I’ve recently been asked to write a few book reviews. At first I thought I should keep myself honest by following the Guidelines for Charitable Reviewing set out here a few days ago. Then friends pointed out that those guidelines are absurd. For one thing, ideal conditions (A) and (B) could not be met unless reviews were done by amateurs. And if the negative maxims were followed, reviews would be boring.
So here are new guidelines for reviewing in the real world:
Dikaiosis’ Guidelines for Writing Scholarly Reviews
I. Positive standards
1. Guiding disposition: indulgence toward readers and yourself. Presume that most readers of scholarly reviews and books already have too much to read. Since you also have too much to read, and far more important things to write, you have a common interest in keeping things as undemanding as possible. A review that makes you work too hard will also be a slog for readers.
2. Guiding purpose: to promote one’s reputation and career. Readers should be impressed by your command of the subject at hand. So do whatever it takes to convey arch mastery, however ignorant you may feel about some aspects of a book. As for authors, a book that challenges arguments you’ve published should not be treated charitably. One must presume that the author of such a book is also concerned above all with their reputation and career. The relation between reviewer and reviewee is thus inherently polemical. Reviewing affords the perfect opportunity to defend and promote your own work, if needed by dismissing rivals’ work.
II. Positive maxims: things to do to gratify your readers
1. Don’t shy away from dogmatic assertions of right and wrong. Even if you secretly believe that most issues – including details you claim are brute facts – are debatable, readers don’t want to hear this. They want reviews to tell them what to think about books they haven’t read, not inspire them to read and evaluate the books for themselves. They’re more likely to admire your expertise if you assert that some things are self-evident, just so, etc. and that the book you’re reviewing is blind to these realities.
2. Opt for shortcuts, such as assertions about the content of the whole book based only on the Introduction and Conclusion. In these days of academic hyperactivity, readers can’t be expected to read an entire review book. So if you claim that arguments merely sketched at the start or summarised at the end constitute the book’s fleshed-out arguments, then criticise a book on this basis, most readers won’t realise that you haven’t bothered to read the rest.
3. Offer a few sweeping negative assertions about the quality of the book’s arguments, even if you have too little space to give proper examples. After all, reviews have to be selective. Better cut some sharp, hard-hitting swathes than to try so hard to be fair that you end up being dull. In courts of law, evidence produced to back judgements should meet reasonable standards of evidence-ness. Readers of scholarly reviews have no time for such things. A single, randomly chosen example followed by claims that “this exemplifies” or “illustrates” grave defects in the whole book should be enough to support incriminating verdicts. (We were told there was evidence of WMD in Iraq. Similar evidence of badness in books is offered daily by reviewers.)
4. Have no qualms about misrepresenting arguments, or making them appear worse than they are.
5. When going for the jugular, mask your ill-humour with cute witticisms. When throwing around ill-founded criticisms, ingratiate yourself to readers with jokes or light, non-scholarly references. This creates the impression that you’re so confident about your mastery of the subject that you can afford to sound nervous or infantile.
6. Smuggle in ad hominem insinuations about the author’s ethnicity, sex, etc. Some reviewers worry that this Cheap Shot tactic might make them look bad, even jeopardise their career. It might create the impression that you don’t think some categories of people have equal rights to engage in certain kinds of scholarship. Or it might insult readers’ intelligence, suggesting that you expect crude prejudices to sway their judgement. But there are ways to disguise such remarks so cunningly that the insinuating codewords can’t get you into trouble. A colleague has assembled a fine collection of examples from recent reviews (“How to get around the Tyrannies of Political Correctness without getting Fired”). Best reserve insinuations for the end of a review. If effective use of strategies 1-5 has already endeared you to readers, they’re less likely to take offense at anything you say in closing.
7. Don’t worry if you have trouble spelling the author’s name correctly or consistently. Far from convicting you of ineptitude, readers will think that this is a clever tactic aimed at undermining their respect for the author by inadvertently betraying your own contempt.