I came across Pea Soup's NDPR Discussion Series today, which features authors responding to book reviews, and am curious what readers think: should authors respond to book reviews? If so, when? If not, why not?
As an author of a relatively new book myself, I confess to feeling a bit torn here. On the one hand, I very much appreciate why authors might want to respond to reviews, particularly if they are invited to do so or if they have philosophical concerns about the content of a review, such as misrepresentations of their work. Further and more generally, as a philosopher I find myself attracted to the idea of scholarly debate and discussion: if a book is reviewed, it might be illuminating to see how the author responds. Finally, because academic books are expensive; because the reception of a book can make a difference to an author's career (including tenure and promotion decisions); and because books by early-career authors may only receive a handful of reviews (journals can be selective in which books they decide to review), there may be a pragmatic case to be made for responding to some reviews. I cannot help but be reminded here of R.M. Hare's brutal two-part review of Rawls' A Theory of Justice in The Philosophical Quarterly, which concludes:
In concluding this not very sympathetic notice, it must be said that a reviewer with more ample patience and leisure might possibly have done better for Rawls. I have taken a great deal of pains (and it really has been painful) trying to get hold of his ideas, but with the feeling all the time that they were slipping through my fingers...The book is extremely repetitious, and it is seldom clear whether the repetitions really are repetitions, or modifications of previously expressed views. I have drawn attention to some of these difficulties, and there are all too many others. Rawls is not to be blamed for failing to keep the whole of this huge book in his head at the same time (the only way to avoid inconsistencies when writing a book); and still less are his readers. He is to be blamed, if at all, for not attempting something more modest and doing it properly.
Many years ago [Rawls] wrote some extremely promising articles, containing in germ, though without clarity, a most valuable suggestion about the form and nature of moral thought. It might have been possible to work this idea out with concision and rigour (Rawls' disciple Mr Richards has made a tolerably good job of it in his book A Theory of Reasons for Action, which is much clearer than Rawls' own book as an exposition of this type of theory). If Rawls had limited himself to, say, 300 pages, and had resolved to get his main ideas straight and express them with absolute clarity, he could have made a valuable contribution to moral philosophy.
Because reviews can be fair or unfair, charitable or uncharitable, etc., it is not hard to imagine philosophical or professional reasons why an author might want to respond to some reviews. And indeed, as a new author, I have given some thought to doing so myself.
At the same time, there seem to me to be pretty good countervailing reasons not to respond to reviews. First, there may be good pragmatic reasons not to: it might reflect poorly on the author (prejudicing other reviewers?); the author's time might simply be better spent publishing new work; and so on. Second, and perhaps more to the heart of the matter, my own feeling is that a published work can, should, and usually will ultimately speak for itself. After all, despite Hare's review, Rawls' book caught on. What Hare took to be serious errors in A Theory of Justice, generations of other philosophers took to be the foundations for research programmes. Similarly, as I'm sure we all know, Hume famously remarked that his Treatise "fell still-born from the press"--and, or so Wikipedia tells me of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, "Although now uniformly recognized as one of the greatest works in the history of philosophy, this Critique was largely ignored upon its initial publication...It received few reviews, and these granted it no significance."
Now, of course, very few of us will be a Hume or Kant (I certainly don't pretend to be!). Still, my feeling is that the following principle may be the best perspective for authors to adopt: good work does not usually go unrecognized forever, bad work usually does not stand the test of time, and one must leave it to readers to decide for themselves.
But these are just some of my current thoughts--and I am far from certain about them. What are yours? Should authors respond to book reviews? If so, when? If not, why not?