Puff unto others

Felipe Fernández-Armesto deplores scholarly reviewing's tarnished golden rule

October 7, 2010

Alexander McCall Smith's new novel, The Charming Quirks of Others, opens with an academic dilemma. The editor of a learned journal receives a contributor's offer to review a friend's book. The editor cannot decide how to respond. She becomes paralysed by fear of succumbing to prejudice, because of her own history of professional antagonism with both author and self-proposed reviewer. She does nothing. The shadow of the imminent arrival of the review lengthens with the story.

Surely if such an offer were to land on a real editor's desk, there could be no dilemma. Reviewers should not, in normal circumstances, be allowed to nominate themselves, because the very act of self-nomination implies some improper agenda or prejudice. And it is obviously unacceptable for a reviewer to address the work of an avowed friend. Indeed, the occasion should never arise, because no self-respecting academic should have the temerity or bad manners to suggest such a thing. Even a corrupt professor would, one hopes, have the wit to conceal the friendship - just as, at another point in the same novel, a prospective reviewer conceals his enmity with the author of the book the editor sends him.

Yet we all know of real-life cases that resemble McCall Smith's fiction. Hard-pressed editors are often thankful for reviewers who propose themselves. Friends and enemies seem to have no compunction in accepting and even soliciting each other's work for review. Mutual felicitation whirls reviews into a spiral of adulatory inflation. I recall an occasion, some years ago, when I offended a colleague by congratulating him on an excellent review, which (unknown, it seems, only to me in Oxford) was written by his mistress.

A tarnished version of the golden rule can make us review others as we would be reviewed. Laudatory reviews, therefore, evoke disbelief. Readers assume that adverse reviews, too, are the products of some undeclared agenda, and that you can reckon the depth of a reviewer's animosity by the extent of the hostility. Contributors to "books of the year" columns scratch each other's backs, like reciprocally grooming baboons. On the web, pseudonymous authors praise their own work. Even in what is almost the last remaining haven of anonymity - the role of publisher's reader - reports are becoming ever more anodyne, ever less critical, because the readers fear that their identities will leak out. In consequence, bad books are published and good ones appear without improvements that would make them even better.

The effects of these trends are corrosive. Large amounts of atrocious work pile up in bookshops and libraries, adorned with delusive back-cover blurbs from pusillanimous puffers. The academic enterprise - our effort to enhance life by expanding knowledge, equipping judgements, and stimulating thought - is under threat not only from the targets we love to blame by default, such as bureaucratic insensitivity, pop values, demotic indifference, economic constraints and sheer dumbness, but also from our own bad habits. The pressure on young and untenured scholars is corrupting. Unless they flatter potential patrons, they fear for their careers. But they cannot easily refuse the chance of appearing in the review pages of widely read journals in pursuit of exposure and of another line to add to the CV.

Only self-restraint can exorcise this evil. I propose a charter as a remedy, embodying these promises:

• Never to respond to publishers' requests to nominate friends, former students or any potentially obligated person to write a puff or a review, and never to make such an approach directly

• Never to propose oneself as a reviewer

• Never to accept the work of a friend or foe or rival for review, or of anyone to whom one feels a potentially prejudicial sense of obligation or resentment, except in the case of a friendship so pure that it can withstand adverse criticism

• Never to write a puff that exaggerates the merits or conceals the defects of a book

• Never to act as a publisher's reader without including helpfully adverse criticisms and genuinely striving to make the book better

• Never to choose "books of the year" or suchlike without scrupulous examination of conscience, or evident irony

• Never to take a bad review or a critical reader's report personally.

If we all subscribed to these principles, the pursuit of truth would be unfettered. The quality of academic publishing would improve. Our lives would be happier. Academic writers have few pleasures to anticipate. Royalty cheques and fan mail are rare events that many of us never sample. So the satisfaction of a genuinely disinterested and positive review is precious, but one always fears - even among the minority of academics who are immune to paranoia - that colleagues will suspect generous reviewers of partiality. Equally, an adverse review ought to be a learning experience, but not if the stain of bad blood seems to lurk between the lines.

We cannot rely on publishers and editors to enforce high standards, for publishers have a vested interest in encouraging uncritical blurbs, and editors, like McCall Smith's heroine, have their own hang-ups and must fill their review pages. Self-serving reviewing is a contributors' vice. The buck stops with us.

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