On the Necessity of Academic Reviewing
On the Necessity of Academic Reviewing
Let me begin by celebrating the fact proven by the present company involved in this discussion: a vibrant culture of reviewing Caribbean literature exists. In the past decade, Caribbean Review of Books has developed as the unparalleled little magazine of Caribbean literature, whether in its paper or electronic iteration, joining Callaloo as a great place to find first-rate reviews. Internet publishing has become an especially fruitful site for book reviewing, whether in blogs like Signifying Guyana or here in sx Salon. Online venues have therefore become wonderful resources for reviews of new Caribbean novels, poetry, and other creative writing. The reviewing of Caribbean literary and cultural studies scholarship, however, remains more piecemeal. I became review editor of Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal earlier this year, and have from that position had a chance to consider what academic reviewing can learn from the reviewing culture surrounding creative work. There are obvious structural obstacles to academic reviewing, which I’ll discuss below. But despite these obstacles, I want to make a case that the reviewing of scholarly work is an important activity that all of us in the field have an investment in fostering. Literary and cultural criticism is written as part of a conversation: when we research and write, we build on prior arguments, anticipate objections, align ourselves with certain predecessors, quarrel with one another. We write with the hope that our work will contribute to the conversations that have built our field, and will spark further debate and discussion to keep the field lively and dynamic. Scholarly journals can learn from more popular publications and blogs how to take advantage of the wide audience offered by Internet publishing to continue to build a transnational cyberspace in which Caribbean scholarly work will be discussed and disseminated.
The development of Caribbean literature has undoubtedly had much to do with the energy of social transformations that made literacy and literature more widely available and inspired artists and writers to create indigenous literary cultures. The contributions of social actors outside the traditional intellectual classes have therefore been central to Caribbean literary and cultural history. But it is also notable that the greatest leaps forward in the story of Caribbean literature have come especially in moments when a critical mass of participants in literary dialogue was achieved: the Beacon or Drumblair groups in Trinidad and Jamaica during the 1930s, the writers surrounding the journal Tropiques in 1940s Martinique, the participants in the Caribbean Voices program in the 1950s, the Caribbean Artists Movement in the 1960s leading into Savacou in the 1970s. The institutions these writers created to debate literary standards and writerly goals formed the groundwork of Caribbean literature and literary studies as we know it.
Today, these institutions of the Caribbean literary public sphere exist primarily in two locations: on the Internet and in the academy. I’ll leave it to other participants in this discussion to talk about the blogosphere, for while digital publishing seeks to bridge the distance between the two spheres, a divide remains. Academic scholarship frequently buttresses itself against intrusion by nonspecialist readers, whether through the use of jargon or via publication in venues (be they databases or ridiculously priced books) too expensive for readers without access to a university library. As a result, discussion of academic work more often than not is confined to taking place in other academic work. This is only one of the hurdles against the kind of robust conversation around ideas and evaluations that a healthy field of literary studies requires. Part of the problem with scholarly work is just how slowly it can take this conversation to materialize within academic publishing outlets: even after a scholar finishes a monograph that can require years of research and writing, it can take another year to get the attention of a university press, a year to receive anonymous reviews, a year in production. A book may appear at the end of this long wait, but the author who expects to hear her or his ideas being debated or built upon in other research will have to wait for the work of other authors that she or he has influenced to go through the whole cycle itself. Book reviews are one of the few intermediate steps between initial publication and the years that may unfold before another scholar takes up the original ideas. (The even more immediate step where new ideas are debated and evaluated is at the stage of anonymous peer reviews, which is why some academics argue for having those peer reviews published as part of an effort to generate robust conversation in the field.)1
Reviews of academic books are therefore crucial to ensuring that new scholarly work does not just proceed, unread and undiscussed, into the library stacks of a few dozen research universities. The review is a unique genre, with its own characteristics that can promote dialogue and the exchange of ideas. Reviews are not just summaries of the contents of the text: a review cannot cover every intricacy of the original argument, so focusing on the most representative examples of the critic’s argument has to give a reader a feel for the text as a whole. Instead of summarizing, then, a good review makes clear the author’s methodology and argument, and explains at least a couple of examples of how that methodology is put into practice. Just as important, a review reconstructs for the reader the rhetorical context of a particular text—the debates within the field in which that text is participating—and gives a sense of the contribution the text is making to those debates. What are the scholarly predecessors to which this work might be responding, and how does this work position itself vis-à-vis those predecessors? That is, does it have an antagonist relationship with previous work, a deferential attitude, a general unawareness? Have other works on related subjects been published recently, and if so, what might that tell us about the directions the field is moving in? Reading a review of a scholarly work can thus provide a sense of the significance of the book under review, as well as insight into the state of the field as a whole.
I first wrote reviews of academic books as assignments for two graduate courses at the University of Puerto Rico. In Loretta Collins’s course on orality in Caribbean literature, I wrote a review of Edouard Glissant’s A Poetics of Relation; in Reinhard Sander’s course on V. S. Naipaul, I wrote a review of Selwyn Cudjoe’s V. S. Naipaul: A Materialist Reading. Writing a review of an academic book was a wonderful graduate school exercise. It made me pay attention to how scholarly work is put together, and also helped me start thinking about myself as a contributor to the field who was part of a conversation begun by other critics but to which I might have something to add. The assignments encouraged me to begin reading published reviews of academic work, which helped me keep up with the development of my field and allowed me to see what made certain reviews especially helpful. While working on my dissertation, I started thinking about reviewing work that was particularly related to my own research focus; the habit had been established in those seminar assignments, and I produced a review of Shalini Puri’s The Caribbean Postcolonial that was one of my first publications.2 Reviewing academic work certainly helped me find my own scholarly voice by making me think about the trends and debates in the field I was entering, as well as which questions in the field were especially urgent or interesting and how accomplished scholars were answering some of those questions that interested me.
The structural obstacles to having a lively culture of academic reviewing are many. While academics can receive monetary reward (however modest) for reviewing novels (and on occasion, even poetry) for more popular publications likes newspapers, these venues are seldom interested in reviews of scholarly work. Instead, reviews of academic books go to the same journals in which other scholarship and research is published, for ostensibly the same compensation: a line on one’s curriculum vitae. The places where we cash in the chips accrued in our CV—tenure and promotion, annual reports—tell us explicitly that we will get very little credit for a book review: in fact, the higher we move up the academic pecking order, both in terms of rank and institutional status, the less credit book reviews are assigned. As a result, this task—like most things vital to the health of the field but granted less prestige—is often farmed out to graduate students.
Advanced graduate students can make great reviewers. They are often in the midst of cutting-edge dissertation research that gives them a strong sense of what is new in the field and how a particular scholarly work fits into these emerging trends. But when only graduate students or newly minted PhDs end up writing all of a field’s published reviews—even as established scholars are being tapped (and paid) to evaluate manuscripts and tenure cases—the field loses the accumulated wisdom of scholars who might be able to provide a different perspective on new scholarship’s relationship to what has come before. More institutionalized encouragement for senior members of the field to participate in reviewing new scholarship—for example, through conference panels organized around new books in the field or special issues of journals—is needed to create robust discussion of new ideas.
All of this is to say, a dynamic field needs newly published books in the field to be reviewed, quickly and rigorously, by a mix of its newer members and more established members. In the long term, this happens only if the rewards available for this kind of work are arranged in a way that encourages it. For now, we can celebrate the existence of vibrant forums like the roundtables hosted in the print edition of Small Axe, which stage precisely the kind of conversation around new scholarship that allows a true evaluation of the parameters and impact of new ideas. In Anthurium, we will be introducing a new feature called “Dialogues” that will invite a pair of authors of recent scholarly monographs on related topics to each write a review of the other’s work. The goal of staging this kind of dialogue will be to attract active scholars with significant expertise in the area to help explore the relationship of their work to other emerging work in the field. The benefit to each author will be to receive a serious and considered review of her or his own work; readers of the journal, meanwhile, will gain from hearing the perspectives of especially knowledgeable and current participants in the field. Two authors who have just published monographs on, say, diasporic fiction by women or queer subjectivities in the region will be especially well situated to contextualize, explain, and evaluate one another’s work and the place of that work in the field as a whole. Setting up such a dialogue will allow the journal to acknowledge the rhetorical contexts that these works share, and call attention to how these kinds of closely related projects point to emerging trends and subfields within Caribbean literary and cultural studies.
Book reviews have been a staple of the publications that have built Caribbean literature: the Beacon in Trinidad, Public Opinion in Jamaica, La poesía sorprendida in the Dominican Republic, Kyk-over-al in Guyana, Caribbean Writer in St. Croix, and Puerto Rican publications like Sargasso or Claridad’s cultural supplement En Rojo have all featured robust review sections that allowed these newspapers and journals to promote awareness of new creative work and position themselves at the field’s cutting edge. These publications have enabled the dialogues that have made Caribbean literature what it is today. For Caribbean literary studies to continue to grow and build on the exciting work now being done in the field, reviewing academic books must be a central part of that process.
Raphael Dalleo is an assistant professor of English at Florida Atlantic University and review editor of Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal. He is coauthor of The Latino/a Canon and the Emergence of Post-Sixties Literature (2007) and author of Caribbean Literature and the Public Sphere: From the Plantation to the Postcolonial (2011).
1 See the discussion in Crooked Timber, crookedtimber.org/2011/06/04/thoughts-on-peer-review-and-mongooses/.
2 Raphael Dalleo, “The Politics of Caribbean Postcoloniality,” review of Shalini Puri’s The Caribbean Postcolonial, Postcolonial Studies 7, no. 3 (2004): 355–58.