Books editor’s blog: Hatchet down, thinking cap on. Now let’s review

Matthew Reisz on the guiding principles that help to make a good book review

March 28, 2019
Illustration of man reading
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What makes a good book review? Since I am always keen for more academics to put themselves forward as writers for my pages, I thought I’d try to set out some of things that I keep in mind.

The most stimulating reviews obviously tend to come from people who are knowledgeable about a text’s topic, though not necessarily real specialists in the minutiae, and also broadly sympathetic with the author’s aims. If someone wants to write an opinion piece saying that opera is ridiculous or that psychoanalysis (or natural theology or Marxist economics) is complete rubbish, that is fine by me. But that is hardly a fair or interesting response to a specific book on opera or psychoanalysis because it offers merely a generalised polemic instead of an engagement with a particular argument.

Hatchet jobs may well be entertaining to readers, but they often feel laboured, one-sided or gratuitously cruel – and discredit the reviewer more than the book. So my general rule is to avoid giving a book out to review to someone who I know in advance will reject it out of hand. (Sometimes, of course, he or she will conclude that a book is a real stinker once they start reading it.)

But what about the opposite problem? I can easily call to mind books that deal with important subjects in ways that I agree with yet are, in essence, pointless, in the sense that they are saying something that has been said a thousand times before. The question is how one should review such books. Should one praise them because one approves of the author’s intentions (and perhaps because they give one a warm feeling inside) or take the stern line that there’s really not much to be said for a book that is true but in no way new?

I can and do make efforts to ensure that people aren’t reviewing books by friends (or by other people they would feel inhibited about criticising). I can’t do much about the kind of academic tribalism that leads reviewers to be over-generous about mediocre books that they think are “on the right side”. Nonetheless, I am not very keen on it.

This is a particular issue in these very polarised times. Many of the books that arrive on my desk seem to be largely cries of despair about right-wing populism, Trump, Brexit, fake news, social media, climate change and so on. I certainly applaud the writers’ motives and desire to do something. But, as a potential purchaser, I am much less interested in whether a book takes “the right line” about Trump or Brexit than in whether it tells me something new and important that I need to know. It is surely the role of the reviewer to point us towards the really valuable books and steer us away from the merely worthy.

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