Reviewing the reviews
People occasionally ask me if they should reply to some published review of their book which they think is wrong, unfair, unprofessional . . . or downright outrageous. I'm usually a bit ambivalent. The best advice to a friend always has to be "No, don't write an outraged letter of complaint to the editor, setting the record straight". The reason is simple, it will only draw attention to the offending review, which most people in the world will not have noticed anyway (who ever scrutinises a review as carefully as the author of the book concerned?). "If you must write, then make it witty, not hurt. But it's better to claim the highground in other ways, like inviting the reviewer to lunch to talk about it, all nice as pie..."
Yet wearing my more journalistic hat, I must confess that I do rather like to see a good dispute between the reviewed and the reviewer in the letters pages, with the battalions of supporters drawn up on either side. And there is a sense that if someone has said something simply wrong in a review, then they should be called to account.
The more general question that this raises, though, is what makes a "good" review from the point of view of the person being reviewed anyway -- as I've had a cause to reflect over the last few weeks with the reviews of my Confronting the Classics. All the more so, as it is a book that is actually grounded in a series of reviews.
(Fear not, this isn't going to turn into a gripe; overall I'm pretty damn happy.)
OK, it would be decidedly dishonest to say that the reviewee is not touched by lavish praise. I really have glowed a little when people have said in these recent reviews how much I've done to keep Classics alive, even though I think that my part has been no greater than many of my friends and colleagues. The support of Classics is very much a communal operation, and I do get perhaps more credit than I deserve ... which is I suppose, for worse or better, the power of telly.
But the bigger truth is that most people want their book to have been read with attention and care, whether the reviewer agrees with it or not. Years ago I became great friends with someone whose book I had reviewed pretty critically; I still remember her explaining that she was delighted to have had someone really engage with the arguments -- which meant much more to her than agreement or praise.
So I was actually very pleased when Edith Hall in the Times said lots of nice things, but also took me to task for writing this (re E. Fraenkel):
"On the one hand, it is impossible to not to feel outrage at a straightforward case of persistent sexual harrassment and the abuse of (male) power. On the other, if we're honest, it is also hard to repress a bit of wistful nostalgia for that academic era . . before the erotic dimension of pedagogy . . . was firmly stamped on".
These words have been much debated, both criticised and praised, profitably and unprofitably. I really dont want to re-open all the issues here, except to say that Hall was absolutely right, in attacking the use of the hegemonic first person plural ("if we're honest"). It really ought to say "if I'm honest" -- as I'm very happy to concede, and aim to change if there is ever a new edition. You can read a version of the Hall review on her blog.
The other interesting issue is the role of reprinted reviews and essays (or perhaps better "review-essays") between hard covers. I have a vested interest in this, in more ways than one. But I really do believe that some of the most interesting contributions to classical and other debates still come in the form of substantial discussions (sometimes 3500+ words) in the mainline literary journals (TLS, LRB, NYRB); that these should not be thought of as "ephemeral"; and that they do (when collected together) become more than the sum of their parts. Indeed I think that Confronting does give a good glimpse of where Classics is at now, as well as making a neat introduction to the ancient world for the interested "outsider".
I can also see that one could reasonably take another view, and it's all very worthwhile discussing. The only time I got a bit cross was when one reviewer said that most of these pieces were available free online in a very similar form. Hang on, I thought... apart from a few "loss leaders", they're only freely available if you're already a subscriber to the TLS, LRB, and NYRB. And that can't include more than a handful of literary obsessives . . .
But whoops, am I contravening my own friendly advice here?