How to Survive in Oz as an Academic. The 3 Kinds of Book Reviews and Why You Need to Know the Difference.

Book critic.

Over the past week, the purpose of book reviews has once again been a topic for debate. If this comes as news to you, don’t worry. The debate happened within a limited group of academics and academia-adjacent people on Twitter. But even though those involved were few, the debate did raise some general questions about book reviews, what they are for, for whom they are written, and why that matters in the larger scheme of things.

There are three different types of book reviews: the online review, the media review, and the academic review. Each type of review has its own purpose, its own intended audience, and its own requirements of what it needs to contain.

The book review is an important part of any literate society’s intellectual life. Students write book reviews to practice critical thinking. Critics write book reviews to tell magazine and newspaper readers about books they should pay attention to. Academics write book reviews to further the production of knowledge.

Book reviews are an important part of a book’s publicity plan. Book reviews help spread the word that a specific type of book exists, which, hopefully, will help boost sales. The algorithms on Amazon.com, for example, are geared to boost books that get good reviews and make them more visible on the site. Though the sections for literary criticism in newspapers has shrunk over the years, having their book reviewed in a major newspaper is a status marker for authors. If The New York Times reviews your book, it means that you have arrived.

In academia, book reviews are very important. Mainly published in academic journals, book reviews are a way to inform scholars of what is happening in their field. At American universities, they are among the publications a scholar needs to have published to qualify for tenure.

Important to keep in mind here is that these three types of reviews–the online review, the media review, and the academic review–are not the same. Reviews on Amazon are written by general readers. Reviews in newspapers and magazines are written by critics. Reviews in academic journals are written by experts.

Nor is their intended audience the same. Reviews on Amazon are intended for anyone interested in buying a specific book. Newspaper and magazine reviews are intended for the readers of that specific publication. Academic reviews are intended for the experts’ colleagues.

But even though these three types of book reviews differ in audience and purpose, they need to contain the same things: a summary of the contents, an evaluation of the contents, and discussion about the topic and the author. The purpose of a book review is then to weigh the merits and demerits of a book and reach a conclusion of whether or not the book is worth your time.

But here the three categories diverge again, because depending on who you write the review for, each section of the book review needs to summarize, discuss, and evaluate in different ways. And this is where the book reviewer gets into trouble if they are unaware of the different expectations of the different publication venues.

An academic review needs to discuss the merits as well as the demerits of a book. I would say there is an unwritten expectation that an academic book review needs to focus on the demerits because that is how the scholar demonstrates their skills at critical thinking. A favorable academic review is seen as a biased review. Even if the reviewer pans the book, the review will be published for the sake of science.

A review in the media also needs to discuss the merits as well as the demerits, but emphasis lies on the merits. The purpose of these reviews is to inform readers of books that might interest them. Here, a negative review fills no purpose. If a reviewer destroys a book in their review, chances are the review will never see publication. It is up to the discretion of each individual publication how much of a negative discussion they will allow in the reviews they publish.

An academic review needs to reference other books. Again, this is how the reviewer demonstrates their chops at critical analysis and moving the scientific conversation forward. By referencing other books, the reviewer demonstrates that they are up to date with the state of the art of research while at the same time demonstrating where in the scientific conversation the reviewed book belongs. The compare-and-contrast nature of this part of the review is crucial to moving the production of knowledge forward.

A review in the media should not reference other books. The reason is simple: the publication decides which books to feature based on the profile of their publication and the demographics of their readership. They also decide which books to feature based on a relationship with the publisher (less discerning publications also decide which books to feature based on who their friends are, which is what sparked the debate during this past week, but that’s another story). A media publication would never publish a review that discuss other books than the one being reviewed.

An academic review needs to contain academic jargon, and by academic jargon I mean the analytical terms, phrases, and type of prose that qualifies as academic. Again, this is how the reviewer demonstrates that they are part of the field.

A media review should not contain academic jargon. The point of academic jargon is to establish a language that will serve as short hand for scholars engaged in the same type of research. For anyone outside of that field (and this includes other scholars), that jargon is gobbledigook. I remember being confused by a discussion on the history of Swedish coal miners because they kept talking about how coal miners “penetrated” each other. Turns out “penetration” was academic jargon for the economic reform of coal miner collectives. (Don’t ask…) A review that contains academic jargon will be killed by the editor.

A media review needs to be straight forward and to the point. An academic review needs to take its time and be circumspect. A media review needs to be short. An academic review can go on for pages. A media review is written in the active voice. An academic review can use the passive voice. A media review can be written in the first person. An academic review is always written in the third person.

Academics get into trouble when writing media reviews because we are taught that, as the avant-garde of knowledge production, our way of writing book reviews is the correct way. Because we mainly publish in academic publications, we never need to consider our audience because the audience is always the same, and they play by the same rules as we do. But as soon as we step into the world of media, we are no longer in Kansas. Instead of playing the role of expert, we now become critics.

It is becoming increasingly important for scholars to know the difference between academic publishing and media publications as the erosion of higher education continues and scholars turn to mainstream culture to support themselves.

Thanks to social media, more scholars than ever have a public voice. With a public voice comes name recognition. With name recognition comes opportunities. For us to capitalize on those opportunities, we need to learn the rules of the world we have stepped into. Similar to academia, the rules of that world are harsh, they are discriminatory, they are humiliating, and they do not provide everyone with a level playing field. But, like Dorothy who learned the rules of Oz so that she could pull the curtain on the Emperor when she arrived in Emerald City, for us to change those rules, we first need to learn to play by them.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Book Review Round Up Part 2: Foreword Reviews

As some of you might know, I review books for Foreword Reviews, a magazine and review service that reviews books published by independent presses, university presses, and self-published authors for independent bookstores, libraries, and literary agents, as well as the general reading public. This week I would like to share with you some of the books that I have reviewed for them over the past year and a half. In addition to being featured on Foreword Review’s website, these reviews have also been published in the print edition of the magazine Foreword Reviews.

Last time I did a Foreword Review book review round up was in October 2020 and you can read that round up by clicking on this link.

Hopefully you will find a book that interests you. Enjoy!

The text within quotation marks are excerpts from the reviews.

Norris Hundley, Jr. and Donald C. Jackson. Heavy Ground. William Mulholland and the St Francis Dam Disaster (University of Nevada Press, 2020).

“On March 12th, 1928, the St. Francis Dam collapsed, and twelve billion gallons of silted water crashed through the California countryside. By the time the flood reached the coast and spilled into the Pacific, an estimated 400 people had lost their lives, making this one of the greatest disasters of its kind in US history.”

I really enjoyed this book and its discussions on how the city of Los Angeles wouldn’t exist the way we know it, if it hadn’t been for the massive infrastructure projects that were undertaken to secure the city’s water supply. Also, I will never think of Mulholland Drive the same again.

Amy Nathan. Together. An Inspiring Response to the “Separate-but-Equal” Supreme Court Decision that Split America (Paul Dry Books, 2021).

“On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy, a Black shoemaker from New Orleans, bought a first class train ticket to Covington, Louisiana. When the train arrived, Plessy took his seat. Less than three blocks away from the station, the trip came to an end, and Plessy found himself arrested for being a Black man traveling in a train car for white people. Plessy found himself in court, and Judge John Ferguson found him guilty of breaking the law. What seemed like a minor occurrence was, in fact, part of a bigger plan to challenge The Separate Car Act of 1890, which introduced segregated train seating in Louisiana.”

This book is a great introduction to the actions that led to the Supreme Court ruling known as Plessy v. Ferguson, which came to be used as the legal precendent for introducing Jim Crow laws in the South. The story focuses on how the descendants of Homer Plessy and Judge John H. Ferguson work together to bridge the racial divide caused by this case.

Jen Gunter. The Menopause Manifesto (Kensington Books, 2021).

“Jen Gunter’s The Menopause Manifesto is a self-help guide through menopause for all women of a certain age. The Menopause Manifesto is practical as it reclaims menopause from myths, educating and empowering its audience in equal measure.”

In addition to reviewing The Menopause Manifesto, I interviewed its author, Dr. Jen Gunter. You can read my interview with Dr. Gunter here. An excerpt from this interview was also included in Foreword Review’s round up of the best conversations between reviewers and authors in 2021.

Mario Levrero, Annie McDermott (transl.). The Luminous Novel (And Other Stories, 2021).

“An author’s dream of financial independence comes true when he receives a generous stipend with no strings attached. Suddenly he has the means to dedicate all of his time to the novel that has eluded him for so many years. But the dream turns into a nightmare. Even with no time restrictions, he finds himself without the time to write. The novel slips further away from him, and with it, his life.”

This book was an unusual reading experience. The only way I can describe it is “meta.” This is a book written about the inability to write. But if you are unable to write, then how did you write this book?

Ellen Prentiss Campbell. Frieda’s Song (Apprentice House Press, 2021).

“In 1935, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, a Jewish psychoanalyst, leaves Nazi Germany for the United States, where she builds a new life in Rockville, Maryland. In 2009, Eliza, also a psychoanalyst and the single mother of a troubled teenage son, moves into the house Frieda built. By accident, she discovers Frieda’s diary. Thereafter unfolds a story of how, for one summer, the women’s lives mirrored each other, despite a difference of decades.”

I enjoyed this book because it taught me about the real-life person of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, a pioneer in psychoanalysis and the treatment of schizophrenia.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

I’m on Goodreads

Last year I took the plunge and joined Goodreads. I’ve been searching for a way to keep track of my readings as well as writing short reviews, since I’ve noticed that doing both of these things helps me retain what I read to a higher degree. I’ve tried keeping book journals, writing about books here on The Boomerang, tweeting about books I’ve read, but nothing seemed to work out in the long run.

I joined Goodreads in July last year, and so far, it seems to be working out well. If you’d like to follow me on Goodreads, you can find me there under my full name.

Here’s a sample of the books I’ve read and reviewed on Goodreads. Hopefully it will help you find some new books and authors to read. Either way, I hope you enjoy the reviews.

Nnedi Okorafor, Binti: Home.

Eric Idle, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. A Sortabiography.

Brian McClellan, Promise of Blood.

Aeschylus, Oresteia.

J.Y. Yang, The Black Tides of Heaven.

Eve MacDonald, Hannibal. A Hellenistic Life.

Myke Cole, The Queen of Crows.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.