If and How to Respond to a Review of Your Book
“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.
The problem is with NDPR. The editors should know better than to print a poorly reasoned review that clearly misreads the work and presents it in an uncharitable light. I was the book review editor for Education and Culture for four years. I would not have approved that review of Arvan’s book and let it go into print. A better quality online book review forum is Philosophy in Review.Report
A good format that allows authors to respond is a book symposium. Usually, the author writes a precis of the book, then several commentators write short critical pieces, and the author responds to them either individually or in one response essay. This format will likely prevent errors of the kind mentioned above, and will perhaps also be more interesting to readers.Report
Behavioral and Brain Sciences does these, as do a few other journals.Report
Perhaps NDPR could hire Shane J Ralston to read all of the books the journal reviews and then read all of the reviews it commissions so as to determine which reviews “clearly” misread which books. Maybe Philosophy in Review does this?Report
Thanks for the laugh. I don’t work as a book review editor any longer. I wouldn’t accept an offer to work for NDPR. PiR has invited me to be an area editor but I declined (regretfully I didn’t have the time). I’m not claiming that some book review editors intuitively grasp which reviews “‘clearly’ misread which books.” Being a good book review editor is comparable to being a good teacher. It takes patience and a soft hand to gently guide the reviewer towards the preferred destination: a balanced and thoughtful review. However, there are lazy book review editors out there who will defer to a reviewer’s poor judgment, permitting uncharitable interpretations of a book’s central arguments.
For instance, a red flag for me in reading the review of Arvan’s book was this hyperbolic tract: “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.” If I were the NDPR book review editor, I would put a note in the text requesting that the reviewer revise that statement, for surely the book’s author does not claim that he wishes “to solve all the controversial issues that have always surrounded ethics.” Sometimes you have to nudge a reviewer to be a more careful and attentive reader as well as a more charitable interpreter of a text.
A wonderful tool that conscientious book review editors employ to help reviewers write professional, well reasoned and charitable book reviews is a good style sheet. PiR uses one that describes 5 types of reviewers (unfortunately it puts the emphasis on the reviewer and not the review itself, where it probably should be, so I suggest a slight correction below). The typology of reviewers is meant to prevent reviewers from writing reviews like the one of Arvan’s book (I’m purposely not mentioning the reviewer’s name because as I said I don’t think the fault lies with the reviewer, but with NDPR’s editors):
“Five Kinds of Reviewers (adapted by Roger Shiner from Susan Swan, “Nine Ways of Looking at a Critic,” Toronto Globe and Mail, November 30, 1996, E3):
1. The Spankers are out to administer discipline over anything from ill-conceived plot-lines to misplaced commas.
2. The Young (and Old) Turk sees the review solely as an opportunity to demonstrate his or her own intellectual prowess or higher than average intelligence.
3. The Self-abusers feel they could have written a better book on the subject, given half the chance, and proceed to describe it at length.
4. Gushers skip over discussion of the book entirely; they only wish to communicate the enjoyment of reading it.
5. The Good Reviewer will present the book (without long-winded summaries) so that the reader gets a sense of the book’s content, whether or not the reviewer likes it. The good reviewer will also offer an interesting or revealing perspective from which the book can be appreciated critically.”
To take the focus off the reviewer, this could easily be changed to five types of reviews: the spanking review, the showing off review (Young/Old Turk is politically incorrect nowadays), the self-abusing review, the gushing review and the good review. I’ll let you decide what kind you think the review of Arvan’s book is, but I’d dare to conjecture that most would agree it’s not a good review.Report
Mind has the interesting practice of sending reviews to authors for comment prior to publication. I was awfully glad that Utilitas didn’t have this practice when I was its book reviews editor, since I could see it putting the editor in the position of adjudicating a lot of squabbles. But it probably does make it less likely that any entirely unfair reviews will be published, and without requiring the reviews editor to herself read all of the books for which she commissions reviews.Report
Mind’s practice is great, but it can generate some awkwardness when the reviewer is junior and the displeased author of the book an influential senior person.Report
This doesn’t address the original topic, but one thing that REVIEWERS can do is send the review to the book author and solicit feedback. If the author doesn’t have time, then so be it. But if you–as the reviewer–wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing the review with the author, then you’ve done something wrong (that’s not to say that you can’t be harsh or critical, but if you are harsh/critical you’d better make damn sure that you’re getting the author right).Report
it’s probably worth noting that NDPR has a minimalist review editing policy. this is the email that i and other NDPR board members get when reviews that we have commissioned come in:
“Here is ’s review of . Since you recommended the reviewer, I’m asking you to take a quick look at the piece. As you’ll recall,we merely ask that you read it through to be sure there are no major errors or other flaws, not that you undertake a full-scale peer review. Our presumption is that most reviews will be published (typos aside) pretty much as we received them.”
despite this presumption, i quite often request substantive changes to reviews, especially to clarify things that are unclear or to make the review more accessible to a reader without expert knowledge. but checking the review against the book is not part of the process.Report
This seems to get to the heart of the matter. If, as David states, NDPR has a minimalist review editing policy, then its function is not to provide the “last word” on any given book. And this is very clear from most of its reviews (over the past two years, I’ve read nearly all of them). Sure, an occasional review comes through like this one–i.e. one that is overly dismissive–but 95%+ of them are clearly intended to be the “first word” on the book in question. A majority of them pass little judgment at all, in fact. Most simply describe the project that the book undertakes and then, in a paragraph or two, give a brief evaluation. Some are more critical through-and-through, but that seems to be relatively rare, and generally it seems to be justified criticism.
Those who are pressing for an adjustment of NDPR’s practices, either by advocating a shift to symposia or more heavily edited reviews, are thus advocating for NDPR to not be NDPR. But other venues can provide those other sorts of goods.
And sure, one cost of being a minimalist “first word” sort of outlet is that occasionally bad reviews (let’s grant this to Arvan) slip through. The check to this sort of thing happening often is the fact that reviewers who write bad reviews have their name in the lights as the “bad reviewer”. One can be sure that those who work in Arvan’s area are going to be aware of the book and the review, and they would be poor scholars indeed if they took the review as gospel without making a careful evaluation of their own. If it is as bad as Arvan says it is, that will be apparent and all the worse for the reviewer, not Arvan.Report
I’ve been on both ends of the Mind practice and applaud it. As I recall, the only thing an author is allowed to flag are inaccurate claims about the book’s content, and I wouldn’t have thought it so hard to distinguish between that and, what isn’t allowed, arguing back against the reviewer’s criticisms. Surely this approach is better than clogging up the journals with replies to replies to replies to book reviews.Report
That an editor at NDPR allowed a review that is highly critical yet also mis-representative is bad enough, but that they provide a forum for more senior people to take down younger scholars in this way indicates a basic lack of decency in our discipline.Report
With all due respect, I find this comment way over-the-top to a pretty ridiculous extent.
You may or may not think that the review misrepresented the book, but the review is hardly some kind of scandal! It is pretty much inevitable when one philosopher reviews another’s work that sometimes the review is quite critical and the original author feels that their position has been misrepresented. I have no strong opinion either way in this case, but having read Dee’s review and Arvan’s response, I think it is totally clear that there is nothing even close to shoddy scholarship or deliberate/malicious misrepresentation on the part of Dee. Nor does the review provide any strong reason to think that Dee is motivated by the aim of ‘taking down’ Arvan in some objectionable way – that is frankly a pretty insulting thing to impute to Dee. There is just a big clash of opinions here between Dee and Arvan. I can totally sympathise with how Arvan might feel hard done by and want to defend his book. But this is simply not an event that should make us worry about the state of our discipline.
Moreover, the suggestion that NDPR should also somehow be blamed or ashamed for ‘providing a forum’ where an associate professor can publish a critical review of a book by an assistant professor is also totally ridiculous.
I expect that this comment was motivated by laudable sympathy for Arvan’s position, but it really is a melodramatic reaction.Report
Thanks for this comment, and I concede that my comment was no doubt a bit melodramatic, though it was motivated by sympathy as you quite accurately say.
Just a quick thought in response:
I didn’t say it was a scandal, and don’t think it is, nor am I imputing malevolent motives to anyone. But I think it does show a lack of decency when established scholars criticize junior people in public forums, with seeming unawareness of the power differences between them; if the established scholars are going to do this, they should at least make sure to get the junior person’s position right.
I don’t know Arvan and have never met him, but I admire him for how active and how thoughtful he is in philosophy discussions. From his CV I saw that he got his Phd in 2008, the year the number of jobs really started to decline, then worked a non-tenure-track job until 2015, when his job was finally made tenure-track. So this is someone who’s been through a lot to get where he is, has now published a book in spite of it, and can’t even get his book accurately reviewed. Is it wrong to think a little more decency is needed here?Report
hi Tim – many thanks for your extremely reasonable and measured reply.
And many apologies if I have been guilty of misrepresenting your post with the word ‘scandal’!
However, I do think you impute at least something sub-optimal to Dee with the suggestion that there has been a lack of decency here. I guess that gets to the heart of any disagreement between us – Dee may or may not have got some stuff wrong in his review, but I just don’t think a lack of decency is at issue here. (And I guess I think its a bit unfair to Dee to suggest so, simply on the basis of his submitting a critical review, even if the review is inaccurate.)
I agree that Arvan is to be commended for sticking at philosophy through long years of non-tenured positions and a horrible job-market. But I don’t agree with the idea that his book should be reviewed differently to anybody else’s book as a result.
[I have myself endured many long years of short-term, non-tenured positions and a shitty job-market. But I don’t expect my published work to be given any kind of special sympathetic consideration.]Report
There are probably reasons against this proposal I haven’t thought about, but since NPDR is a purely online publication and doesn’t to deal with space limitations, it seems to me that it would be a good idea to let the authors of the books reviewed write a reply to the review if they want to. I have no opinion on the review of Arvan’s book, since I have read neither the book nor the review and, even if I had, I wouldn’t be competent to judge given that it’s not my area. But if Arvan thinks it was not fair, I think he should be allowed to publish a reply on NPDR, even if he is wrong.Report
*doesn’t have to deal with space limitations (typo)Report
Sure, NDPR is online, so they don’t have to pay for paper, but of course there are other costs, in administration, time, quality of content and its relation to reputation, simplicity of format and focus, and of course, the cost to that overworked graduate student editor. NDPR shouldn’t have to take on these costs as a matter of course simply because they publish on the internet.
Moreover, I, for one, would not like to read the embittered replies of insulted authors after negative reviews. If this became a policy of NDPR, this would almost certainly occur fairly often.Report
Actually, Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews (on which I understand NDPR was modeled) has given the authors of its reviewed books, along with anyone else, a forum to comment on its reviews for several years. It’s a blog that requires virtually no oversight, which readers are directed to at the bottom of each review. See here:
As you can see on the blog, authors rarely respond to reviews, but I suspect the service provides a useful check on irresponsible reviewers. This seems to be a practice that NDPR could easily institute with little to no operational costs.Report
Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that Professor Dees has not been spared from the critic’s poison pen:
I think “don’t reply” continues to be good advice, short of mistakes so egregious (e.g., straight and significant misquotation) that you ought to be communicating with the journal editor to get a correction.
After all, the traditional book review isn’t a substantive contribution to the field that your book is in: it’s too short. (It might have some constructive or critical suggestions, but if anything can be made of them, you can engage with them in a stand-alone paper.) It’s more like a public referee report, intended to give the community an idea of what the book’s main thesis is and a steer as to whether it’s worth reading.
Of course, that makes it infuriating if you think that review misrepresents the book. But what will a reply do? The only people who will read it are (a) people already invested in your project and who share your irritation (who will read the book anyway, and probably have already); (b) the reviewer (who you can more constructively reach privately). The reply is neither going to advance scholarship nor fix the problem the review is causing for you. So why bother?
(It’s different if we’re considering a 20-page essay review or similar. That really is intended to be a contribution to scholarship, and you could reply to it in the same way you’d reply to any paper that critically engages your work. It would also be different if some journal actually decided, as a matter of course, to publish an author’s response directly after the review – I’m not sure what I think of that model.)Report
As a former editor of Philosophy in Review, I find the contention it’s a better forum than NDPR bizarre. NDPR is prestigious and high profile. As a consequence, senior and/or better known people are much more willing to review for it than for PiR. That is reflected in the quality of the reviews.Report
You’re too modest, Neil. You know, I stopped believing the hype about “high prestige” journals, graduate programs and universities after I heard the story about the guy who took 15 years to finish his Ph.D. in Philosophy at Harvard University. He would have been kicked out of every state school program I know of. Does that mean the state school Ph.D. programs are better than Harvard. Yes, in at least one respect: they maintain high standards about time to degree and refuse to make exceptions. Chalmers admitted above that NDPR has low editing standards, basically just requiring that typos be corrected. While more big names review for NDPR, I would say that on average the quality of review is better at PiR. Why? The editing standards are higher. Personally I don’t care if a well-known scholar from a prestigious school reviews a book by another well-known scholar from another prestigious school. Pedigree does not impress me. A quality review does. For all I know it took that well-known scholar from a prestigious school 15 years to finish their Ph.D. And that’s not impressive. That’s an embarrassment.Report
FYI – the state school I attended had two students who took over 15 years and both got their PhDs, in the end. One took 20 years, I think.Report
I’ve just taken over as the Reviews Editor at MIND. As others have noted, the practice at MIND is to send a copy of the review to the author, so that the author can provide comments. I don’t have a lot of experience as yet – I’ll have to report back in a year! – but so far, the system seems to work extremely well. Authors are almost invariably grateful for the review, and small mistakes are picked up quickly and corrected. Reviewers are not obliged to change anything in response to the comments, but they’re often happy to do so, and I think the result makes for better reviews. Note that MIND has also moved to a system of fewer but longer reviews, closer in length to a critical study; the practice of sending reviews to authors seems especially useful in this context.
Eric’s point above is a good one to bear in mind, but Eric, is the worry about awkwardness exacerbated by MIND’s practice, or is this a general feature of junior reviewers and senior authors? And is MIND the only journal that sends reviews to the author for comments?Report
If Mind moves to fewer but longer reviews, my guess is that it will continue to review books by well-known senior philosophers and cut back on ones of books by junior philosophers. So junior philosophers needn’t fear reviews that are take-downs by senior philosophers: there just won’t be reviews of their books. This applies equally to proposals for book symposia, assuming limited space in journals and/or limited reading time for readers. What junior philosophers should want is a world with lots of short reviews of lots of books, which may then include theirs.Report
Sending reviews to book authors, for factual corrections, is a good policy. As a book author, I’d be happy to point out any textual inaccuracies (and I’m best placed to fro so quickly). As a review author, I’d like my review to be accurate, and whilst that’s my responsibility, input from the book author would help.
I got quite upset by one book review, which criticised something I ‘claimed’, when in fact my claim was the opposite thesis. Perhaps my writing got sloppy. Nevertheless, responding to an inaccurate review doesn’t seem worth the time.Report
Symposia are obviously a good way of allowing authors to respond to reviews but they involve the kind of editorial work that I suspect the like so NDPR would be unwilling to engage in (which is fair enough). Metascience (where I was editor for several years) publishes some excellent examples on the hps side of things (as well as regular reviews & essays).
In the absence of such opportunities, I tend to agree with David – as they say in Leeds city centre on a Saturday night after closing time, ‘Let it go, its not worth it!!’
And of course, such teeth gritting errors as prompted this thread could be avoided with some minimal editorial oversight. At the BJPS (where we’ve shifted all our book reviews on-line: https://bjpsbooks.wordpress.com) Wendy Parker, Beth Hannon and I read over every review to ensure that it reads well, engages with the book and gives the reader a fair idea of the content while also going beyond a mere summary of the latter. Most reviewers seem to get the idea.Report