Sunday, July 12, 2009

Saying What You Mean without Really Saying It

So I find myself in the position, currently, in two very different situations, in which I need to communicate a particular point of view in such a way that I don't come out and say it point-blank. This is not my strong suit. I'm a pretty direct person, sometimes to my detriment. I'm not much of one for beating around the bush, nor do I particularly like it when people beat around the bush with me. But after some huge missteps during my teens and 20s, I think I've become slightly better at recognizing at least some of the time when I shouldn't just blurt out exactly the thoughts that are in my head.

Situation #1: I'm currently reading a book for which I will need to write a review for Crazy's Specialization Studies. I'm actually pretty excited about this task, as the editor contacted me about the review without me ever having offered my book-reviewing services. As an aside, I've been plowing through the book because, it seems, after years of plowing through academic books and articles, I don't know how to make my way through one at a leisurely pace. This means I have just 1 1/2 chapters left to read, after only having received the book on Thursday and even though my parents were in town this weekend. So here's the thing. I hate the book. Hate. It. But you can't just write a review in which you hate on a book. That's not cool. It's not useful to readers of the review, nor is it necessarily good for one's own as yet not terribly fancy professional stature. Now, I've not done much review writing in my career thus far - just two previous to this, both of which appeared in tiny venues. One book I really enjoyed; one book I felt somewhat mixed about although I did find it incredibly interesting and ultimately useful. (The mixed feeling just had to do with the fact that the style of the book doesn't really fit with the kind of scholarship that I myself do - it didn't have to do with the quality of the book.) This current book I'm reading, though, well, I have some fundamental problems with it. I cannot, however, just say, "don't read this book, for it is boring and stupid." First of all, it occurs to me that not everybody in the whole world would agree that it is boring and stupid. Second, I really want to be fair to the book, even though good reviews to my mind aren't "objective" per se. And so I find myself as I'm reading on the one hand giving myself free reign in my marginalia to write really mean things but on the other hand annotating the book toward the review itself, using language that is more measured and that really engages with this book that I hate (something, incidentally, that the book itself does not do with things it really hates). This is an interesting process, as it's not the way that I read when I'm using a book for my own research. I also wonder how much of my negative feelings about this book come from the fact that it's only the second time I've witnessed my own work cited in a scholarly book and yet the person basically treats my work like shit (though admittedly does put me in the company of people whose work I deeply admire, treating those people like shit, too, so that's sort of awesome). At any rate, I don't want to let that influence the ultimate review that I write to the extent that it calls my authority as a reviewer into question. So, as I read and annotate and think, I find myself in a position where I want to be true to my interpretation of the book while at the same time exercising more... subtlety... than it is my first impulse to do. I find myself trying to say what I mean without coming right out and saying it. This is an interesting exercise.

Situation #2: This one involves negotiating university politics. See, I'm on this committee that has the potential to become a festival of contentiousness. The last time a committee such as this convened, like 15 years ago, it generated all sorts of bad will. There are people who served that last time who still don't speak to one another. For real. The first tasks of this committee involve responding to some questions in writing, and I find myself measuring my words carefully, and presenting my position with what I hope is more diplomacy than I actually feel. To be honest, I feel like one of my responses in particular borrows a lot from Dolores Umbridge's initial speech at Hogwarts when she is hired as the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, and that is very strange and a little bit troubling, to see oneself as like Umbridge. At the same time, I did avoid reaming somebody out for refering to students as our "clientele," so I suppose that is a victory (albeit a small one).

Whatever the case, these two very different situations are both forcing me to be careful with my words, to think about how to say what I mean without actually coming out and saying what I mean. This obfuscation does not feel comfortable to me, but perhaps it's a good skill to practice. In both cases, I'm thinking it's better both for my ultimate goals as well as for me personally to refrain from just putting it all out there. We'll see, however, whether my attempts will actually work. Because see, this is not my nature. And I really want to say exactly what I mean instead of beating around the bush.

8 comments:

Kate said...

There's a law to book reviewing, which is that if one says what one *really thinks*, one's action will come back to haunt one. Badly. One will meet the author on an embarrassing occasion, with people one really likes present. Or whatever. So... my tactic...

spend much of the review (I sincerely hope it's not too long a one) summarizing what's there. Your (academic) fellow-travelers will be able to read Precisely Between the Lines. Then move to saying something like "scholars who take x line will find much to admire/much of interest/some food for thought" - etc - in this text (thereby implicitly, and again to those who know you, situating yourself against this position). And then finally, try something like "For my part, I wish that..." there had been more of y, or less of z, and that the author had discussed q. Leave yourself and your work out of it - the real pleasure will lie in the author opening the journal in question and thinking OH NO, OH SHIT, DR CRAZY HAS REVIEWED MY BOOK! And s/he will be able to read between ALL the lines, but you will have got away with being intellectually honest without coming across as a venemous witch.

Hope it works!

Susan said...

Kate said just what I would have said. If you have 1000 words, spend 750 outlining the book and what it does. Then you can point out that this does help explain X (that didn't need explaining) but leaves out Y. You can say "Author dismisses the work of FAMOUS SCHOLARS WHO AGREE WITH CRAZY, which is unfortunate because this would have allowed author to better explain whatever"

The kiss of death is to call a book something like "methododical", or "careful", leaving out terms like "interesting" or "important".

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for the words of wisdom, Kate and Susan. This is pretty much the approach I intend, and I'm sure it will be fine. I will say, however, I at no point plan to use the words "methodical" or "careful" in reviewing this book, for it is decidedly neither. The words I'll be avoiding are "sloppy," "reckless," and "inadequately researched." No, I'm not kidding.

Susan said...

I have used "It is unfortunately that the press has not been more careful about proofreading"...

fatedplace said...

Having read ~300 book reviews for my comprehensive exams this past year I can say that a generic, lukewarm, and noncommittal conclusion often appears to be the substitute for authors that do not wish to air their hate in public. When I read a review that has little to say other than "here's what this book says it is about", then I think to myself "this reviewer didn't see any merits worth pointing out." It seems to be a game where if you don't explicitly praise the work (or identify its merits and interesting ideas) then you are likely disappointed with it (or worse).

Does your hatred come from serious methodological or other critiques. I mean, sure, you don't like to see your own work trashed (even if it is in good company), but are there other serious defects? If this is the case you might consider presenting your hatred as the problems that certain kinds of people would have with the text. Author says X, but those who do Y argue that X is weaker than Z. Cheap, but it takes the heat off of you. In this respect I definitely agree with what Kate and Susan have said above. Inadequately researched, however, is a serious problem. It's probably one that a good review of the work cannot avoid. Do you know the authors that would fill the lacuna? That's serious ammo right there.

Ann said...

What everybody else said. And I can personally attest to the fact that the law of book reviewing Kate mentions came true for me. (I still stand by that book review, although I would have written it differently if I had it to do over again. . . )

Something else you need to consider is that your book has recently been published, so you want to avoid any suspicion that you're axe-grinding or trying to fluff your book. When my book came out a few years ago, I turned down an opportunity to review another book that dealt with some of the same things that mine deals with, because if I couln't give the book a rave review, at all costs I wanted to avoid the suspicion that I was attacking a "competitor." It's too late for you to say "no" to the review, so you'll have to proceed gently.

In the end, I think that makes you look more self-assured and intellectually confident. Summarize, explain very clearly what's there and what (to its detriment) isn't there, and call it a day.

Historiann.com

Doctor Pion said...

Heh heh.

I can only imagine using "progress for the sake of progress must be discouraged. Let us preserve what must be preserved, perfect what can be perfected and prune practices that ought to be... prohibited!" as the mission statement for a major college committee.

Dr. Crazy said...

Dr. P - Ok, I didn't write just that, but it is SO CLOSE to that. Whatever the case, what I said was politic on the surface, and this was key. Anybody with a brain, however, knows exactly where I stand. The question is, how many Hermiones and Professor McGonnagals are on the committee?