James A. W. Heffernan
We live in a digital age, but the groves of academe still teem with tree-devouring books. According to Russell Berman, former president of the MLA, something between 7000 and 8000 books on language and literature are published every year (email to the author of July 20, 2011). Nearly all of them, it is safe to say, take at least one year to research and write. Most of them take much longer than that, and must then spend another year or two working their way through readers' evaluations, editorial board meetings, and production stages before finally making their debut. Each year, a small number of academic books is promptly applauded--or at least recognized--in widely-circulated periodicals such as TLS and The New York Review of Books. But if we can trust the data furnished by the online Book Review Digest Plus, over half of all academic books must wait at least one full year to be reviewed anywhere, more than a fifth must wait two years, and some books remain unreviewed in print anywhere even after three years. Clearly, then, printed reviews are not adequately meeting the need for judicious, timely, trustworthy assessment of new books.
To help meet this need, the MLA announced last March that its members will have free access for one full year to Choice Reviews Online, which--according to its website--offers its subscribers 145,000 reviews a year. Unfortunately, however, its reviews of the books on language and literature represent only a tiny fraction of that figure. Of the more than 7000 such books published in 2011, Choice Reviews Online noticed precisely 42--with approximately 200 words on each.
Many more book reviews have been posted online, but they are not always easy to find. Regrettably, they turn up in neither the MLA Bibliography, which has never listed book reviews in any form, nor the Book Review Digest Plus, which lists only printed reviews. Some day soon, I hope, the MLA Bibliographers and the BRDP will start furnishing links to online reviews, which can be posted much sooner than printed reviews and which are far more readily accessible.
Given the cost, pace, and spatial constraints of printing, the speed and elasticity of digital publishing make it far more suitable for book reviews. The last time I reviewed a book for a printed journal, I was told--after its final version was accepted--that it would not appear for another year and a half, three years after the publication date of the book. But once a review is ready to appear online, it can be posted at once, with no constraints on length and with features that printed journals either cannot afford or cannot furnish at all, such as full-color reproductions of the cover and of relevant illustrations, plus links to material available elsewhere online.
Recognizing these advantages, the College Art Association (CAA) started reviewing books online over a dozen years ago. In 1998, with the aid of a three-year grant from the Mellon Foundation, it launched CAAReviews, an online review of books on art, art history, and art theory. On this crisp and elegantly designed site, the reviews are not only timely but also extensive, judicious, and authoritative--everything reviews should be. Moved by this example as well as by all the other arguments for online reviewing, I proposed--in the spring of 2010--that the MLA consider launching an online review of its own. In response, the Executive Committee appointed a subcommittee, chaired by George Levine, to
investigate the feasibility of doing so. What the subcommittee found was somewhat dispiriting. Up to July of 2011, the CAA had reviewed 1236 books in all, averaging (since 1998) less than one hundred books a year, about 22%--roughly 1 in 5--of the
700-800 books it annually receives. Since a hundred books is less than 2% of all books published annually on language and literature, the Executive Committee "concluded that one single centralized review organ would not be feasible" (Berman, email to author of July 20, 2011).
In the absence of such an organ, then, where can one now find online reviews of books on language and literature? Here is a partial list of sites (excluding this one) that review books within specified academic fields and that are open to all without passwords:
- Since 1995, The Victorian Web has altogether reviewed about 90 books in categories ranging alphabetically from Authors to Visual Arts. Its recent titles include 12 books published in 2011, eleven from 2010, and four from 2009.
- Romantic Circles Reviews reviews about ten books a year in the fields of English and American Romanticism. It currently reviews 2 books published in 2011, 2 from 2010, and 6 others dating from 2004 to 2009.
- The Medieval Review (TMR).
formerly the Bryn Mawr Medieval Review, reviews current work in a broad range of
medieval studies. In 2011 it reviewed 299 books, most of them published in 2010 or
- The website of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR) succinctly describes 65 "recent publications," as it calls them, but the newest dates from 2009 and most are older.
- The Bryn Mawr Review of Comparative Literature, published quarterly, reviews about six books per issue. Its "current" issue (Fall 2011) reviews two books published in 2011 and five others published in 2010 or earlier, including one from 2003.
- érudit: Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net
reviews 45 books on English Romantic and Victorian literature in its latest quarterly issue, which is dated February-May
2010. The books reviewed all date from 2009 or earlier.
- HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory) recently
posted its first Distributed Book Review, a
collective assessment of Race after the Internet, ed. Lisa Nakamura and
Peter Chow-White (New York: Routledge, 2012). Fourteen HASTAC scholars (all
graduate students in various disciplines including English and media studies) were
invited to review one chapter each, and then to comment on each other's reviews. The
public is also invited to comment.
By no means comprehensive, the above list simply illustrates some of what has been done with online reviewing so far and points the way, I hope, to the day when all academic books will be promptly reviewed on websites that are readily accessible to all. To that end, and for the benefit of anyone who might wish to consider launching a book review site in a particular field of language and literature, I will briefly explain how I started Review 19 and how it operates.
The good news is that a book review site can be launched and run for the institutional equivalent of pocket change. It need not cost anything like what the College Art Association has spent and is spending, which I estimate at not less than $75,000 annually, averaging $750 for each of the roughly one hundred reviews that it posts each year. (Besides the costs of maintenance, upgrades, and board meetings, the project consumes about half the time of the three salaried CAA staff members assigned to work on it.) With virtually all academic budgets under unprecedented strain, few if any departments of language and literature can afford that kind of money. But they don't have to. If you as an editor--or group of editors-- can persuade your institution to host the site, if you and your contributors are willing to work without pay, and if you can hire one or more students to build and maintain the site, your costs will be minimal. In the spring of 2009, a Dartmouth MA student in Computer Science named Geethmala Sridharan built the Review 19 site for about $1200. Since launching the site in September 2009 with technical advice from my Dartmouth colleague Tom Luxon, I have hired a series of Dartmouth undergraduates to maintain it--at rates of $10-$12 an hour. (Andy Foust, our present site manager, graduated from Dartmouth in 2011 and is now earning an MA in English at the University of Virginia.) All the books we review are furnished at no cost by publishers who mail them directly to our reviewers, so our mailing costs are zero. As a result, we have posted more than 250 reviews in just under thirty-eight months for a total cost--including site building--of about $5000, or about $20 per review, all of it generously furnished by Dartmouth College. Our site is not so elegantly designed as it might be, and not so easy to navigate as it should be. Nevertheless, thanks to the good counsel of our advisers and editors and above all to the remarkable work of our reviewers, we have drawn--as of October 24, 2012--89,413 visits
and 60,754 unique visitors. And we do our best to review books within a year of their publication dates. [UPDATE 4 December 2018: We have now drawn 410,098 visits and 186,728 unique visitors.]
Apart from a modest investment of funds, you may wonder, what does it take to launch and run a book review site? The simple answer is: a lot of time. Unless you're retired, as I am, you may need sabbatical leave to draft a statement of purpose, to gain institutional support, to supervise the building of the site, to hire one or more site managers, to assemble a team of editors, to identify the publishers from whom you will seek lists of forthcoming books and review copies, and--above all--to identify potential reviewers. Besides my own head, their names have come from our advisers and editors, from scholars who sometimes declined my invitation to review but nonetheless suggested others, and--lately--from the online MLA Bibliography, which instantly tells me who has been writing about the topic of a book we would like to review. I have been pleasantly surprised by the response to my invitations and I am proud that our reviews have come from colleagues in all ranks--from promising graduate students right up to chaired professors and emeriti.
Once the reviews start arriving, they need to be edited, some of them extensively, to make sure they are not only accurate but readable: as clear, concise, and coherent as any account of an academic study can be. Our reviews run between 1500 and 2500 words, and for various reasons I have done all the editing myself, at an average of about three hours per review. Given the additional time required to launch the site, identify books for review, and recruit reviewers, the whole project has probably consumed something close to 1000 hours. But once the site is launched, running it is the kind of job that can be done in one's spare time and with nothing more than a laptop and internet access. (I haven't yet tried running it with an i-phone, though that day may come.) And obviously if more than one editor is willing to help ensure the accuracy and readability of each review, the less work any one of them has to do.
What remains is perhaps the most crucial question of all. Whether the reviews appear online or in print, how does a book review editor ensure their quality? What should a book review do, or be? If the book in question is a work of literature, a reviewer's task might be to say what makes it original, or how -- in the words of T. S. Eliot-- it "ever so slightly" alters the "existing order" constituted by the works that have preceded it. Works of literary criticism, scholarship, and theory must be judged by criteria somewhat different from those applied to fiction, but Eliot's formulation is not a bad place to start. In the Guidelines for Reviewers that are posted on our site, we ask reviewers to situate the book in the existing order of current work on its topic as well as of current debates about that topic, and then to explain what is new about the book: how it refines, challenges, or re-shapes our present view of its topic. To put this another way, every new work of literary criticism and/or theory that is worth reading asks us to examine one or more works of literature in a new way, within a context hitherto unexplored or insufficiently scrutinized, by means of a critical perspective hitherto unapplied or insufficiently pursued, or simply by opening up a body of literature that is itself insufficiently known, as Herbert Tucker does in his recent book on the nineteenth-century English epic. The best reviews of academic books on literature and literary theory, therefore, do much more than summarize the books; they assess their contribution to our understanding of literature and of the matrices--social, personal, political, economic, cultural-- from which literature springs. Effective assessment requires skepticism, critical resistance, a willingness to interrogate. If the arguments made by a new book largely recapitulate or reconfirm what previous books have argued, is it saying anything new? If it makes a provocative argument, if it challenges a widely received line of interpretation, is the challenge convincingly made?
Not all the books we review on our site can be assessed in this way, but questions like these inform many of the best reviews we have posted. Consider for instance Mary Favret's review of Stephen Behrendt's British Women Poets and the Romantic Writing Community.
The first paragraph of this review maps the field of the book by summarizing recent scholarship on women poets of the English Romantic period; the second plausibly asks why this topic must be wholly re-assessed "despite two decades of scholarship directed at recovering women's writing." What news about their writing, in other words, does this book bring us? The ensuing paragraphs answer this question carefully. Besides serving "as a useful compendium of most of the major feminist research on women writers," Favret says, the book aims "to highlight the sheer number of women writing poetry," to recognize their diversity, and to reveal their participation in what the book calls "an active--even an interactive-- community of writers and readers." But as Favret observes, these aims provoke further questions. "How can you argue for unfettered inclusiveness," she asks, "... while at the same time attending to the construction of self-conscious community? Why, for instance, limit the 'writing community' to poets and not novelists, essayists or playwrights (indeed, several of the women in the study wrote in a number of genres)? The competing impulses thus revive that bogey-question: what then is Romanticism, let alone the Romantic writing community? What does the term include and exclude?"
These questions lead to the inevitability of selection in any book that aims to survey so
large a field. Two chapters, Favret explains, "are organized thematically (women poets on radical politics, women poets on war); two by formal considerations (women writing sonnets, or experimenting with genre; and two by national identification (Scottish and Irish women poets). Presumably, these diverse routes offer different approaches to that sought-after ideal of a 'community of writers.' " Ironically, however, the one piece of critical news that Favret finds in the book is that when the poetry of Joanna Baillie is set beside that of her Scottish countrywomen, its "internationalism" sets it off and thus "complicates the very lines of 'community,' imagined or otherwise, which hold together British Women Poets."
This point leads to larger questions about the conflict between inclusiveness and selectivity. While recognizing that the book helpfully prompts us to study the work of lesser known poets, Favret finds that it does not disturb "the major paradigms we use to read Romantic poetry" because "the modes of interpretation" it employs do not address the questions it poses at the outset: "what to do with the now visible 'anarchy' of the literary (if not scholarly) marketplace" and "with the thousands of volumes of poetic writing . . . increasingly available through digital resources? If we aim at inclusivity and turn away from hierarchies of value, how can we also be 'selective' ?" It might be argued that no book can fully answer such questions, but as Favret plausibly notes, one conspicuous alternative to the close reading of canonical or individual texts (whether canonical or not) is the 'distant reading' espoused by Franco Moretti, who urges us to analyze masses of novels by means of statistics and collaborative reporting.
Moretti's approach, Favret concludes, prompts a very large question about the usefulness of any book bent on recovering neglected texts from the Romantic period and using them to redefine the community of its writers: "If 'Romanticism' as a category now seems too value-laden and exclusive, and if poetry matters most as an index of diversity and dynamism, should the poetry of the period -- canonized or forgotten, by men or women, from one class or ethnic group or another--then submit to 'distant reading' and will the mainframe server form the final guarantee of community?" This final question exemplifies the interrogative mood of the whole review, which asks not only how this new book alters our conception of the body of literature we call Romantic poetry, but also--by implication--whether or not we can draw convincing conclusions about the literature of any period without selecting and evaluating specific works.
The provocative questions raised by this review demonstrate that effective reviewing entails far more than a synopsis of the book or an enumeration of its strengths and weaknesses--debits and credits--ending in a final tally of its net yield in hermeneutic news. At their best, book reviews advance the conversation that books aim to stimulate--a conversation not only with the author but with all readers of the book reviewed, including distant readers who see it only through the medium of the review itself. (Let's be honest: we have all "read" books in this way.) One of the many advantages of online reviewing is that it can readily accommodate responses, and as a matter of policy, we always invite authors to respond to reviews of their books. Sometimes the result is a genuine dialogue.
Just over a year ago, Deirdre David reviewed for us John Jordan's psychoanalytic study of Dickens' Bleak House, which she calls a "minutely detailed analysis of Esther['s] . . . fractured narration." While recognizing that Jordan's "imaginative ghost-hunting brings to light much hitherto shadowed brilliance in Dickens's novel," she wonders how Esther can be both a "neurotic patient undergoing a pretty rough analysis" and an analyst--or self-analyst-- plumbing her own unconscious all by herself. "To imply that Esther undergoes a form of treatment as she relates her story to the reader," writes David, "raises unanswerable questions about how the reader functions, in her or his turn, as the analyst." And again: "Might it not be more plausible to argue that Dickens, in his extraordinarily intuitive anticipation of Freudian theory, creates a character who seems to us, from our early twenty-first-century post-Freudian perspective, to be in serious need of treatment?" Furthermore, since Jordan treats Esther first as an "autonomous human being with agency" (in David's words) and then as the creation of the novelist, David raises fundamental questions about Jordan's method:
Eventually, allowing for the critical brilliance and theoretical assurance of Jordan's analysis, one wonders whether he might not have set himself up in an either-or situation: in the first half, he proceeds as if there is no author, no Dickens, no genius who will muddy the interpretive waters with pronouncements about "intentionality." In the second half, he conducts a scrupulously detailed analysis of how Esther Summerson's creation arose from Dickens's grief and guilt over the death of his baby daughter. Is there no way of linking a novel to the feelings or ideas of its author without assuming intentionality? And even if we allow intentionality, is that necessarily what we receive in the text? An author may intend one thing and end up --consciously or not-- doing another. Is there no middle ground between psychoanalyzing fictional characters as if they possessed human agency and reading them as mere projections of an author's feelings?
In responding to David's review, Jordan himself seeks to answer her probing questions.
"Can a fictional character have 'agency'?" he asks.
Can a character have an "unconscious" that one can psychoanalyze? And what exactly is the role of the author? Following Benveniste ("Subjectivity in Language"), I believe the answer to the first two questions is "yes." Esther has agency and subjectivity within the linguistic and visual structures of the novel by virtue of her role as narrator and, in Mieke Bal's terms, as "focalizer" of half the novel's illustrations. Her use of the first-person pronoun and her acknowledgement that she is writing the text we read are sufficient justification for such claims. Rather than credit the writing to Dickens, I choose to bracket the author concept and focus initially on the narrator. Doing so is in one sense a simple critical move, like attributing the language of a dramatic monologue to the poem's speaker rather than to its author. The critical payoff that results from focusing on Esther's retrospective viewpoint (hence "Esther Woodcourt") is considerable.
Furthermore, Jordan argues, we do not have to choose between intentionality and its opposite. "Delaying discussion of events in Dickens's life between 1850 and 1852 until after my interpretation of Esther is in place," he writes,
was a deliberate choice, designed to promote interpretive complexity without falling into the "either-or" binary that David believes has compromised my argument. I would describe the argument as "both-and" rather than "either-or," though it is a "both-and" that leaves considerable room for indeterminacy. David's model produces a simple one-directional causality: author creates work. Mine allows for more flexibility, pointing to parallels between life and work, without privileging the former over the latter and without appealing to the authority of a creator as first and final cause.
We posted the above response less than two weeks after the review appeared. Together with the review, it exemplifies the kind of dialogue that online reviewing makes possible, and thus furnishes one more reason why online reviewing should be given every chance to thrive.
James A. W. Heffernan (www.jamesheff.com), Professor of English Emeritus at Dartmouth College, is Founding Editor of Review 19. His books include Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery, Cultivating Picturacy: Visual Art and Verbal Interventions, and Crossing the Threshold: Hospitality and Treachery in Western Literature, forthcoming from Yale University Press in the spring of 2014.