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Historical reviews: Patrick O'Brien reviews history reviewers, finds them wanting and recommends reform. (Today's History).

LET ME BEGIN with heuristic hyperbole! Most of the reviews of scholarly publications in history that appear in newspapers and weeklies, as well as on radio and television, provide an unsatisfactory service for readers, are unhelpful to authors, disappoint publishers and are an unreliable guide to the contents, quality and significance of too many history books.

Book reviews originally accompanied the rise of the author in the eighteenth century and were addressed to an elite who purchased books across the arts and sciences. Though not written by scholars, they engaged with a work of history in ways that exposed the interesting features of a book and displayed the erudition and style of the reviewer.

Today's popular reviews perform a similar function. Most professional historians are disdainful of the media, and for good reasons. Such reviews--rarely of the most important books within the discipline--are too short and are composed by a `tenured' coterie of articulate literati whose credentials to summarise, contextualise and appraise the range of history they presume to comment upon are entirely questionable.

Broadcasters, editors and publishers may well dismiss such acerbic remarks as envy. Are they not doing their best to popularise history? Is a well turned-out review not an essay in its own right?

Mutual incomprehension separates professional historians from the gatekeepers who control reviews in the media. For the latter, time is short. The result is headlines that are quickly assimilated, sound bites that are easy to hear, and pungent, witty and insubstantial phrases often repeated. But most of their commentaries are irrelevant to serious scholarly discourse.

Are reviews in academic journals really superior? In important respects--yes; because they are written by scholars for scholars, are usually longer, and are commissioned by informed editors from panels of reviewers with the requisite credentials. Yet, unfortunately, the litany of complaints about reviews published by historical journals is, if anything, a more serious cause for academic concern. The allocation of pages by journals to reviews is inadequate. Most editors rarely reconsider long-established allocations of space between articles, notes and documents on the one hand and reviews on the other. Although the numbers of journals has increased, too many important books are never reviewed anywhere. Others receive inadequate attention compared with learned, but often microscopic, points made in scholarly articles. Why are editors failing to provide more opportunities for historians to discourse in print about monographs, texts and major reinterpretations in history? Why is this form of scholarly interchange accorded lower weight than yet another article by a latter-day Lucky Jim on `Shipbuilding in the Brabant'?

The post of Review Editor is not an appealing position of power, and the failure of reviewers to deliver to order (or at all) is behind those inordinately long lead times between the publication of books and the appearance of reviews. But the profession would like to be assured that harassment goes on and on. Authors should be told the name of their tardy reviewers, who after all could reject the call to review or occasionally return a book. Finding competent reviewers is surely not easy, and for some books the refusal rate may be disappointingly high. Nevertheless, journals might become more open about the basis upon which they select books and reviewers. Policies could be transparent and reconsidered from time to time in the light of feedback from a journal's evolving and often dimly conceived readership. How many journals solicit `views' for this or any other purposes?

Some of this obloquy does, however, belong to publishers. They know that reviews by `celebrities' sell books and influence selections for future publications. Publishers seem more alive to comments about misprints, price and design than they are to the scholarly purposes served by reviews. What sanctions do they bring to bear on journals who fail to review their authors in reasonable compass? What proportion of the inadequate budgets they devote to book promotion is represented by review copies? They seem excessively impressed with advertising in the form of lists, brochures and leaflets--which may be as ineffective commercially as they are intellectually for purposes of supplying serious information to working historians and their students.

Vituperation and revenge (sometimes in the form of litigation) as well as gratitude and anticipated repayments for favours rendered to friends, superiors, colleagues and students are the rewards that accrue to writers of academic reviews. While pathetic sums of money change hands for refereeing manuscripts for publishers, nothing is offered for an informed appraisal appearing in print. The retention of a book is hardly a recompense for the time spent on composing a proper review. Book reviews (however scholarly) contribute too little to the making of academic reputations. Few historians cite book reviews or quote reviews of their own work when making applications for jobs, promotions and grants. This widespread and implicit denigration of the genre has come about because it is regarded as `contaminated' by friendship, patronage, egotism and malice.

Review Editors could do more to raise the intellectual kudos attached to reviewing by exercising closer control over the quality and the speed of submission. They could also offer authors rights of reply, or at least could take note for future reference of authors' comments upon published reviews of their books that may take years of research and reflection to write, compared to the odd hour or half-day that are habitually devoted to composing a `peer' review.

Incentives to allocate more intellectual effort to this professional task of reviewing are not strong enough. Editorial control is sporadic and inadequate. Space constraints are too rigid and time constraints too loose. Small wonder that complaints with reviews surface frequently and that, occasionally, acrimonious discord explodes in public between the reviewed and the reviewer to the amusement of all and the enlightenment of none. In the long term the ultimate (but alas silent) judges for a book's reputation are its readers.

Those who take any kind of stance against the standards of book reviewing now tolerated by broadcasters, editors and publishers may be provoked to name names and to cite examples. But that would be invidious, and the appropriate response is to challenge `gatekeepers' to poll a random sample of authors and invite them to submit confidential comments on past reviews of their books. Meanwhile let us all discuss the size, shape, content and other attributes of the timely scholarly book review.

Can we agree a `declaration of principles' that might command a consensus? First and foremost, the review should contain an accurate precis of the major theses suggested and themes addressed by a book. Good summaries are not easy to construct and require the reviewer to digest the entire publication and to connect its arguments to its scaffolding of sources and information. Recourse to dust-jackets, prefaces and conclusions is not enough for that purpose.

Secondly any review should endeavour to contextualise the book in terms of its field, genre and approach to history; and compare it to other texts (possibly to earlier publications by the author) within inter-dependent domains of history. We will not expect the same sort of precis, contextualisation and appraisal across journals. To take an example, the strengths and defects of a historical study of German railways will not be the game for readers of Transport History as they are for, say, a journal of military history. Specialised perspectives, so long as they are elaborated within the overall context treated by a book, are welcome. Nevertheless reviews should be written less with experts in mind (who will read the book anyway) and rather more for wider readerships of historians who require carefully processed information and a guided entree into hinterlands of scholarship they need to visit but have no time to explore.

Authors prefer praise to criticism, but as intellectuals they can distinguish the laudatory but lazy review from a critical engagement with their ideas and intentions. They do know when a reviewer has read little more than their name and credentials. Reviews which niggle away at style or at references can easily create the impression of incompetence. Unless slippage in footnoting seriously compromises the book's main central theses and until reviewers defend their own canons of literary style, `corrections' are best communicated privately to an author who can decide whether they are useful or a pedantic substitute for serious engagement with historical arguments.

Scholarly reviews can only be written by those with intellectual reputations, integrity and a sense of responsibility towards history. Their brief is to approach historical research with some deference and to mediate between authors, readers and students. It remains the unenviable task of Review Editors to find them and to promote and cultivate such qualities. Alas, they soon learn that historians have biases and intellectual capital to maintain. Placed temporarily in a position of authority, reviewers are accorded powers to cultivate or to wound authors who will silently rejoice or meekly accept whatever is directed at their painfully written works.

Editors cannot avoid historians with adversarial urges who are devoted to their own interests and their styles of doing and writing history. Yet Review Editors might seek to contain and focus the competitive urges of academics by asking reviewers to specify their own ideological preconceptions in print. They might also do more to countervail more blatant attempts to use reviews in order to secure or exercise patronage. They could also become more concerned to protect authors from misrepresentation and irresponsibility. Publishers could help by inviting authors to state in the prefaces to their books what in their view would constitute valid and serious grounds for scholarly criticism and disagreement. Reviewers could then be instructed to cite, and heed, the parameters set by authors for scholarly discussion with them and their readers. Unless and until we all talk openly and honestly about popular and peer reviews nothing will change and history will suffer.

The Editor adds:

Here at History Today we know how much our readers appreciate the book reviews. But some, at least, of Professor O'Brien's strictures strike home.

Our reviews are essentially a service to readers, rather than to authors or publishers (or reviewers!): put simply, we try to tell our readers what is worth reading. We have a policy for reviews which ought to be universally applied; but I admit we sometimes fall short, usually for the sort of reasons to which Professor O'Brien refers.

1. We select books on topics we believe will interest our readers; books by authors who will interest them; and important books that have the potential to define their field for future years. That may not always mean we cover the same books as the broadsheets; conversely we cannot often cover some kinds of book, such as titles aimed directly at an educational market, purely reference titles etc, nor every monograph. These may, though, get a mention in our seasonal roundups, instead.

2. We try to look for a reviewer with an expert knowledge, but not someone who we know is in dispute with the author.

3. We aim, for the most part, to notice the good books rather than the weaker ones. We encourage reviews that are positive, or, where they are critical, still offer a constructive contribution.

4. We ask our reviewers to send their copy in within eight weeks of receiving the books. Some do, some don't; and sometimes a review sits for several months awaiting space in the magazine. But we are highly conscious that any delay in the publication of a review represents a diminution in its value.

I should welcome readers' views on these, and on Professor O'Brien's points more generally, in the hope we can improve our review section in the future.

Peter Furtado, Editor.

Patrick Karl O'Brien is Centennial Professor of Economic History at the LSE.
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Author:O'Brien, Patrick
Publication:History Today
Date:Feb 1, 2003
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