Letters to a Young Reader of Reviews by James Gifford

Dear Young Reader, or Old(er) for that matter. We hope you’ll enjoy James Gifford’s musings about how to deal with reviews of a more negative nature. James is a UAP author; we published two of his books, Personal Modernisms and From the Elephant’s Back.

Boring, Risible, and Execrable, and Those are Just Its Good Qualities

I was invited to write this blog after the marketing team at UAP saw a particularly nasty review of one of my books. I believe they read some of it out loud, perhaps even with accents. It was the kind of review over which even the most casual reader must pause and invent the backstory of an Elizabethan revenge tragedy.

The reality was more mundane than salacious, and the risks of liquidity (ahem) in academia all too often lead to short tempers and long, if blurry, memories. However, like college hazings or British prime ministers with pig’s heads, the insult review is an initiatory rite in academia to which we all submit—and the point isn’t so much how to avoid them as it is how to avoid reading them. Either Boethius or Buzzfeed, I can’t recall which, had sage advice on the matter. And no one ever pays attention to it:

“Never read the comments”

For academics early in their careers, not reading the comments isn’t an option. The negative reviews may not be public, but the privacy of blind peer review can make the commentary all the more biting. To add to it, the pressures of early career “professionalization” mean graduate students are pushed to develop a research profile that often necessitates sending out work before it’s ready or before the authors are ready for the professional grumpiness that can be voiced behind the curtain of blind review, like some irascible Wizard of the U of Oz. Yet reading those reviews is also often the main source of feedback for developing the work. So how should we read and yet “never read” the comments?

I have always found it helpful to look at the disagreements in reviews. It’s easy when Reader A adores what Reader B condemns as “execrable.” This was my favourite word scrawled on one of my undergraduate Chaucer essays juxtaposed to “A-” and a rather liquid harrumph of explanation: “That must have been near the bottom of the pile…” meaning late in the night and deep in the cup. He was a fantastic Chaucer teacher, actually. When readers disagree in this way, any author can easily think “Reader A is clearly a good human being with a history of volunteerism and charity for small birds in winter months,” but the corollary is too easy. Reader B, after all, may not be picking the legs off ladybugs in her or his few spare moments between stealing markers from the whiteboards in classrooms and using them to scrawl “execrable” on the front of undergraduate papers. And who’s to say my “A-” trumps the descriptor “execrable”? I was, after all, young and foolish enough to disagree with my professor…

The truth is, the disagreements are what matter. Even if the disagreement is between your research findings and the reader’s response, that disagreement is the issue at hand, and not necessarily how one or the other of you is wrong. Speaking to those disagreements in revisions is, most often, a more effective response than bending to the disparagements, rejecting them, or tearfully taking up a cup of the same “proof” of God’s love (so said Benjamin Franklin) that nurtured the grumpiness in the first place.

This isn’t to say an author shouldn’t be mindful of when a methodology might be wrong or data collection methods insufficient—those problems are real across most disciplines, qualitative or quantitative. We have blind review exactly for the purpose of catching those slips and exactly because they’re hardest for a like mind to spot. The sympathetic reader is also not the keen reader. However, such slips are also not personal. And as much as possible, they don’t grump or offer sour (even fermented) grapes. They propose improvements, which is for the best of the authors and readers alike.

But who wrote the comments?

It doesn’t actually matter who wrote something grumpy. It may be better to ask, what were the circumstances?

Mostly likely, reviews are written in haste and between other commitments, very often without much time for reflection or revision. I’ve probably reviewed 25 book manuscripts, more than double that for articles, and outside of blind review I have the dubious distinction of nearing a double fistful of years contributing to the always enormous Year’s Work in English Studies. It means I’ve published hundreds of book reviews. So I have a good deal of sympathy for the life of the humble reviewer.

Reviews are always service work, often done outside of work hours and after all the other chores are done. Which is to say, those circumstances also wrote the comments. So the onus is to be a more generous author than reviewer, because that’s the truth of it—everyone spends more care on their own work than remarking on another’s, so authors have the burden of generosity in reading the hasty scrawlings of their evaluators. Rather than the #humblebrag answer of compassion for the reviewer’s self-evident idiocy, simply recognizing that grumpiness is beyond both interlocutors’ control can be a real help.

“I Have Shot Mine Arrow O’er The House, And Hurt My Brother”

There is also the distinct possibility that the grumpiness never existed in the first place… Like the broken kettle, the reviewer didn’t get grumpy, the review wasn’t grumpy when it was written, and the reviewer never wrote it in the first place.

I reviewed a work of Canadian literary studies some time ago only to discover after the copy editor had “tidied” it up that I had, myself, shone not light, but rather grumpiness. A few select cuts here and a bit less punctuation there made a hesitation into a rather snide snipe. Albeit, I didn’t suggest the author was of the genus Suidae nor given to inappropriate relations with future prime ministers, but the result was nevertheless something decidedly harsher than I would have wished. Sometimes things just happen: the material conditions of production can lead to unanticipated negations.

The Hatchet Job of the Year

H.L. Mencken said of The Great Gatsby, that the American masterpiece is “no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that.” As reviews go, it’s fairly kind. The Hatchet Job of the Year was established in 2012 to reward negative reviews, and even those at the hatchet end of the stick must admit that no press is bad press. That is, “no press” is worse than “bad press,” and not by a little: by a lot. Bad reviews open curiosity as much as anything else. What remains is the question of exactly what is in the piece that is so eminently provocative? The labour put into a nasty review is itself a clear indication of the merits of keeping calm and carrying on. You can even say as much to your editor.

What to Say to Friends and Colleagues

So, what is one to do? In no particular order, I tend to give friends and colleagues variants on five points:

1. Acknowledging disagreements is often better than resolving them.
2. Never read the comments. And after you do, don’t answer them in kind.
3. Editors often recognize that intensely dismissive reviews are one way of expressing an even more intense interest. That interest is likely to be shared by other readers, so it’s worth bringing the project to completion.
4. We who survived (post)graduate studies are used to sorting through the liquid bluster of an angry chap at the pub working through his (often but not always “his”) childhood disappointments. If you can understand his directions to the toilets, it’s likely you can understand what grains of truth are to be gleaned from a hatchet review.
5. Always, always ask your editor for advice. Inevitably, she or he knows more than you about the exigencies of the review as well as the needs of the press.

So, put on your best impersonation of the grumpy reviewer (accents help), and read aloud with bluster. Then get the revisions in, on time, and carry on.

~ James Gifford
Twitter @GiffordJames