井の中の蛙

6/13/2006

The Ethics of Book Reviews

Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 11:48 am

Recently I stumbled upon an adulatory book review I wrote of Haruo Shirane’s Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashô, a book that made a big impact on me while writing my dissertation. I was desperate when a graduate student to publish a book review, and I tried submitting the piece to several journals, only to learn that book reviews are by invitation only! I wondered if perhaps the real problem was that Traces had already been assigned to more learned “scholars” than myself. (The Shirane review, by the way, ended up as a post on my about.com site at the time, the now defunct japaneseculture. I was the first “guide” for that site, between 1997-2000, when I jumped ship before going on the job market.)

I decided to write a review that no one would have been previously assigned because it was either too esoteric or on too boring of a topic. I chose a catalog from the Edo-Tokyo museum that I needed to read anyway for my research, and submitted the review to the ever generous but seriously peer-reviewed journal Early Modern Japan. Success at last! Something to put on my CV! Feeling confident, I took another shot with a review essay I wrote on a topic that was guaranteed to have slipped under the radar screens of competitive book-review writers the world over: catalogs of ceramics! I tried Monumenta Nipponica but was told even review essays were only by commission, alas, but struck gold with the online British Columbia Asia Review. I can only begin to imagine what a miniscule role these two humble pieces of criticism must have played in my job-hunting efforts, but they seemed important at the time.

Once I began publishing actual scholarship based on my own research, I discovered that journals ASK you to write reviews. I suppose this amounts to a kind of review process for reviewers? My most exciting review moment came about a year ago when the Journal of Japanese Studies asked me to review Andrew Watsky’s Chikubushima: Deploying the Sacred Arts in Momoyama Japan. I immediately and gleefully accepted this charge, largely because I wanted to receive a free copy of Andy’s beautiful but hardback-only book. (This perhaps reveals too much about the finances of an assistant professor living in an expensive metropolis . . .)

But AFTER I hit “send” on my acceptance message, I began thinking about the possibility that my review would represent a conflict of interest. First of all, Andy is my sempai. He went to Oberlin. I guess he is actually my triple sempai, if such a thing is possible. He also attended the Associated Kyoto Program and graduated before me from the Ph.D. program at Princeton, though in a different department. Perhaps more importantly, one of his essays appeared in an anthology I edited, Japanese Tea Culture. Did this plethora of connections mean I would be unable to review his book objectively?

In fact books are reviewed by friends, classmates, felllow disciples of this or that professor, and even former students and former teachers quite often. In my case, I tried to over compensate for our friendly connections by being quite critical in the review. (Andy’s book won the John Whitney Hall Prize, so you can see how sensible that choice was.) In other cases, though, you see reviewers playing softball and providing no meaningful constructive criticism whatsoever when reviewing books by friends or former classmates. Not helpful.

So is it our responsibility to declare such potential manefestations of giri? Do debts of gratitude have a role in criticism? Should friendship be “balanced” by severity?

3 Responses to “The Ethics of Book Reviews”

  1. K. M. Lawson says:

    This is a really important question and I think it is great you bring it up. I have so often seen reviews done by people who I know have a connection to the writer. Should you openly declare it when, for example, you happen to be the only other major author who has written on the subject, and your own book or more general approach has been trashed or critiqued by the new work?

    I get the impression that especially young scholars can sometimes be made or broken by reviews of their first book. I have heard of a number of cases of this being the case.

    I hope the problem will become less pronounced when there are more forums (which are seen as legitimate and hopefully also accessible to more than just those with access to huge libraries or expensive online databases) to write reviews and that these reviews can take more than just the two standard forms: short regular review and extended review essay. I think the online world, including Frog in a Well can serve as a place for other kinds of review (ones that focus in on a single chapter, ones that explore connections and controversies between comparable sections of several books etc.)

  2. Thanks for your reply, Konrad. Hey, did you get that check I sent you for your review of my book? Oh wait, is this on? Damn . . .

    (Just kidding, world.)

  3. K. M. Lawson says:

    I told you not to send it to my department!! :-)

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