Blogs > Cliopatria > So, How Long Does It Take You...

Jul 15, 2004 9:56 am


So, How Long Does It Take You...



... to write a book review?


comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Ralph E. Luker - 7/16/2004

I do think that you've got the right bottom line here. You review a book because you know something about the subject and care about the issues. It really isn't about whether it counts toward tenure. The truth is that it either will or it won't, depending on whether those who make the decision want it to. So, you commit to the life of the mind and you do what people with such commitments do.


Derek Charles Catsam - 7/16/2004

I do agree with Ralph about this bifurcation between popular sources and academic sources. I do find it amazing how the Times or Post manage to find people singularly unqualified to review the books they do. It is one thing to say good arguments are good arguments. It is quite another to pull someone with no historical background or training whatsoever who then go after historical books the roots of which they clearly do not understand. At least in academic reviews, the person reviewing will have the historiographical background and immersion in the literature. There must be a middle ground here -- usually that ground is met with the reviews in places such as The New Republic, where specialists can write for a broad audience.
dc


Ralph E. Luker - 7/15/2004

Anne, One of the implications of your argument would be to reproduce in the academic community the stark distinction between theater critics, on the one hand, and the community of actors, directors, and producers. I think it is a healthy thing that the academic community does not have that bifurcation, because it feeds enormous resentment and hostility. We've got enough of our own already.
There may be a good argument to be made about reviewing for popular venues, as opposed to reviewing for professional journals. Scott McLemee and Jonathan Yardley have good track records reviewing books over a wide range of fields for a general audience. They are not likely to be asked and not likely to want to review those same books in professional journals.


Anne Zook - 7/15/2004

Although I've heard the, "Well, how many books have you written?" argument outside of academia, it's only inside academia that it seems to be accepted as a valid argument for who should, or shouldn't, be doing reviews.

I'd like to suggest that the ability to write a book and the ability to review one objectively and intelligently aren't the same set of skills. Some people have both sets, some don't.


People who can't write plays review plays. People who can't write scripts review movies. People who can't sew on a button review fashion shows. People who can't catch a ball review sports teams.

(Admittedly, if you're reviewing a book about 16th century Chinese porcelain, it helps to have a certain familiarity in the field, but "expertise" can be a drawback since, with knowledge comes bias. In that case, the more you know, the harder it might be to write a fair and objective review.)


Jonathan Dresner - 7/15/2004

Wasn't how I took it; just wanted to point out that it's a pretty common attitude and one that I had considered as well. As we've discussed before, I'm a big believer in non-participant critical authority....


Ralph E. Luker - 7/15/2004

I wouldn't want to be misunderstood by either of you as being critical of historians who publish book reviews prior to or apart from having published a book. That is one professional attitude, expressed to me early in my career. It isn't necessarily one I share. I do think that the experience of sustaining a major manuscript through publication does have an educating effect. As, undoubtedly, would misleading a nation into war. Or, maybe not.


Jonathan Dresner - 7/15/2004

There is an element of disciplinary service to book reviews. I write them because I read them, and I try to write them well because I rely on them for first impressions and clues to what I should be reading and thinking about. So writing them is giving something back to the intellectual community that sustains me.

But that's a kind of communitarian argument that doesn't carry a lot of weight with our libertarian neighbors.


Derek Charles Catsam - 7/15/2004

While at first understand the argument of "don't review until you have written one," in a sense it also does not work for me. Ideas and arguments are what they are independent of some sort of invocation of authority. Lots of people write lots of bad books. Is a good defense of those books really "Oh yeah, well how many books have you written?" I mean, by this standard, Bart Bernstein would not be qualified to write book reviews, because he has not published monographs, and yet he is pretty well respected as a big dog in modern US history. This especially seems even less of a concern in academic journals where often times the water is carried by younger scholars because there is a bell curve in which the very most senior people are not going to review a lot of books because they do not need to. I've never led a nation into war. Does this mean I cannot criticize the president until I do?
dc


Derek Charles Catsam - 7/15/2004

But is there not a flip side to this? Maybe we don't write reviews for what it will do for us, but rather because writing book reviews is prt of engaging in the intellectual, and in most of our case, historicasl endeavor? I mean, I could probably get tenure without those extra meetings with students, or responding to their harried emails that come at all sorts of hours in as timely a fashion as possible. maybe few will even notice that I do these things. But does that make it any less worth doing?
dc


Jonathan Dresner - 7/15/2004

I have some qualms about writing reviews without a book credit, myself. An advisor once said the same thing, when I suggested writing a book review very early in my career, that it wasn't fair for someone without any experience in the process to critique the finished product. But there aren't a lot of people who sit where I do in the field, either (a Japanese historian with a strong background in Asian American history and social science) so I think I have something to offer. And I try to be fair, and a little humble, about my criticisms.


Jonathan Dresner - 7/15/2004

Yeah, I wondered about that, too. Frankly, they aren't worth much in my field, either, particularly at my current institution.


King Banaian - 7/15/2004

I think that would be being far too hard on yourself. Coat myself in honey and lay on an anthill? Yes. Actually read the Clinton bio? No.


King Banaian - 7/15/2004

Jonathan, book reviews for economists gain us next to nothing. I will write them for friends gladly; next I will write them for books that are in my specific area of research. Making full professor meant the list stopped there.


Van L. Hayhow - 7/15/2004

Might have been simpler just to throw the book under the truck.


Ralph E. Luker - 7/15/2004

I should qualify my facetious questions. Years ago, I enthusiastically solicited and accepted lots of invitations to do book reviews and I published a ton of 'em. Then, some of my colleagues who were skeptical of my effort to build a professional reputation on the back of a ton of book reviews, suggested to me that someone who had not published a book had no business publishing book reviews. So, I published a book and then another and then another, etc.
These days, I find myself publishing fewer book reviews. For one thing, I started declining some of the offers to do reviews. Having published several books, I was less enthusiastic about skewering some poor bloke who had invested a lot of time and energy in a less than stellar project. For another, I found that I simply didn't even want to read some of the books I was being invited to review and I decided that, if I didn't want to read it, I had no business reviewing it.
So, I do less reviewing than I once did. I only review books whose subject is one in which I want to invest precious time. And, when I am critical of an author, it is with the experience of knowing full well how very difficult it is to do excellent work and knowing full well how often I have fallen short of the mark.


Derek Charles Catsam - 7/15/2004

I write reviews fairly quickly. But it seems to take an act of Pedro Martinez (if you don't get the allusion, you are not reading Rebunk. How's that for whoring myself out?) to get me to read many of the books i review. i am sitting on a stack of them now, with deadlines passed and passing. Maybe I need to learn to say no. See self assessment in parenthetical aside.
dc


Miriam Elizabeth Burstein - 7/15/2004

Of what variety? A full-length review generally takes me a few days to write--about 10 hours, as you say. The 190-word capsule reviews I do for Choice take about an hour + reading time, although I once spent a month desnarking such a review of a book I longed to throw into the path of an onrushing Mack truck.


Anne Zook - 7/15/2004

Those of us on the "non-professional" side of the scale take just about that much time, as well. :)


Manan Ahmed - 7/15/2004

I owe a book review from April. I do not appreciate my slackerhood shoved into my face first thing in the morning. At all.
As penance, I shall review Clinton's My Life.
Ok.. Maybe not.


Ralph E. Luker - 7/15/2004

Have I ever failed to produce a review of a book I was supposed to do? How many years ago was that? How long has it taken me to write that book review?


Jonathan Dresner - 7/15/2004

... it doesn't take me that long, it's just that I usually tackle it when my "will-to-work" is at its lowest ebb.

Read through the book twice (timing variable depending on the book), and then start writing. Actual writing time, about 10 hours of work, probably.

History News Network