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08/08/2012

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Richard Yetter Chappell

If a book is not worth reading, I would like a book review to tell me this. It seems like a genuine service to the rest of the profession.

Marcus Arvan

Mark: great questions. Here are just a few quick thoughts.

First thought: I guess I think it's the duty of a reviewer to be forthright with their audience. I've seen several rather awful books gain notoriety recently, seemingly in part because they were given overly kind reviews in big-name journals. I don't think this does our profession any favors.

Second thought: given your career trajectory (i.e. you've been very, very successful at such an early stage; your work speaks for itself), I don't think you have too much to fear in writing a negative review.

Third thought: I think the crucial thing is not to go over the top. Some negative reviews are simply unkind. As I see it, one has two obligations: (A) a professional obligation to give a forthright review, and (B) a general obligation to treat other people humanely. Whatever the demerits of a book, there is honesty, and then there is cruelty. While I suspect there are those who will say, "We are not in the business of being kind; we are in the business of doing professional philosophy", I beg to differ. There is, on the other side of any negative review, another human being. We shouldn't forget that. "Professional obligations" shouldn't outweigh basic duties of human decency. Or so say I. :)

Anyway, I don't know if any of these thoughts are helpful -- but I sympathize with your dilemma, and hope you arrive at a good resolution to it.

Kate Manne

I think a relevant consideration is whether the book is getting positive attention as things stand, and (if so) whether it's misleading or simply poorly argued/structured. If the book seems likely to be influential, *and* to lead people in the field astray (for instance, by construing other scholars' work uncharitably), then I say go for it. Otherwise, it's a more complicated decision, and it might be better to simply let it sink. I don't know though. I too sympathize with your predicament! :)

Brad Cokelet

I heard a story from a relatively famous philosopher that early in his career he wrote a negative review of a book that roughly fits your description and he was then hounded by the students of the person he reviewed...they would negatively review his books, show up at his talks and launch aggressive attacks, etc. I admit this seem hard to imagine, like something out of an academic (comic) novel, but I also think you should keep in mind that you might get some negative push-back from a review that really cuts into a book.

My own view is that if you don't find something interesting or thought-provoking in the book you are reviewing you should probably refrain from reviewing it. There are better ways to use ones time.

Kyle Whyte

This is a good topic. Others have mentioned some of these things in their posts (especially Kate), but I keep wondering, now, what the primary issues you're finding are with the particular book, and that that has some bearing on the best decision to make. Is it well argued but not adequately original? Is it the product of careful work but the ultimate argument is just too much of a stretch? Is it just a poorly constructed argument? Is it's scholarship bad, in terms of situating the argument in its proper historical and contemporary contexts? Does it miss key interlocutors or simply straw man them to the point the entire book fails to stimulate? Is it poorly organized? Despite it's being at a good press, are their comments to be made about how it is not well put together or edited? I'm thinking that whatever combination of these questions pertains to this particular book may shed light on what the best thing to do is. I also wonder whether there really is any "science" regarding the ultimate effects of a bad review. Can't we all think of examples where it gave someone notoriety that was positive for their careers or where it reflected badly on the reviewer, among all sorts of other possibilities that may be hard to explain?

Mark Alfano

Thanks, all. These are very helpful comments.

Since the book has been positively reviewed on NDPR, I think I'll go ahead with my own. Kyle: you'll see what I'm complaining about when I finish the review... :)

Kyle Whyte

Oh indeed! I look forward to seeing it.

Mark Alfano

Here's a draft of the review: http://alfanos.org/Blog/?p=161

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