Reviewing: the nastiness test
I am just on the way back from Columbus Ohio, where I’ve done two gigs. The first was at a great colloquium on Saturday organised by the graduate students in the Greek and Latin department at OSU. The theme was the “Future of the Ancient”, and I was booked to do the last lecture of the day.
Classicists find it terribly easy to feel embattled, and love nothing better than predicting their own imminent extinction (this gloom-mongering has gone on almost since the second century AD). So I decided to take a rather more upbeat line. It’s not a question of whether the study of the Greeks and Romans will survive, but of in what form … And I took the opportunity to have a little attack on two current favourites themes of avant-garde classicists (‘reception” and “interdisciplinarity”). I have done quite a lot of both of these, but it’s always useful to think how odd our intellectual fashions might look like from the outside (or, as I said, from a hundred years hence).
The second gig was today, just before I left. It was a ‘brown bag lunch” on the “politics of reviewing”. I kicked off for half an hour or so, talking about how Classics books get chosen to be reviewed in the TLS (a much less devious process than most people suspect), what the basic ground rules are and various bits of “good advice” in the fine old craft of reviewing.
Near the top of the list for me is “never say anything in a review that you wouldn’t say to the author’s face”. I don’t think any author minds disagreement. I mean if everyone agreed with what you said in a book, it couldn’t possibly be really interesting could it. What they mind is nastiness. I said this with some feeling, having just had what I considered an onslaught, rather than a review, from a colleague in California that certainly did not pass the ‘Beard nastiness test’!
That said, brown-nosing is no better than nastiness. If reviewing is part of the gate-keeping of “standards”, we don’t want any more people (and I can assure you there are more than you imagine) who say that they will only review a book if they can be favourable . . .
Then we had a good discussion. Someone asked exactly how you could be critical but not nasty in a review. I think the answer is to engage with the author’s arguments, then say why you disagree (I made a good friend that way once) – while avoiding adjectives like ‘simplistic’ and ‘nugatory’. I would also steer clear of phrases like “Beard appears not to be aware of . . .”. I quite often decide not to mention something in a book – because I don’t think it is worth mentioning. And it’s extremely irritating when some reviewer assumes I just don’t know about it.
We also talked about book blogs, about the ‘essay style’ of book reviews, about how to make money from books (errr …yes), and whether agents were good things. If you are about to sign a six-figure deal with Harper Collins, I’m sure they are. But I suspect that most of my academic friends have them as status symbols. The cost of being able to drop “my agent” into the conversation with colleagues every now and then is, of course, 10% of their modest book earnings.
The final question – which had me stumped, at least for a smart answer – was what makes a good start and end to a book review. So if anyone has any favourites, let us know.
Then it was straight to Columbus airport. And who, by complete coincidence and entirely unexpectedly, did I bump into there? A friend who is a hell of a lot more senior than I am in the world of literary journalism. If I stumbled a bit when I met her, it was because just an hour earlier I’d almost been talking about her.