The impotence of being reviewed…

Jonathan Willis

Following Brodie’s post last month on ‘Twelve reasons to buy my book, or, The ancient art of self-promotion’, I started thinking about what is one of the most exciting stages of the subsequent post-publication process: that is, the point at which the first review appears. This post is therefore a reflection on my own experience of being reviewed.[1] The book in question is my Church Music and Protestantism in Post-Reformation England, which was published by Ashgate in their St Andrews Studies in Reformation History series in May 2010.[2] A modified version of my PhD thesis, the book charts the impact of the reformation on religious music, and the role of religious music in shaping the English reformation (OK, so I couldn’t resist a quick plug!).

A jog rather than a sprint

One of the inevitable by-products of the academic system is the development of a ‘feedback loop’. This starts at school, and continues through university, including the process of PhD supervision, and even the viva. I think most of us have a deep-seated desire to be told how well we’ve managed to perform a given task: I’m minded here of Lisa Simpson’s desperate plea to Marge when the teachers go on strike and Springfield Elementary closes: ‘Grade me…look at me…evaluate and rank me! Oh, I’m good, good, good, and oh so smart! Grade me!’ All of which is a slightly roundabout way of making the point that, once you’ve released a book into the world, it’s only natural to want to know how well it has been received. Well, you may be in for a bit of wait. Books have to be sent out to a journal, received, processed, allocated, sent out to a reviewer, received and read even before the review can be written, which can itself take a fair bit of time. Manuscripts have to be typed up, sent in, proof-read, and scheduled for publication in a particular issue. How many of us have ever taken more than the allocated time to submit a book review? Need I say more! My first review appeared just over a year after the book was published, which isn’t an especially long time by any means, and two and a half years in I suspect that there are still several more in the pipeline. Glance at the list of books available to review on the Sixteenth Century Journal website, and there are still plenty of titles from 2010 awaiting their reviewer…

More a trickle than a flood

Briefly, and for the same reasons outlined above, it therefore follows that different journals will take varying amounts of time to publish their review of your book. The rules here are slightly different for game-changing books by field-shaping authors. When Eamon Duffy or Alexandra Walsham release a new monograph, it’s a fair guarantee that the reviews will appear thick and fast, while journals vie with one another to ride the crest of the publication wave. But I think that the experience is different for the majority of (especially) first books and their authors. The sheer volume of work being produced in the field is so overwhelming that it might take a long time for your turn to come around. For example, the October 2012 issue of the Journal of Ecclesiastical History features reviews of several books published in 2009.

The Journal

Past and Present famously do not review books, of course, but most of us have an idea of the top journals in our particular area, and would probably like to see our book being reviewed there. But, and again for the reasons outlined above, it’s not wise to be too fussy, and it is frankly exciting to see a review of your work being published anywhere! My experience is of two reviews in major, large-circulation journals (History and the Journal of British Studies) and two in smaller, more specialist publications (Ecclesiology Today and Anglican and Episcopal History).

The Reviewer

Again, most of us would probably like to see our work being reviewed by one of the leading practitioners in our field, but the reality is that you could be reviewed by anybody, from the greenest PhD student to the loftiest of munros [for an explanation of this term, see this previous post by Laura Sangha]. The thing to remember is that a review is no less valuable for that! I feel lucky in that two people whose work I already knew and respected very much reviewed my book (Eric Carlson and Andrew Foster), but the other reviewers also brought valuable insights and have helped me see and think about the book in different ways, as well as addressing the concerns of a broader constituency of readers.

The Good News

I’m delighted to say that although it is at times a slow and frustrating process, my experience of being reviewed has been an entirely pleasurable one (so far). Everyone likes having nice things said about them, and a few positive reviews finally close the ‘feedback loop’ I mentioned at the start. I feel that it would be remiss of me to pass up the opportunity of quoting a few highlights(!): Eric Carlson commented that the book used ‘an exceptional range of sources’ and that ‘the prose has flashes of genuine wit and elegance’. Sarah Williams picked up on ‘careful and exhaustive archival research’. Andrew Foster wrote an extremely kind review, calling it a ‘truly exciting, ground-breaking book’, displaying ‘amazing erudition whilst also providing a compelling read’. And Jonathan Gray remarked that the book was ‘learned and thought-provoking … a detailed, meticulously researched monograph’.

The Bad News

Given that we research and write in a universe of finite time and resources, most of us are probably aware that even the most polished work has, if not shortcomings, at least areas of particular strength and therefore (by extension) of relative weakness. A good review will highlight these, but in a proportionate and constructive manner. To pick a few nuggets from my review sample, this was not (as one author pointed out, I imagine with eyebrow raised) an introductory textbook; another noted that it shed light on far more aspects of life in early modern England ‘than one might suppose from the title’ (ouch!). Finally, another commented that the final chapter was perhaps the ‘least satisfying’, because – as I would be among the first to admit – much archival work on parish music still remains to be done.

In Conclusion…

In conclusion, my experience of being reviewed is that it is a slow but ultimately rewarding process. It certainly isn’t the be-all and end-all though. If anything, the most rewarding feedback I’ve had has come in the form of unsolicited emails or personal approaches at conferences and elsewhere from people who have read and enjoyed the book. It’s also made me think very differently about how I review other people’s books. I’d be interested to hear what experiences monster readers have had, either as reviewees or reviewers. Is it always plain sailing…?


[1] My book has been reviewed four times so far since it came out in May 2010: by Eric Carlson in History, 96.323 (2011), p. 368; by Andrew Foster in Ecclesiology Today, 45 (2012); by Jonathan Michael Gray in Anglican and Episcopal History, 81.1 (2012), pp. 106-17; and by Sarah F. Williams in Journal of British Studies, 50.3 (2011), pp. 753-755.

[2] Jonathan Willis, Church Music and Protestantism in Post-Reformation England: Discourses, Sites and Identities (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010).

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5 thoughts on “The impotence of being reviewed…

  1. Now I’m even more eagerly awaiting my first review. It would be nice if was a good one, but even if it’s not there is something deeply satisfying just in knowing that some stranger thought it worth their while to read and publicly comment on your work.

    Your third point (‘The Journal’) presents an implicit challenge: Who gets a review in the most obscure journal? I think you’re off to a good start with Ecclesiology Today, a journal whose title will probably be unintelligible to most non-religious historians. Also, I like that the website of the journal’s publisher, the Ecclesiological Society, is simply titled ‘Churchs! Site of the Ecclesiological Society – for those who love churches’. But I’m hoping that Bee Venom Therapy Journal will pick up mine.

    Can anyone beat that for obscurity?

    • Thanks Brodie, I think that’s it: just knowing that somebody has read and engaged with your work is a really positive experience. That might be a review, an informal conversation, or even a student who’s picked you off the reading list and used you in an essay! It’s also interesting (although not unexpected, in this postmodern, post-structuralist world) that people occasionally pick up on things in your work that you did not in fact realise that you were doing or saying. In terms of Bee Venom Therapy (much underrated, I’m sure you’ll agree), I feel there is a potential for this thread to turn into a list of possible guest publications from the missing words round of the BBC TV show Have I Got News For You, which one Wikipedia user has gone to a great deal of trouble to catalogue for the first 32 series. Miniature Donkey Talk, anyone?

      • Perhaps a better game would be to guess which of the listed publications would be mostly likely to actually review one’s book. As much as I’m keen on ‘Bee Venom Therapy’, I suspect that ‘Down Your Way – Yorkshire’s Nostalgic Magazine’ is more likely for my book given the number of examples I cite from the West Yorkshire Archive Service.

  2. The one thing I’ve found about reading the reviews of my monograph is confirmation of the utter diversity of individual readers. We could easily say, ‘um, yup, they’re different people’, but what I really mean here is that some ‘get’ the bigger picture you’ve tried to layout, some seem to focus on one particular strand, while others approach the work from angles you don’t expect – for good or ill. I’ve been struck by some of these expectations, some which seem (in my eyes) to reinforce the very suppositions I tried to undermine in the book itself, or others which appear genuinely surprised or at the very least taken a back by my refusal to prioritize particular issues.
    In the end I wanted to write a book that was, in many ways, a long ‘question’ – the introduction I feel set that up nicely. I’m generally enjoying reading through the reviews which are coming in from a wide array of scholars with a wide array of interests. Here’s to being published!

    • Thanks Matt, you’ve picked up a theme which I very nearly included in the original post, but which I cut because what I’d managed to come up with was a bit too long and rambling.: namely, coming to terms with being an author! It’s a commonplace in our post-modern, post-structuralist world that authors have no direct control over the ways in which their work is used or interpreted, and as historians we’re very used to dealing with that in terms of the subject of our research. But of course it’s also something we have to deal with in terms of our writing, and the ways in which own own texts go on to be used and interpreted by readers. It was very striking to me that musicologists, church historians and others reviewing my book picked up on very different elements of what I’d done, as well as some of the same broad themes. It actually made me look at the book in new ways – it’s exciting that our relationship with a body of work can continue to evolve and surprise us long after we’ve released it into the world. As you say, here’s to being published!

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