Why The Hell Should I Write A Book Review? An Academic Woman’s Perspective

Today is International Women’s Day, and as such, I wanted to write a post that could address some of the obstacles faced by women navigating today’s rather turbulent academic seas. After noticing that a number of the top journals within the fields of classics, ancient history, and religious studies have struggled to represent women as book reviewers, I began to ruminate on the role of women in writing academic book reviews. Although the number of books being written by women appears to be increasing somewhat, the number of women acting as reviewers of books continues to hover between 12% and 25%. Today I want to explore why this ratio is unacceptable by arguing for the overall import of the book review within academia and the need for women to contribute to and set the parameters for analysis in their respective fields. Then I will try to offer some ways to effect change.

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The muse of epic poetry, Calliope, speaks to Homer as one of the many muses depicted in a mosaic unearthed in the Village of Vichten, close to Luxembourg. The Roman mosaic is now in the Museum d’Histoire et d’Art de Luxembourg. It dates to the year 240 CE. 

Step 1: Let’s Stop Lying To Ourselves: Many ancient rhetoricians believed that the lowest form of humor was the pun. In academia, the lowest form of publication is often considered to be the book review. I am here to tell you that I love both puns and book reviews; each are important mirrors for reflecting on the culture we live within. I can’t tell you how many times I have listened to colleagues, graduate students and academic administrators brush off book reviews as small lines on one’s CV that simply take too much time and offer little reward in terms of publication “points” towards tenure. They also don’t give a lot of recognition to the reviewer. In academia, anonymity is death and thus the book review can often be viewed as a coffin. I recognize that many instructors with high teaching loads and families to balance simply cannot afford to write book reviews that give them little payback in their tenure and promotion cases, but if we are to argue to deans and department chairs that they should revise their current T&P rubrics (and they should), then we need to get a few things straight about reviews.

Despite the rather lowly stratum that they occupy in the minds of some, book reviews are commonly the most read portion of any academic journal. I have had many top journal editors note to me that the bread and butter in terms of page views for their journal is the book review section, rather than any of the more lengthy articles. Many colleagues will tell you that they read your 30 page article, but in truth, they have often skimmed that piece and bee-lined straight for the book reviews at the end of the volume. I should here note that the same critiques are often hurled at those engaged in academic blogging (e.g. “it is way too time consuming!” and “Who even reads blogs? They aren’t peer reviewed.”) and yet here I am writing and here you are reading. Just like blogging, book reviews are an integral if under-appreciated part of the present and the future of academia.

Step 2: Recognizing and Teaching the Book Review as A Valid Art Form: Much like late night porn or Bravo reality TV shows, clandestine reading habits are rarely professed in public. A majority of academics live most of their professional lives buying into, reinforcing, and then perpetuating the Platonic ideal of “historian” or “theologian.” This unachievable figment is usually a man that looks–at least in my early academic dreams–kind of like Theodor Mommsen, complete with arm patches on his blazer and unkempt hair that says to everyone (in German): I care about learning, not aesthetics!

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Portrait of the German ancient historian, epigrapher, and legal mastermind Theodor Mommsen (c. 1906 or earlier) [Image via Wikimedia].
Yet it is pivotal to recognize that graduate students and young professionals often use book reviews as their metric and a template for accessing the given field. They also use them to study for their comprehensive exams. Those who have passed their exams use them too. Most professors won’t tell you the god’s honest truth: Sometimes we just read the book reviews and then  *touches both hands to cheeks* lie to each other at conferences about having read a book cover to cover. You guys? I lied for years about having read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and only read the whole damn tome this week.

Beyond admitting to ourselves how important book reviews really are in our daily lives, we have to next develop and install them into our syllabi. When I was in Tolly Boatwright’s Tacitus seminar taught at Duke all the way back in the Fall of 2006, she made all of us read multiple book reviews and then write our own. We read largely reviews plucked from the Bryn Mawr Classical Review and then followed their guidelines for contributors. Writing an effective book review is an art form that can and should be taught in graduate training, and women have to be encouraged to develop their skills of critique and then voice them without fear. Concision is a difficult but prized skill. Book reviews also train young writers to focus on the facts, to offer constructive criticism, and to epitomize large books–all in just 1,000 words or so. The ability to isolate, describe, and analyze a book’s thesis and argument are skills that we all need to practice and to teach to our students to engage in. I continue to use Tolly’s exercise in my classes today and remain thankful that she instilled in all of us the need to learn to be a reviewer.

A significant question is when you should write your first book review. My first book review was indeed for the BMCR, and I was about a month out of graduate school. As a result of that rather critical review, the author reached out to me and asked me to be in an edited volume–although he admittedly was not stoked about some of my criticisms. Graduate students and early career academics can indeed feel fearful about being too acerbic in reviews (women especially) or being dismissed by top scholars as a result of a harsh critique, but if your argument is solid and measured, it is a necessary dialogue between different levels in the academic hierarchy. Snark should be avoided, but we cannot shy away from reviewing books just because we are afraid of angering the upper echelons. Make them angry. It is good for them.

Step 3: Acknowledging We Have A Problem And Effecting Change: Now that I have argued for the significance of the book review as a publication, I want to discuss how to allow women to be more well-represented as reviewers and change the current stats. First, I want to underscore that I am not the first person to point out the lack of women being represented as book reviewers or contributors in certain academic areas. Within the field of Late Antiquity, no one has done more to bring visibility to the issue than Ellen Muehlberger, an associate professor of Christianity in late antiquity at the University of Michigan. For years, Prof. Muehlberger has kept track of frustrating stats having to do with the Review of Biblical Literature [Read her post on this experience here]. To say that all-male or mostly male issues of ancient history and religious studies journals are still common is to put it mildly. 

A big problem lies with the book review editors, who (it must be said) are themselves predominantly male and get little credit for the hard work they do. Although it depends on the journal as to whether book reviews are invited or volunteer-based (BMCR is, for example, largely based on the goodwill of volunteer reviewers), many editors simply don’t even consider gender when they assign book reviews. Those that do reflect on gender when assigning reviews often tell me that women turn down their offers at a higher rate than men. I have now written over a dozen emails to review editors this year and can tell you that their chorus is similar: Women always tell us no. I often send them a link to my WOAH: Women in Ancient History database to help them to find female reviewers, but it is hard to verify that women are actually responding in this manner.

If we take what these review editors say as gospel truth, then we must then ask what women who are overworked can do when we simply can’t take on another book. For those of use that choose to turn book review requests down (and we all have good reasons: kids, service, teaching, or perhaps focusing on publications with more “points” awarded for T&P), I would suggest turning it down via email and then offering up the names of (3) other women who could competently write the review. This is something first suggested to me by religion professor Nyasha Junior. Emphasizing the young women in the field that may need a chance is a good step forward as well.

For the men who assign book reviews? I simply ask you to be more persistent. If a woman turns you down, don’t give up and claim due diligence: Continue to ask more women. Mary Beard is without a doubt a star in our field, but she is not the only woman who can write a good book review. Don’t always go for the top 5 women and then give up; Prof. Junior and Prof. Beard have a lot on their plate already.

For the ladies? We have to step up too. There are of course many important issues that I cannot speak to, for instance, I am not a mother and cannot then claim to know anything about the difficulty of balancing childcare with research demands. I also teach a 2/2 load at an R1 (=I have privilege). I have great respect for the graduate students & instructors who must consider their family first, and thus it is admittedly with the luxury of time that I say that women need to begin to volunteer more actively to write reviews.

Just as you write your postcards to local and state politicians today, why not also write to your favorite journals’ book review editors and tell them your area of expertise and contact information? Just like a senator or congressional representative, tell these editors who you are and let them know you are there to be called upon. If book reviews do help set the parameters of the field and the metrics for analysis, we all have to step up as editors, as teachers, as bloggers, and as scholars in order to elevate the form of the book review. (Then we can work on garnering respect for those puns).

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Cyprus, Curium, Kourion, Mosaic of Ktisis. A Roman mosaic of the 4th c. CE depicting Ktisis, the female personification of the act of “foundation.” She holds the Roman ruler to measure a foot.

3 thoughts on “Why The Hell Should I Write A Book Review? An Academic Woman’s Perspective

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