Sunday, July 19, 2009

In Which I Struggle with Writing a Book Review

So as you know, I've agreed to write a review of a book for a journal in my specialization. I agreed because my first thought was, upon seeing the title, "Hey, I'd like to read that book!" and "Hey, I'm fancy and they want me to review this book!" and finally, "Hey, when you write book reviews you get the book you're reviewing for free!" In other words, I didn't think all too carefully about the consequences of taking on this assignment.

The fact is, it didn't actually occur to me that I could hate the book with a fiery, burning passion. And it also didn't occur to me that the person would make a Huge Error of Fact about a novel on which I am, modestly, an expert. When I say Huge Error of Fact, I mean that the author says that a portion of a novel is about tomatoes when it's actually about sweetbreads. I'm not talking about a misinterpretation here - I'm talking about saying the content - the actual plot - is about one thing when it's really about something entirely different. There is no way that I can write this review without mentioning this Huge Error of Fact. (Can I just note that this Error of Fact is so eggregious that it made me question whether I was just on crack and had never read the novel properly? Note, this is a novel that I have taught multiple times, and it's a novel on which I've presented countless conference papers and published a couple of articles. I actually went back to the novel to make sure that I knew what I was talking about, so astonished was I that something like this could make its way into print. And with a quite good scholarly press, too.)

Now, you might be asking why I'm agonizing about this. Why I'd even consider not wanting to mention the Huge Error of Fact. Well, it's because I need to think about how I will be viewed in relation to this review that I write. I can't write the scathing review that I really want to write because that would amount to Burning Bridges and make me look ungenerous and mean-spirited. That's not good for a lady whose own first book is likely out in the world being reviewed as we speak. That could lead to bad things for me. On the other hand, I also can't fail to mention the Huge Error in Fact because I am a modest expert on this novel and if I left out this Major Criticism anybody who read my review and who then read the book and who is also familiar with the novel about which this Wrong Assertion Was Made would also think negatively about me as a scholar. In other words, I'm damned if I do, but also damned if I don't.

On the one hand, as I think about this issue, this Error is Huge, but on the other hand it is also a tiny, passing error. Nothing that should have made it through the peer review process, surely, but it does not damn the entire project, or even the entire chapter of which it is a part. The problem is that once I include this criticism, it colors the entire review. As much as I'm trying to find the good in this craptacular book, no amount of good outweighs the fact that this author published a book and got the plot of a freaking novel wrong. I can easily stop my urges to write about the irritating writing style, to wax poetic about the sloppy theorizing, to bemoan the failure to engage with scholarly conversation. I mean, that wasn't this person's project, and as much as I might expect that it would be, I can get over those things. But the moment I write about the Thing I Cannot Get Over or Ignore, the entire review turns into a scathing critique. I've thought about where I should place this Thing, thinking that maybe burying it in the middle will help, but I really don't think that it does. I mean, it's embarrassing. I'm embarrassed for the author, and I'm embarrassed at having to point this out.

I've considered renegging on my agreement to review the book, but I'm not going to do that. I feel like solving this problem is a learning experience, and I don't want to be the person who backs out of doing something that she's agreed to do. Also, I hate the idea that I should be worried about writing honestly about another scholar's work in an effort to cover my own ass. I acknowledge that one needs to cover one's own ass in this profession, but I also believe strongly in scholarly conversation, and I cannot get past the fact that there is no point in book reviews if people don't review books honestly, or only review those books that they adore. If the point is the conversation, and if book reviews are part of that conversation, then the goal should be to provide a generous and yet rigorous reading of the book under review. And if I believe that, and I do, I've got to find a way to do that for this monograph.

I suppose the issue is this: I would die if somebody pointed out a Huge Error of Fact in my own monograph. DIE. And yet, I would also hate it if people didn't review my book honestly. And thus, my dilemma as a reviewer. Ah well. Back to it.


Sisyphus said...

Oooh, now I'm totally wondering what the Huge Error of Fact would be ---- is it like saying Romeo and Juliet live at the end of the play? Or more like mixing up Hermia and Helena in Midsummer Night's Dream?

Dr. Crazy said...

It's like saying that Orlando's poem about the tree is really a poem about when he was an ambassador to turkey. In other words, right genre, right thing about the character writing something semi-autobiographical, but totally wrong biographical detail. And since I'm the president of the society of the author of the novel, I really can't just overlook it.

Brian said...

Can you describe the error in passing with the word "strange" while you discuss the broader themes of the chapter in which it is found?

kermitthefrog said...

I do like Brian's idea: "Grave Error of Fact can't help but detract from argument Y, for Z reason..."

Or I've seen similar comments in reviews I've read brought up in a short paragraph at the end--I remember once the complaint of sloppy editing appeared like that. Hope you find a work-around!

Dr. Crazy said...

I'm doing a version of what you describe, but let me tell you, if it were me? I'd totally still die.

Artistic Soul said...

I find that more often than not, when I do these reviews, those are the things that authors don't WANT to hear, but they NEED to hear. And editors actually prefer you to point it out now -- that's part of the process. Better to point it out now than have someone point it out after the book is in print and it could damage the returns...because really, they need it to make some amount of money.

When I have issues like this in reviews, I like to couch these things in terms of, "While several areas of the field are open to interpretation and I am certainly not an expert on all of them, these are the arguments I find troubling for X, Y, Z reason. The author is certainly free to retain their original argument if s/he can address these concerns." You know, give them the ability to keep it if they think it's important to their argument, but insist that they provide MUCH more justification. I'll often say things like, "I appreciate the creativity of the reading, but as someone familiar with scholars in this field, these are the things that are going to be the biggest problems once the book hits print -- so hopefully my comments can help you strengthen the argument to contribute to the larger discourse in this area." Or something like that. :o)

Good luck!

Digger said...

I get the impression the book is already in print, or printed and nigh-to-being-distributed. Yikes for yourself and the author. If I was the author, I'd mightily wish someone had caught it earlier. As an expert, you kind of really do need to point it out.

How relevant is The Error to the rest of the book? Do large important arguments hinge on it?

"Despite the author's misreading..." or "Despite the strange interpretation of X, the author makes several valuable observations about Y. These include A B and C." Or, "While the confusion of X for Y by the author must be noted, this doesn't negate their larger arguments about A or B. [discuss A or B]".

Translation: "Yes, I noticed it. No, I'm not going there. See between the lines."