Being Reviewed

One of the most interesting (and sometimes anxiety-inducing) experiences an author has is that of having his or her work reviewed.  Most authors should not find this a terribly strange experience, since most authors also write reviews. But somehow it’s a little different when one is on the receiving end of a reviewer’s comments.

For the most part I have been very fortunate in the reviews of my work. On the whole, I’ve been very pleased with what reviewers have said. Even so, one must possess either a thick skin or a philosophical resignation about some of the things one reads. For example, the late Michael Fellman, a good friend of mine, reviewed my Grant biography with some dissatisfaction, because it wasn’t the sort of biography he wouldn’t have written. Soon after the review appeared, he shyly approached me (and those of us who knew Michael know that “shy” is not a word one normally uses in describing him) and asked whether I was upset with the review (I was not … if anything, I was a bit amused). Indeed, I knew that when I wrote about Henry Adams, the historians would like the book, while most of those scholars who viewed Adams primarily as a literary figure would not be nearly so happy … in part because I poked holes in Adams’s pretensions (and perhaps in their pretensions as well). Thus I anticipated what I read, and, if anything, I was a bit pleased to prick a few balloons.

Sometimes you know that a reviewer has an axe to grind with you, and you understand what you read in that light. For example, my Grant biography received two hostile reviews: one came from a fellow Grant biographer whose work did not stand the test of time (and that test was measured in minutes) and the other came from a scholar who blamed his stumbles on his path to tenure upon a letter I had written evaluating his scholarship (he has not published another book in nineteen years, and his first book has faded from view). In either case I could have written a more telling critical review of my own work, but I have always tried to understand that some people are doing the best they can.

A note to reviewers: you always have a guaranteed audience of one … the author. So make sure that you will be able to stand by what you write, and know that what goes around comes around. That does not mean that you should not write pointed reviews. They may even be funny. Just understand that you should never dish out what you can’t take, and that it’s better to show us why a work is flawed than simply to insist that it is. That’s why in my first review for Civil War History back in 1983 I listed the problems with a particular book about Henry Adams before letting loose at the end with what may still be my most stinging rebuke: “Henry Adams once likened biography to murder. Now we know what he meant.”

Yes, that was brash, even mean … but I still like it, and, believe it or not, it was fair. Strike with style. Moreover, strike at the work, not the author.

The truth is that as an author you are curious about what other people think of your work, and, over time, you’ll come to understand that not everyone shares your finely-honed appreciation of yourself. It simply depends on whether you believe that such is their problem or yours. Even then, however, one wonders what to do about sheer incompetence.

I faced that problem when Civil War History published a review of a documentary collection I had coedited back in 1987. What follows, first, is the review:

Owens One

Owens Two

Now, that’s a zinging review. I had not met Professor Owens (and never have), although I gather he was an icon at the University of Mississippi (I’m sure someone will send me a comment telling me that he was a wonderful professor and that his book and two edited collections of essays by other people are standards in the field [I own the two essay collections, which are indeed useful]). But it seemed to me that Professor Owens forgot that it would be a good idea to make sure you know that you’re on the mark before you squeeze the trigger.

When I read this review, I found it bizarre precisely because Professor Owens’s sarcasm was based upon a deeply flawed reading of the book. His declarations of fact (as opposed to opinion or interpretation) were simply wrong. This caused me to do something which, generally speaking, you shouldn’t do … that is, reply to a critical review of your book.

Fans of the “Communications” section of many a professional journal know what happens next, but others may not. Suffice it to say that at times people clearly read (and talked about) the “Communications” section more than anything else they encountered.

Why should you decline to reply? Well, no matter how unfair you may think the review is, it is usually the case that a reply simply lowers you to the reviewer’s level, while making you look oversensitive. Moreover, the reviewer gets a second crack at you, for journals offer reviewers a chance to reply. Thus, even when you are right, you may lose more than you gain, especially if the reviewer persists in a particular line of criticism that suggests that there’s simply no changing someone’s mind (reviewers are not prone to say “Oops! My bad!”). In years to come I would turn down a chance to take a swing back at a reviewer who proclaimed that everyone knew the story of Grant’s early life, including his resignation from the army in 1852 (which was news to everyone who had understood that Grant resigned in 1854, but no matter). There was no need to get into a mud-slinging contest (okay, so I used a different term, but this is family time), or so I told the book review editor. But in this case, the entire review was based upon such a faulty representation of the volume that I set aside the rule. And so here’s how I responded:

Simpson Owens OneSimpson Owens TwoSimpson Owens Three

Now, normally I would not try your patience with this side trip into the theater of the academically absurd, but I gather that we’ve just been treated to a set of exchanges between an author (and his publisher) and reviewers with whom they disagree. I can understand the frustration of author and publisher when a reviewer does not see things as they do, and I understand the temptation to respond. In the end, however, I think this did more harm than good to publisher and author, especially since in the age of the internet everyone wants to have their say and vent their grievances. 

In fact, reviewers usually read the books they review. Otherwise they would find themselves exposed by their professional peers, with far more serious consequences in the academy than one might experience in cyberspace. Indeed, when I read a book for review where I have serious reservations, I’m at pains to make sure that I can support my criticisms, so my criticism is carefully considered. What one should say was that they had not read carefully enough, as was clearly the case with Professor Owens … and then to offer specific examples of why one feels that such is the case. That would be fair.

There is no doubt that some people raise a ruckus about a book in part as a form of free publicity, and responding to the ruckus simply achieves that objective. Whether that ruckus achieves any other objective outside of drawing attention to a book and possibly increasing sales, I do not know. What I do know is that what goes around comes around, one way or another, and one should realize that before embarking on such an exercise. Sometimes the best revenge is to ignore the ruckus altogether.

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5 thoughts on “Being Reviewed

  1. But the fact is, only tiny percentage of book reviews are negative. I am convinced that the reason we see so few negative reviews of books (at least in the popular press) is because writing a negative review requires (or ought to) five times the work than does passing happy judgment on a good piece of writing. The books for which I have written negative reviews sit on my shelves plastered with post-its, documenting my every question, every author’s error, knowing there is a fair chance I’ll be called to task for what I have written. I once did a largely negative review on a book whose author, an attorney, responded with a package a half-inch thick, offering an unsolicited assessment of my own writing skills (he even put a few pages of my writing through one of those programs that highlight passive voice, complexity of sentences, etc., and suggested I had no business reviewing anything he’d written). He didn’t attack the review, only the reviewer. For six months the bombardment continued. When you write a negative review, you have to be prepared for such things. And I suppose that’s why so many reviewers (at least in the popular press) take the easy way out, giving unwarranted praise and sparing all criticism. In fact, I was told by one editor that his magazine simply would not publish negative reviews. The headache attendant to them was not worth the effort.

    I’d like to make it standard that ten years after publication, the author be required to review his own book–what still works, what went awry, and what we’d do different now that we (presumably) know much more than we did back then. Return to Bull Run has never gotten a negative review, and hardly even a dark sentence cast its way. But, after 20 years, I know what’s wrong with it better than anyone. I have often pondered writing something like “Return to Return to Bull Run: What I used to believe about Second Manassas but no longer do, and just how did I miss THAT?”

    In case you forgot, that book came out in 1993, the last time the Islanders did anything notable. Sorry for that.

    • Well, if you get around to doing that consider it bought. I have the ’93 campaign book and the Howard map study/maps, so an update by the author of both would certainly be welcome. Although I still hold a grudge against Ulfie for that hit. :)

    • Might as well try to start a trend! I am among the many who greatly enjoyed “Return to Bull Run” and would be most curious to see a “20 Years Later” retrospective on that excellent work.

  2. “I’d like to make it standard that ten years after publication, the author be required to review his own book–what still works, what went awry, and what we’d do different now that we (presumably) know much more than we did back then.”

    So, I’m reading “Let Us Have Peace” right now. To me, it seems like an amazing, under-appreciated work of history. Yet, since I’ve sometimes heard the author seem to dismiss it, I must say, I do wonder that very question. Looking back from the perspective of twenty-some years, I wonder what the author’s critique of the book would be…

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