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Over the last few months Contemporary Sociology has received a disturbing set of unrelated e-mails from scholars who promised to review a book for CS. These unwelcome messages convey the following information: “I, the reviewer, have read the book that was sent to me some months ago and have concluded, after much agonizing, that I do not wish to write the review I promised to write,” or, worse, “I have written a review but will not send it because the tone or substance of the review displeases me.” When only one of these showed up, it was not cause for alarm, but now that a handful have been sent, suggesting that more might be on the way as part, I thought it was wise to preempt such future missives by addressing the problem immediately.
Scholars always give reasons for their actions, even if spurious, improbable, inaccurate, or inscrutable. It is not enough simply to say, “I do not want to review the book because I am not so inclined.” The reasons I have been given are (1) the book is not very good in some ways, and even though it is sound in others, I would prefer not to review it negatively, since (1a) I know that the department in which the author works is undergoing external review, and do not want to abet those who wish it ill, (1b) I have learned that the author is going through a rough patch right now and I don’t want to worsen the situation, (1c) I have very good reasons which are so sensitive that I cannot reveal them. Less mysterious are these reasons: (2) when I began the book, I had great hope for it based on its author(s) and subject matter, but discovered that it fell short of my expectations, and so I cannot work up the energy to write about it. There is also: (3) this book is so tedious and uninspired that I cannot think of any way to write about it that would interest the CS audience. I have tried several gambits, none of which seem to work. Or, more dramatically, (4) this book treats a tragic condition of life which I, too, experienced once, and the book brought back to me too forcefully my sad situation, so I find that I am existentially incapable of assessing the book objectively.
For the sake of politeness and collegial goodwill, let us assume that all of these reasons/excuses/rationalizations for not turning in a review are absolutely true, and that the would-be reviewers told me exactly what they honestly thought regarding the books in question. (Oftentimes the expiatory e-mail is very nearly as long as the assigned review would have been. And that my response has several times been simply this: “Add a few paragraphs and send your e-mail as the review, please,” a plea that occasionally works, but not often enough.) Aside from the Old School issues revolving around apothegms like “a promise is a promise,” “duty above all else,” and so on, there is a far more practical issue. The specifics are these: Let us say a book arrives in the CS office in January; it will immediately be processed and stored, and within one or two months, the Editorial Board will be asked for reviewer nominations. After two or three more months under the best circumstances, reviewers will begin to be asked. Another month or two might elapse before a reviewer is found who agrees to evaluate the book. So by now it is May or June. The book is sent out immediately upon receipt of the reviewer’s promise to review, and the reviewer is normally given two months to send us useable material. It is now July or August. Typically reviewers do not abide by the two-month deadline and sit on the book for a while longer, until they tire of hearing from us, repeatedly. It is possible to not see a review until September or later. So the book has been in our “care” for up to 10 months.
If a reviewer balks at the very end, we must start over practically from the beginning, especially if we have exhausted the finite list of potential reviewers nominated by our Editorial Board. Since timeliness matters, this situation hurts the author and publisher of the book under review, the internal workings and schedules of the CS staff, and probably the ozone layer. But there is, of course, a larger question about this inability to deliver the goods that transcends mere schedule-busting. Most of the hesitation seems to originate in a dread of angering or displeasing someone whom, in most cases, is personally unknown to the reviewer.
CS would never allow a gratuitously mean-spirited review to appear in its pages. But is it not a platitude in the Academy that lively, constructive, polite debate is the foundation of intellectual advance? Or, is that too much a premodern notion in a postmodern world, a print-era practice that our screen-driven existence has expunged? One could also talk about generational shifts, of course. So perhaps there is abroad a new set of interactional rules, which prohibits straightforward disagreement or challenges to a stated scholarly position. Taken to its extreme, this would mean that journals like CS will cease to exist (until, inevitably, they are revived) since reviewing means by definition taking a position, explaining it, approving or disapproving of the book under review, and not being afraid to say whatever requires saying under one’s own name—not in anonymous reviews of the kind that used to appear in literary magazines. If it is, as I have argued in a previous editorial, a duty for scholars to carry out reviewing as part of their professional persona, then it follows that submitting a review one has agreed to write is equally duty-bound. Short of debilitating illness, personal tragedy, or war, sending in the review one has promised to write, even if late (a common and forgivable occurrence), makes scholarly discourse at the highest levels possible.