Book reviews are an important part of academic discourse. But what makes a good book review? While there is no one right answer, there are a series of wrong answers. This workshop will cover the basics of writing a good book review, from initial invitation to final submission.
Donald Wright is Vice-President of the CHA and was the review editor for the Canadian Historical Review, 2016-2022.
The Canadian Historical Association’s first virtual workshop got off to a smashing start with Dr. Donald Wright, who explained the ins and outs of academic book reviewing.
What is the purpose of a book review? Wright argued that book reviews advance knowledge. This might be idealistic, he admits, but he learned “a ton” from reviews of his own books. A handful were critical and “bruising,” but they helped him with his current project. At one point he even engaged with one critical reviewer, hoping to flesh out where he went wrong and how he could improve.
Book reviews provide a primary source for intellectual historians, especially those in historiography. As a PhD student, Wright amassed an archive of book reviews, especially from the 1920s and 1930s, for what they could tell him about emerging norms in the field. For his book on historian Donald Creighton, he amassed an archive of Creighton’s reviews, and saw how his works were welcomed and challenged. Like any primary source, the reviews can be read any number of ways – historiographically, biographically, or against the grain for what they don’t say.
The most important factor for a good book review, Wright argued, was that it tells the reader what the book is about and why someone should or should not read it. He said it was amazing the number of writers who didn’t do that, and he would have to return the review with the comment, “Please summarize the book's contents.” One reason we read book reviews is because we cannot read everything – but we can read all the book reviews. It keeps academics on top of what’s publishing in their field and adjacent ones, but that doesn’t work if there is no summary.
Wright asked some of his colleagues what else they thought a book review should do. Some of the answers: a review should place the book in the historiography; it should evaluate the sources; it should discuss the book’s theoretical foundations; it should peak interest in the book. But, though summary is important, it must go beyond that. It should engage with scholarship that has not been adequately recognized by the profession, and value and legitimize new ways of knowing the past.
Scholarly reviews generally run 750 to 850 words, though occasionally they can be as long as 1000 or as short as 600. A review can’t say everything, so the reviewer must make choices. They can focus on sources, methodology, theory, piquing interest, epistemological innovations, or some of the above. There is no right or wrong answer to what should be in that review, beyond that important summary. Writers must make choices to give the review coherence.
There is also the question about what a review should not do. It should not be a “trash-fest” – even the worst books have at least one redeeming feature. Contact the editor. Reviewers who find they are working with an exceptionally bad book should send it back. Sometimes reviewers review the book they would have liked to read rather than the book written. And Wright spoke about how he hated cliches, and to avoid them in writing. Words and phrases like “welcome addition,” “everyone should read this book,” “brilliantly argued,” “sensitive,” and “brilliant” were all overused.
Wright recommended a few tricks of the trade. First, remember your reader. Tailor the review for the publication. Wright said he liked reviews that used an opening hook and observation to draw the reader in. A good tag line at the end was also useful. Try to incorporate the title and cover into the review – a reviewer can use these to considerable effect.
Finally, Wright had some important advice to grad students and junior colleagues. Please, he begged, read and follow the Author Guidelines. He said it was amazing how many scholars sent 750 words and expected him to fix everything. Meet the deadline. If you can’t, let your editor know. Don’t ghost your review editor – nothing is more frustrating.
With that, Wright opened the floor, where participants discussed questions like “Why read a book review?” “What do you like to see in a review?” “Should you pitch a review? How?” “Who should be reviewing a book?”
The discussion was lively and informative, with participants trading questions, comments, and experiences on everything pertaining to the academic book review. A very successful workshop, the CHA thanks Donald Wright for sharing his time, and everyone else for providing such enthusiasm.
The recording of the workshop is now available on the CHA's You Tube channel @ https://youtu.be/4WyQBQY-fBM.