Dikaiosis’ Guidelines for Charitable scholarly reviews

I’ve recently been asked to write a few book reviews. While I agreed to do some, I did so with trepidation. One’s chances of writing fair, balanced reviews are best when two conditions hold:

(A) When the reviewer doesn’t personally know the author, or influential people who are trying to support or undermine the author, or have any pre-history of good/bad reviewing with the aforementioned.

(B) When the reviewer isn’t heavily invested in any particular take on the subject, i.e. hasn’t written a book on it and isn’t in the process of writing one.

When condition (A) isn’t met, there’s often a whiff of cronyism or mentorism if a review is positive. If it’s negative, one can’t help smelling the influence of personal-or-power political rivalries. The reason for condition (B) is that there’s a fair chance a new book will challenge (or ignore) key arguments made in reviewers’ earlier book(s). If the usual response were sweet-natured, reasoned disagreement, the review process might promote scholarly debate. Unfortunately, most writers of books are prickly and defensive about their products. Some are also ferociously territorial. When a challenging new book intrudes into what they want to claim as their own safe turf, their instinct is not to enjoy the challenge and engage constructively, but to shut down discussion by whatever means can be devised.

I fail to meet these ideal conditions for the books I’ve agreed to review. While (A) I have no personal relationship with authors or their mates, in some cases we do have a prehistory – not an altogether happy one – of mutual reviewing and refereeing. Some of them, that is, have penned mixed or somewhat peevish reviews of my work, or I have of theirs. And to varying degrees I am (B) invested in the subjects. I plead as guilty as any author to being prickly and defensive about some kinds of challenge. I hope I am not, and never become, territorial. To keep myself honest, I hereby lay down some guidelines for reviewing books. May I get my comeuppance if I violate them.

Dikaiosis’ Guidelines for Writing Reviews of Scholarly Books

I. Positive standards

1. Guiding disposition: charity. Presume that any author who’s taken the trouble to write a book must care about the subject, not only about his-or-her reputation and career. Since you also (presumably) care about the subject, you have a common interest in having thoughtful, open-minded discussions about it.

2. Guiding purpose: to preserve and promote debate. Of course you care most about your own take on the subject, and want to show why more people should endorse it. But transparent, non-dogmatic reasoning (guided by the maxims sketched below) is the correct scholarly way to go about this. It’s an exchange, not a competition; a friendly conversation among different minds with different views, not a war where one view has to drive all challengers off the field.

II. Negative maxims: things to avoid in the interests of debate

1. Dogmatic assertions of right and wrong. Most issues – including many details that reviewers claim are brute facts – are actually debatable. Good scholarship acknowledges this and doesn’t claim that anything is self-evident, i.e. immune to further critical examination by other scholars.

2. Unfair shortcuts, such as assertions about the content of the whole book based only on the Introduction and Conclusion. In these days of academic hyperactivity, few reviewers take time carefully to read an entire review book. But if you claim that arguments merely sketched at the start or summarised at the end constitute the book’s fleshed out, substantive arguments, and then criticise a book on this basis, it creates the impression that you haven’t bothered to read the rest.

3. Sweeping negative assertions about the overall quality of the book’s arguments, without clear or sufficient examples. Since reviews have to be selective, they tend to encourage broad-brushed, poorly founded judgements. Better err on the side of caution than overstate your critical case. Evidence produced to back broad judgements should meet reasonable standards of evidence-ness. A single, arbitrarily chosen example followed by claims that “this exemplifies” or “illustrates” grave defects in the whole book may not constitute evidence sufficient to back such incriminating verdicts. (We were told there was evidence of WMD in Iraq. Uncharitable reviewers often make similar dubious claims about “evidence” of badness in books.)

4. Take care not to misrepresent arguments, making them appear worse than they are. If anything, bend over backwards to make them appear better. Then when you evaluate them critically, you won’t seem uncharitable and defensive.

5. Avoid cuteness and attempts to mingle poorly-supported criticisms with jokes or light, non-scholarly references. This makes a reviewer appear smug or nervous – either about the critical tone s/he has adopted, or about the challenge posed by the book.

6. Avoid ad hominem insinuations about the author’s ethnicity, sex, etc. Some reviewers seem to think they’ve disguised these so cunningly that the insinuating codewords can’t get them into trouble. Nevertheless, this Cheap Shot tactic is bad for debate. It also makes you look bad. It creates the impression that you don’t think certain categories of people have equal rights to engage in certain kinds of scholarship, or to be judged by the same standards as the rest. And it insults readers’ intelligence, suggesting that you expect crude prejudices to sway their judgement.

7. Take care to spell the author’s name correctly and consistently. If you don’t, readers might suspect that your assertions regarding an author’s imprecise scholarship, inattention to detail, etc. are a matter of pot-calling-kettle.

If I’ve forgotten anything, let me know.

*PS: If you found these Guidelines unconvincing, see my related post “(Machiavellian) Guidelines” &c.

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