Reviews – some reflections

It’s a curious thing writing and publishing a book. You hate the sight of it and can’t wait to be rid and at the same time you can’t bear to let it go, for fear of losing control over it, of sending it out into the big bad world (or perhaps that’s just me).

Anyway, back to the subject of this post: reviews. The book has now received two. One is overwhelming positive and very complimentary. The other … well, the other isn’t. In fact the reviewer has been unable, across four, bitingly vitriolic pages of text, to find anything of value in it at all. It hurts. It hurts a lot, especially as the criticisms are largely unfounded (and not just in my opinion!). The reviewer has, in the words of a friend and colleague, colossally misunderstood the premise and scope of my book. In fact, it’s almost as if he’s willfully misread it.

I’m not going to link to the ‘bad’ review here – I really don’t want to give it the ‘oxygen of publicity’. Nor do I intend, as I had originally planned, to address its key criticisms here; my PhD supervisor has advised me to ignore it and move on. It’s an obvious hatchet job, which attacks my integrity as an academic and simply makes the reviewer AND the journal look unethical and unprofessional (I am barely holding back my rage here!).

Instead, I want to reflect a little on the academic book review as a ‘thing’. If no one reads them (according to my supervisor), what’s exactly the point? And how can two reviewers come to two diametrically opposed and contradictory conclusions? What does negative criticism (as opposed to constructive criticism) actually achieve? Who is it aimed at? And whom does it benefit? I have a horrible suspicion that the pressure of the academic environment inadvertently teaches us that to be taken seriously, to get on in our careers, we have to be cut-throat. It compels us to jealously guard our own research and undermine the work of our perceived competitors for jobs and funding (of course, I can’t be certain that these were the motivations in this case).

This sucks.

So, I’m going to make a pledge. In the future, should I be asked to review a book or an exhibition I will do my damnedest to find something positive in it and if I can’t, that review won’t see the light of day. If published it would serve no purpose but to make me look like a thoroughly unpleasant person, while chipping away at the potentially fragile self-esteem of its creator. And I don’t think I would be comfortable in that knowledge.

In the meantime, does anyone have any tips and suggestions for coping with and moving on from bad reviews?

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