“It is usually a bad idea to respond, rebuttingly, to a review of one’s book.”
— the first line of G.A. Cohen’s response to Brian Barry’s review of his Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality in the TLS. (scroll to the bottom of this post to see Cohen’s full response)
You’ve spent years of hard work writing a book. It’s finally published. Some people buy it. If you’re lucky, it’s reviewed: proof that someone has actually read it, paid close attention to it, and is sharing word of it with others. But what if it’s a bad review? I don’t mean a review that judges the work negatively. Rather, I mean a review that suggests the reviewer did not quite understand or read the book carefully, or that misrepresents the book’s ideas, or that is otherwise unprofessional.
When your book gets that kind of bad review, should you respond? If so, how should you go about doing so?
Marcus Arvan (Tampa) raised this question generally in a post at The Philosophers’ Cocoon, in response to the series at PEA Soup featuring authors discussing reviews of their books. He then staked out a position on the question by responding to a review at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (NDPR) of his recent book, Rightness as Fairness: A Moral and Political Theory, by Richard Dees (Rochester).
We can acknowledge how authors might be quite sensitive to misrepresentations of their books, and we can also acknowledge that authors bear some responsibility for making sure their ideas are comprehensible by the target reader. Yet even accounting for these caveats, there are no doubt some books that have been badly reviewed.
Is that what happened to Rightness as Fairness? I have not read Professor Arvan’s book, so I am not in a position to assess the quality of Professor Dees’ review. If Professor Arvan is to be believed, though, there do seem to be some problems with the review. He provides several examples in his post. Here are a couple:
- NDPR Review: “Marcus Arvan sets an ambitious project for himself. Using constraints on theory construction modeled on the sciences, he formulates a new moral theory that is supposed to solve all the controversial issues that have always surrounded ethics.” What Rightness as Fairness says: “This book does not purport to be the final word on morality. As with all theories, problems are sure to remain, and mistakes sure to be made. Yet, despite this, I will argue that it is a worthwhile new word on the subject—indeed, one that succeeds substantially where other theories founder.” (p. 8, emphasis added for clarity; see also p. 229)
- NDPR Review: “Arvan claims that only instrumentalism qualifies as a possible theory of normativity.” What Rightness as Fairness says: “Before proceeding, I want clarify that I am not claiming that instrumentalism is the one true theory of normativity.”
While the Arvan-Dees exchange provides a possible example, the central matter here is not to adjudicate the merits of that review but rather to ask what authors should do when they believe their work has not been fairly or competently reviewed.
Here’s my view. We’ll get better book reviews if book reviewers can expect a critical reply from the authors of the books they review. Book reviewers will be more likely to expect a critical reply from the authors of the books they review if there are in fact more critical replies to reviewers from book authors. That gives us some reason to take a favorable stance towards authors replying to reviews. Further, such exchanges could be productive and interesting. On the other hand, very few people are interested in disputes between authors and reviewers over minutiae, and we don’t want our journals and websites clogged with such disputes. So book authors should exercise some restraint, taking care in picking their battles, and when they do engage, they need to provide fairly straightforward evidence supporting their complaints.