Who should review what book?
I am an inveterate reader "below the line" on newspaper websites -- especially "below the line" under anything I have written. I know that sensible people always say "dont read what people say online about your articles . . . there's too much venom and madness, better not to know". Maybe I'm just too curious. But I cant help WANTING to know what people bother to post in reaction to what I've written. .
And I often can't resist replying, if only to put the record straight. Last week I had a review in the Guardian of Jay Griffiths's book Kith -- a "popular", and frankly slightly eccentric, book about how we have come to over-protect our kids. The book was launched from the 2007 UNICEF survey which rated the happiness of UK kids as about the lowest of the developed world. Actually the latest survey a couple ofweek ago suggested that the UK was now doing a bit better.
One below-the-line commenter wondered why I hadnt mentioned that. Fair point.
The fact was that I had written the review weeks before the second report came out; and I belatedly tried to add a sentence to reflect that, but it didnt meet the cut.
But the next thing I noticed below-the-line was a slightly angry comment about why I -- a professor of Classics -- was reviewing a book about kids and childcare. What knowledge and expertises did I have?
My instant reaction was to say.. err, hang on, I did a long while ago write a book about childcare.
That was the wrong response I think. I should have said that popular books about how we bring up kids should be judged by those with time to think about the claims -- and not necessarily, or only, by those with professional expertise in child-rearing. Most parents -- and indeed non parents -- have a useful input on the question of how we bring up the young; and most reasonably smart people can look at the logic of an argument and see where it doesn't work. Whether we have written a book on childcare is neither here nor there.
It reminds me of what I learned in my first few months at the TLS, donkeys years ago. That is, dont send the book by one of the the two world experts on Valerius Flaccus to the other world expert. The chances are that you will get a minute argument about some cruces in the poetry, but you wont engage most people in the rest of the world.
So should any old amateur have their say? Surely not. But the bottom line is that you do want a smart reviewer who will know when they are being spun crap, and will say so. And a lot of that is about logic, not specialist expertise.
With my editorial hat, I'm looking for reviewers who will use their head fearlessly to dissect the argument.
And the truth is that you worry more about the reviewer having the wool pulled over their eyes than that they will be needlessly nasty. So it was with Robert Hughes' book on Rome: an excellent author, and well reviewed by many, but only spotted by a few.
The bottom line is that reviewers should be efficient gate-keepers, whether they actually LIKE the book or not,