine arguments more carefully. But it should also push us to think about writing as a craft. If another of the goals of book reviews is to hold authors accountable to their ideas by examining them under the microscope of our own specialisations, so that an aspiring author knows she had better not publish the book until it can pass scrutiny, it should be no less important that we hold style to a high standard.

Academic writing can be horrible. I know. Just read some of my stuff. I wonder if it is because we do not make style one of the criteria of judgment in our reviewing.

Now, I welcome your feedback on the poor quality of this post.


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  • Jim

    Some examples of what you deem inadequate reviews would be helpful.

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  • http://brianwdavidson.com Brian Davidson

    What about typesetting? Of course, this wouldn’t be a critique of the author but the publisher. I’m tired of looking at ugly, ill-proportioned Greek and Hebrew. Furthermore, at this point in the game, with the proliferation of unicode fonts, transliteration should be kept to an absolute minimum. Publishers should see to it that Hebrew and Greek text is printed with properly proportioned Hebrew and Greek fonts. Couldn’t we give this sort of thing a couple sentences in a book review?

    • timothymichaellaw

      Typesetting and other printing issues are fair game, but the reviewer should clearly attribute the mistakes to the publisher and not author. The issue of languages, like Hebrew and Greek, is a bit trickier. The book is more useful to people in other fields who could recognise the structural elements of the language without knowing the script, so transliteration does serve a purpose in some cases. For example, some comparative linguists might like to study verbal morphology in several languages, and this is made possible through transliteration. Even closer to home, a scholar in Arabic might not know Hebrew and Aramaic, and vice versa, but they might wish to learn something about the other through transliterated text. The final problem is this: many publishers use typesetters and printers in Asia (I’m not opening the ethical can of worms here) and they find it easier to require transliteration from authors so that the typesetters have no problems. And even if the typesetter knew the language, in many cases they are using publishing platforms, not Microsoft Word, and (believe it or not) these still do not do well publishing right-to-left fonts.

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  • https://abramkj.wordpress.com/ Abram K-J

    Agreed! I think if someone is going to ask the world to read her or his book, it is incumbent upon that person to pay attention to style and to write it well.

  • Doug

    its no better in the legal field. Much of the writing is poor to average at best.