Stop being an asshole (in academic book reviews)

When I was in graduate school, I spent three semesters in medieval historiography seminars in which the work was to weekly read a book, then write a book review, then distribute your book review and other published book reviews to the class. In this way we would educate each other about the foundational work in medieval history, create binders we could use to study for our comprehensive exams, and learn the specific forms of the genre of the book review.

The form we were taught, especially by one early medievalist notorious for his savage reviews, was to assess the book, summarize it, then write something negative, then conclude.

This mandatory “asshole paragraph,” as medievalist Karl Steel once called it, I would argue was always part of academic cruelty, the ways in which we train graduate students that you get “points” in academe by destroying others, by criticizing, by focusing on gaps. I’ve always thought it was the wrong way to engage books. All books are flawed, though some more than others, and there’s nothing wrong with writing a negative review of something that isn’t good! But the habit of throwing in little negative comments into the permanent record of a book needs to go.

Two recent examples, both from The Medieval Review, the online book review site that frequently publishes the first academic book reviews (because they don’t have to wait for print). I’ve stripped them from their context, both both are overwhelmingly positive reviews of important and seemingly excellent books.

Throughout her book, Elliott treats us to clear and elegant prose, and occasional humor. Referring to the scarcity of evidence for sodomy among Cluniac monks, for instance, she writes that apparently “what happened at Cluny, stayed at Cluny” (167). A few pages later, she refers to the Cluniac sodomite-monk Brother Jordan as “Peter Damian’s worst nightmare” (169). I found only one typographical error of substance: Richard Edmund is said to have been expelled from Merton College after Christmas 1492, but then said to have been still listed as a faculty member “a month and a half later” in February 1483, which should obviously be 1493 (209).

What is the point, I wonder, of snarking about typos in a published review? What benefit does it serve the reader, who is presumably reading the review looking to be informed about the book, its contributions, and certainly any important deficits, or places where more scholarship is needed. Many books answer some questions only to raise others for future works, and I always like reading reviews that point those out. But a typo? Who cares? What benefit does it serve the author other than to make them feel bad (if they, like me, are wracked by imposter syndrome and anguishes after every mistake I’ve made since 4th grade). One might send them a note in case there’s a reprint so they can correct that for future editions, though that’s rare in academic books, or even better, just let it go.

This one is worse:

When I was not wearing my weary, scholarly hat–and when I was not being appalled by the shoddy production: e.g. a bizarre note to self to check an epigram (417, n. 4), another similar note about “Alex Sarantis paper to Adriatic conference” (434, n. 21), a mis-identification of the author of The Humblest Sparrow: The Poetry of Venantius Fortunatus (443, n. 26; it should be M. Roberts, not M. Herren): really, Princeton, you’re getting to be as bad as Cambridge!–I enjoyed the read very much.  “

I don’t know the author of the review; perhaps they are very nice, but they come off as the worst kind of pompous arrogant asshole that academe can produce. What does “Princeton, you’re getting to be as bad as Cambridge,” do for the reader, other than function as a brag about the author’s insider status? What does this do for the author – and this one might get a second edition – other than shame her for typing “Herren” instead of “Roberts.”

This kind of thing needs to stop. And it can be stopped, immediately, by empowering book review editors to delete this kind of nonsense. Substantive criticisms matter. But you don’t need to prove you’re serious by saying something negative, no matter what I was taught in graduate school. And you do yourself, the reader, and the author, no favors by showing off how smugly nasty you can be.

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