Why I Write Book Reviews…

The reviews pages of the Irish ExaminerI had an interview a few months ago for a position at a small university just outside of London. The meeting with the teaching staff before lunch was very pleasant, more like a chat between (potential) colleagues than anything else. Actually, it was very positive. Kind of a surprise so when the interview with the Higher Ups and Admin types in the afternoon was a little more combative. In fact, after a number of other interview experiences in the last year, that afternoon session has started to seem more and more belligerent. In particular, there was one part which sticks with me:

Panel Member: ‘I’m looking at your CV and I see an awful lot of reviews. You’re very productive.’

Me: ‘Thank you.’

Panel Member: ‘No, that wasn’t a compliment…’

Welcome to academia! Now, one of the reasons I didn’t secure that job was that the panel wished to hire someone with an already extensive list of peer-reviewed articles – for which the author will never get paid – and considered my newspaper work – an important part of my living – to be a distraction from more ‘academic’ pursuits. Why? Well, like most things, it’s all down to money. Anyone working in or interviewing for academic positions in the UK (and, increasingly, here in Ireland) will be familiar with how university funding has become linked to the publication output of a particular department’s academics. The result of this is that the person with the most journal articles gets the job because the hiring institution will (in the UK anyway) be able to use those publications in their REF applications:

Me: ‘I do have a number of forthcoming publications. For instance, I have an article on McGahern which looks at –’

Panel Member: ‘How many pages is that?’

Me: ‘Sorry, what?’

Panel Member: ‘How. Many. Pages. Is. That?’

Me: ‘I don’t know, it’s not published yet. I can tell you how long it is. It’s 11,000 words.’

Panel Member: ‘That’ll do. What else do you have?’

Because that, apparently, is the criteria on REF application forms: ‘how many pages have your academics published?’. Not, ‘what breakthroughs have your academics made?’ or ‘how has the contribution of your academics been received in their fields?’ but ‘how many pages have they published?’. More pages equal more money, and though said academic wrote them for free, he or she needs them in order to get the job and make a living.

It’s an awkward Catch-22 (or ‘crocodile’, as I’m told the term was way-back-when!) for early career academics such as myself. Yet what certain funds-hungry members of the interview panel at <Name Redacted> University College failed to or declined to acknowledge is that my aims aren’t so different from theirs. Yes, I write book reviews because I love reading and I love writing about what I read – in fact that’s my main reason – but I also write them in order to earn a living. My lecturing and teaching roles have thus far been part-time and, though I aspire to work full time as a lecturer (at which point I hope to be in a financial situation stable enough to expend the necessary time and effort on a greater number of journal articles) I’m happy to bolster my income until then with reviewing. There are many reasons for this. The main ones are that reviewing:

  • Lets me use my education and experience for financial gain (hey, rent!)
  • Allows me to exercise my writing skills and critical thinking (use ‘em or lose ‘em, folks!)
  • Ensures that I see my work in print within a very reasonable timescale (mere weeks versus the months, often years, of academic journals)
  • Enables me to communicate my ideas about contemporary fiction to a much wider audience than a journal publication (sad but true).

While I intend to write fewer reviews once I secure a more permanent position, I won’t be giving them up entirely because there’s another reason I think they’re important: I firmly believe that it’s crucial for those in the university to contribute to the discussion of their fields through the popular media. In the case of book reviewing it comprises the leading-edge of literary criticism, that ‘first look’ at contemporary writing; more generally though, academics in the media represent a valuable and highly visible rebuttal of the perceived disconnect between the ‘ivory tower’ and the ‘man on the street’. It’s something that I think people like the Panel Member above disregard too readily. In an age when the usefulness of the Arts is questioned more than even, when university lecturers are perceived as doing nothing all day (I can tell you it’s far from that!), there’s a lot to be said for seeing ‘So-and-So lectures on this topic at Such-a-Such University’ at the bottom of an article. It reminds people that the real role of universities is sharing knowledge and contributing to the wider community. Even if the message communicated is as simple as ‘Hey, look! We have things to say about what you’re reading!’ That’s far from a bad thing.

If more people were to realize this then it might go some way towards combating the poor reputation of the book review in the current academic job climate. I’ve been thinking about this over the last week as a friend of mine recently attended a professional development conference and kindly shared the major points. One of the things she reported was that participants were told ‘no one reading a CV will be impressed by fifteen reviews and no articles, so keep a balance’. That conference was aimed at Historians, but their discipline is close enough to Literature for the same rules of thumb to apply. What the speakers there said has a certain truth to it, yes, but it’s important to note that when they say ‘reviews’ they’re speaking about reviews in academic journals, a fundamentally different beast to the newspaper review. The main distinction is that almost nobody reads the former, something which can be said of academic journals across the board. Mind you, I wish that wasn’t true; I write and publish articles in academic journals, pouring my heart and soul into work on topics which I hope will appeal to people (check out my recent John McGahern and Flann O’Brien pieces if you so wish), but realistically I know that only a handful of interested specialists or quote-mining students will see – let alone read – these publications. Conversely, newspaper and media reviews are widely received and allow scholars and critics to build up productive relationships with many literary people outside of the academy (because, let’s face it, sometimes the insular nature of university life can make one forget that there’s a whole wide world outside its walls). Certainly that’s been my tremendously enjoyable experience of freelance newspaper work over the last half decade, first with the Sunday Business Post and, in the last two years, with the Irish Examiner. Writing reviews has helped me keep a roof over my head, absolutely, but it’s also helped me become a better critic, a better scholar, and it’s ensured that I’ve had fun doing so.

There may not be a box on an REF form for that, but maybe there ought to be.

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4 Responses to Why I Write Book Reviews…

  1. andyj77 says:

    Love these war stories from the trenches of Academia! I wish more people knew what we are going through- I was promised cigars and snifters of Cognac in the Commons Room with leisurely strolls through ivy clad grounds, not loads of work and no pay!

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