A Step Too Far

It’s always understandable when an author does not react well to a negative review of one’s work. After all the time and labor one has put into writing a book, it smarts when someone finds that the result isn’t as good as one had hoped. Moreover, a number of positive reviews does not numb the sting left by a negative review, especially when it concerns one’s first book. Over time, one can develop a thicker skin and a more philosophical approach to reviews of one’s work, but to ask that someone not react is to suggest that they should not be human.

That said, as I’ve suggested, it usually is not wise to respond immediately to criticism of one’s work. Responses composed in emotional heat rarely work out well (that observation is not limited to reactions to negative reviews). People might say things they later regret, and might go a bit too far in what they claim. Once upon a time exercising some self-restraint was all too easy. Even if you took the time to compose a reply, you would have to mail a letter to the reviewer or the journal/magazine/newspaper in which the review appeared. That’s no longer the case. You can simply turn on your computer, type up a response, press “send,” and it’s out there. Sometimes, if you offer your response on a blog or in the comments section of a review or a blog, it’s out there for all to see, especially if someone knows how to link to it.

This past weekend illustrated the process. I would not have known of the brewing battle over Carole Emberton’s review of Stephen Hood’s volume on John Bell Hood had it not been mentioned in social media, where I came across it while contemplating whether to complain about the poor play of the New York Giants on Facebook as I took a break from some long-overdue grading.

Wow.

Let me begin by saying that while I understand Stephen Hood’s frustration, I would also have advised him to stew about it quietly for a while. Instead, he reacted here as he has done elsewhere, but with far more passion and dismay, and with predictable results. In the case of Emberton’s review, the discussion moved quickly, perhaps too quickly in the world of rapid fire cyber-exchanges, and one would be remiss if one did not note that he’s had second thoughts about his first reaction.

That said, what really made this argument take off in my mind is a comment offered by Hood’s publisher, Ted Savas:

In the end, this professor did not read this book, and the fact that she did not and tried to pawn off a hit review is disgusting. If I was her dean, I would investigate and if I reached the same conclusion, I would fire her. She is unethical. This is the issue.

That’s a rather strong claim to make, especially without any evidence to support it … although Mr. Savas initially chose to respond to a question concerning whether he could prove that Professor Emberton did not read the book by declaring:

What I wrote is evidence, and readers will decide.

What Mr. Savas is evidence of what he thinks, not of what Professor Emberton did or did not do. Perhaps Mr. Savas grasped this fact, for it did not take him long to modify his initial claim.

I stated in a comment above that Ms. Emberton did not read the book. If you read my blog post, you will see I qualified that. I should have qualified it in my comments as well.

I don’t know whether she did or not.

Readers who have actually read it will have to decide for themselves.

Let’s say that Professor Emberton chose to demonstrate that Mr. Savas was in error as to whether she read the book. What would you advise Mr. Savas to do, given what he thinks should happen should the professor’s dean undertake an investigation of the review and conclude that Mr. Savas was right?

Remember: what goes around comes around. Mr. Savas has opened up a Pandora’s box worth of possibilities.

Oh, by the way … the Giants came back to beat the Washington NFL franchise. Sorry, Ethan.

UPDATE: Mr. Savas has issued a retraction.

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15 thoughts on “A Step Too Far

  1. I’m not sure about Mr. Savas if Prof. Emberton didn’t read the book but if she did read the book, he was right to retract his original comment because the comment could be libelous.

  2. How much did they pay that ref? Won’t matter in the end. Won’t catch the one and done Cowboys. I guess they should learn what I learned from Lincoln — write them and wait to send them. Or in our world, save as draft.

      • Hmmm – committing to a 38-year-old G from the steppes and dumping a guy who had proven “chemistry” with no. 91 for a nice, glittery pending UFA may have something to do with that. :)

  3. I’ve been reading another book out of Savas’ shop: “General Grant and the Rewriting of History” by Frank Varney. I’m kind of applauded at what I’ve found. For one thing, there are attributions and citations that don’t match up. For example a quote is presented as coming from a particular report in the Official Records but the footnote refers to the wrong volume and page and thequote does not appear in the Official Records at all.

    There are also some rather strong accusations against other historians that are baseless and hypocritical. For example Varney goes after Cozzens and Woodworth for not sourcing something that they actually did source while at the same time he doesn’t actually provide any source for his counter argument, perhaps because there is no source that validates his claim.

    If Mr Savas truly thinks that Emberton’s dean should investigate her, perhaps he should also inquire of Varney’s dean.

    • I declined to review the book, because I had some questions about how he handled my work, even though I was not roasted as some people were. I don’t question some of the book’s premises about how Grant treated Rosecrans (or that some people accept Grant’s memoirs with less skepticism than I might). I’ll address how my work was treated in a future post.

    • I was not impressed with the chapter of Varney’s book that was made available online. Varney’s case against the historical record seems to boil down to three points:

      1. Grant and Stanton didn’t like Rosecrans;
      2. A telegram is missing;
      3. Some supplies were trickling in to Chattanooga before the Cracker Line operation was executed.

      I also found some issues with Varney’s handling of claims and source material.

  4. There seems to be too much “thin skin” over on the publisher/author side of things. For example, there was this review at http://emergingcivilwar.com/2013/11/05/review-of-john-bell-hood-the-rise-fall-and-resurrection-of-a-confederate-general-by-stephen-m-hood/. Although recommending the book, It apparently was perceived by the publisher as falling short because it failed to articulate the author’s “strongest arguments” regarding Sword. I’ve read the book. Frankly, I think it’s worthwhile despite the fact that its reads much more like “advocacy” than “history” due to its overly strident tone and the impression it leaves that Hood’s failings are a figment of historians’ imaginations. As Eric Jacobson showed, for example, one can toss out the innuendo that Hood was high at Franklin or hellbent on “punishing” his troops for the missed chance at Spring Hill without dismissing the objective assessment that his tactical decisions were inept. It’s as if nothing but unvarnished praise will be seen as an “objective” review.

    • I agree. I’m worried that the pendulum being swung is to much in the direction of trying to make him one of the great generals of the war and American history.

      I just can’t go along as John Bell Hood made some absolutely terrible tactical decisions in the 1864 campaign.

      Some fascinating discussions of Hood that predate all of the recent books is contained in ‘Lee, Grant and Sherman: A Study in Leadership in the 1864-65 Campaign’ by Alfred H. Burne that was published in 1938 and reissued by Kansas in 2000 with Albert Castel helping to put it together. That book gives some food for thought about Hood (pro and con) in 1864 without ripping into other authors or historians about him. I highly recommend it.

      Chris

      • I think it’s a case of “Revisionitis”, an ailment which creeps up on those who start out with the intent of correcting erroneous but long-accepted conclusions (“Franklin was a stupid disciplining assault”) but who get so swept up in the mission that they add legitimate historical conclusions to the dumpster just because those, too, have become accepted dogma (“Franklin was a poorly conceived assault”). It frequently appears in a related form in the arena of McClellanology, where much revisionist effort is spent on maneuvering possibly erroneous, adverse minutiae over to the positive column (“McClellan was in fact outnumbered in the Seven Days by c. 108,000 – 95,000+”) but when the smoke clears away the long-accepted basic conclusions remain intact (“McClellan’s belief that the ANV had 200,000 was ridiculous/McClellan’s attribution of defeat to McDowell’s missing 30,000 makes no sense because he still would have been vastly outnumbered in his own mind”).

  5. >> it usually is not wise to respond immediately to criticism of one’s work.

    I agree. It makes a better overall effect if you wait a bit before placing the horse’s head in their bed. :)

  6. Sam Hood’s repeated insistence of referring to the reviewer as “Ms. Emberton” rather than “Dr. Emberton” (up until he makes an apology) seems an intentional disrespect and comes off as very petty.

    Hood also seems once again (as he has in response to other reviews I have seen) to cling stubbornly to his belief that bias and untruths should be fought with bias and untruths in the opposite direction. I don’t recall that strategy worked out very well for James Longstreet and I don’t imagine it will do well for the Hoods.

    • For all of the pre-publication disclaimers regarding “ancestor bias”, the stridency and sense of personal affront exhibited in response to reviews undercut that somewhat. As I’ve indicated, I have the book and have read it. The author makes a number of worthwhile points. But in my opinion he goes a bit overboard in defending all of JBH’s actions at the army command level from July, 1864 on and at times the book comes across as advocacy more than it does history. That’s okay and can serve a legitimate purpose (see Nolan’s Lee Considered) but it needs to be acknowledged. And the book (like all books) ain’t perfect or flawless.

  7. What are the attributes of a good review?

    I like to see a brief synopsis, an understanding of new evidence and how it is weighed, a feel for the writer’s style, strengths and weaknesses and whether the book contributes to the existing literature…

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