Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The art of writing negative book reviews

 A couple of years ago, I asked whether Paul Foster's review of Bartosz Adamczewski's Q or Not Q? might qualify as The most negative book review in our area?, having mentioned Peterson's review of Shedinger as another contender.  I am grateful to kolhaadam (in comments) for drawing attention to this one, just out in the Review of Biblical Literature, by Gregory Mobley, of a book by Marty Alan Michelson on Reconciling Violence and Kingship: A Study of Judges and 1 Samuel.  From the review:
I took no pleasure in reading this book, nor do I take any in cataloguing its flaws. The title itself with its initial, indecisive participle hamstrings progress toward coherence . . . . The publication history page, with its reference to the “british Library” damages the credibility before we even reach page i . . .
. . . . Who is to blame for what constitutes the most poorly written work of published “scholarship” I have ever read? . . .
. . . . Unfortunately, I cannot recommend this book to anyone. Neither its ideas nor its writing meet any standard I recognize for publishable biblical scholarship.
So he's not mincing his words, then.  I must admit that I did enjoy this turn of phrase:
Nowhere does Michelson acknowledge that it served monarchic interests writing “after” to exaggerate the evils of the time “before,” in the same way that weightloss advertisements contrast images of slouching corpulence with svelte elegance.
It's interesting to ask how far it is worthwhile to write a really, really negative book review.  My general policy has been to turn down the invitation to write reviews of books that I think very bad.  I tend to think that there comes a point where it is better for a book not to be reviewed at all than for it to be reviewed really negatively.  I suppose I worry too much about what the author's mum might think if she were to see the negative review.  Perhaps negative reviews do have a part to play, though, in alerting publishers to material that has made it through their processes, or to alerting doctoral dissertation committees of radically dissenting opinions about the worth of the project.

14 comments:

Joshua Paul Smith said...

When I began reviewing books for lit journals during my undergrad, I was taught to follow the colloquial advice: "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." It's been a guiding principle for all of my book reviews since.

Joshua Paul Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ken Olson said...

I so wish there were a "like" button for Joshua Paul Smith's second comment.

Anna said...

"Indecisive participle"? That was unnecessarily harsh, given that the progressive participle doesn't indicate indecisiveness, but rather ongoing or incomplete action. If you're going to critique a book,complaining about the title at the beginning just suggests that your dislike of the book will colour even the positive aspects. To me, this would say that I can't trust that the reviewer is even attempting to be unbiased.

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

Yeah, attacking a stylistic choice like that, doesn't help the reviewer look good.

Isn't there something about every reviewer wanting to be Kingsley Amis or summat? (Not that I've read him.)

Related: What is the most negative foot-/endnote you've seen in a scholarly work?

I don't have any at hand, but I recall Richard Pervo as being somewhat scathing of Ben Witherington, III (indexed under "III" in Joel Watts' book, amusingly).

I'm reading Michael Peppard at the moment (A+, would read again!), and he had to politely write that he simply didn't understand what a commentator was trying to say.

Joe Weaks said...

You gave a [fitting] poor review of Z. Crook's Synopsis orally. I wonder if it seems more productive in a seminar environment, since you can offer nuanced contextualization, and follow-up with clarification.

jamesdowden said...

I'm inclined to agree with Anna, much though I am glad someone had a go in a review at that pretentious and unimaginative way of titling a book, "Participling Something-or-Other: A Vacuous Subtitle".

I thought Sven Petry's recent review (RBL 05/13) of Tracy McKenzie's "Idolatry in the Pentateuch" (I'll leave out the unbelievably icky subtitle) was a good example of staying just the right side of the niceness line, whilst still recommending that no-one read the book.

Fernando said...

I'm a book review editor (not in Biblical studies). My policy is that running a bad review is only interesting if the badness is itself interesting, i.e., if the book goes wrong in a way that is worth examining and commenting on. Picking on typos such as "british" really shows only a predisposition to find fault.

But the worst sinners are the reviewers whose reviews boil down to "how dare you disagree with me?" or, even worse, "the author ignored my work!"

ROO BOOKAROO said...

I do think that negative reviews have a major role to play. Good writers have never been shy about expressing their negative reactions to what they thought was inferior writing or thinking. Negative reviews are most important, they permit full play to critical thinking.

But a nuanced system of gradations,such as the star system adopted by Amazon makes a lot of sense. There are degrees in approbation and rejection, and selecting a level from 1 to 5, or 1 to 10, is an excellent idea.
In fact negative reviews, if reasonable and grounded, are extremely valuable. Often they reveal much more of the intrinsic interest of the book than the sycophantic 5-star reviews.
Note that the Amazon system does not allow for a 0 rating, hence a minimum of acceptance or magnanimity is required of the reviewer.

Brian Small said...

What do you do when you get a free book to review, not knowing it was going to be bad and then when you read it, you discover it is awful? What do you do then? Do you not submit the review?

Tim Bulkeley said...

Bad reviews sometimes say much about the reviewer, not always complimentary. I volunteered to read (aloud for Librivox) a review by Oscar Wilde, it was a horrid experience, though Wilde was brilliant and so funny he was also cruel. My opinion of Wilde dropped and my opinion or the authors he reviewed did not change. I think something similar is happening in this case. I did not feel confident that the reviewer was right to dismiss the work so comprehensively, but I was not impressed by their tone, I am not likely to seek out their work as a result of seeing the review...

Light Bearer said...

fernando makes a very good point, the worst reviews are those that appear from an egocentric perspective.

and certainly do not assist anyone in making balanced judgements on the subject

Sean said...

Have you seen John Elliott's Book Review: Abuse, Power and Fearful Obedience. Reconsidering 1 Peter's Commands to Wives in Biblical Theology Bulletin: Journal of Bible and Culture 2013 43-47? It is brutal.

Richard Anderson said...

Bartosz Adamczewski has published a number of the books in the past several years on the synoptic problem. He has drawn a particularly nasty review from Paul Foster since he has apparently threatened to turn the theological world upside down. Without reading the books but glancing at two of them online, I realize that whole arguments are incorporated by reference from one or more of his previous writings. I tripped across Adamczewski looking for writings setting forth the direction of the dependency and found his seven guidelines. Adamczewski finds fault with everything written on the subject because each of the particular questioned writings failed one or more of his directional guidelines being published for the first time by Adamczewski. Not one of the guidelines has apparently been recognized by any other scholar.

Adamczewski's sin is not stated by Foster but I suspect he demolishes Q and also destroys the Historical Jesus lobby. Earlier in time, he would be labeled a heretic.

Unfortunately if the right scholar issues his devastating review, the book will thereafter be ignored by reputable scholars. Such was the fate of Stoldt.

Earlier this year, one member of the Jerusalem School scholars posed his own set of guidelines which made sense but all of them are probably reversible because none rely on dateable data, that is, data which may date the pericope in question at point of time or establishes the fact that the pericope is later than the event.

I hope that more scholars will focus on the direction of the dependency because without such an analytical tool further progress in solving the synoptic problem is unlikely.

Richard H. Anderson