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Saturday, April 14, 2012


This morning, after I had eaten my lemon poppy seed muffin at the Carolina Cafe and solved the NY TIMES crossword puzzle, I took a moment to read two reviews in the ARTS section where the puzzle appears.  The first was a review of a performance by a brilliant young pianist, Yuja Wang.  The second was a review of a new Memoir by the veteran actor Frank Langella.  Both were extremely positive and generous reviews.  The review of the Langella Memoir was particularly warm and supportive.  [Some of you may remember Langella from his performance as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon.  My own favorite moment in Langella's work occurs in the Kevin Kline movie Dave.  Langella plays the President's chief of staff.  At one point, he says to his aide that he is going to kill Kline, who has been recruited as a look-alike stand-in for the President, but goes off the reservation by actually espousing progressive, positive legislation.  "You can't just kill him," his aide remonstrates.  "Of course I can," Langella replies.  "I am the Chief of Staff. I can kill someone if I want to."  The insouciance with which Langella delivered that line won my heart.]

The two reviews got me thinking again about something that I have often reflected on -- how difficult it is these days to be a reviewer of musical performances.  As I have observed before on this blog, in the old days [i.e., when I was young, which is to say in the '40s and '50s of the last century], there only were a handful of truly great violinists, pianists, or singers.  If a reviewer was fortunate enough to be assigned to one of their performances, all the superlatives could come out of hiding and one could simply gush over Milstein or Rubinstein or Callas.  But today, the level of performance has risen so dramatically in virtually every area of music that a reviewer runs the risk of sounding like a flack or a rube unless he or she can find some point to quibble with in what was truly a miraculous performance.

A somewhat different problem arises in the field of academic book reviewing, especially in a field like Philosophy.  Not infrequently, it happens that the author has written a fine book on an important problem.  The reviewer could, if he or she chose, perform a valuable service simply by making the reader of the review aware of the book's new and suggestive ideas.  How else are the rest of us to decide whether it is a book worth our time and effort?  But the conventions of the field demand that the reviewer find some point to disagree with, and then devote most of the review to doing his or her best to demolish the author.

The same convention rules at conferences.  How rarely one hears a commentator say: "Professor Finklebaum has offered us a truly fascinating discourse.  Rather than quibble with her third subordinate observation on page thirteen, I should like to try to restate what I understand to be her central thesis, and then spend a few moments reflecting on how we all might learn from it."

Even if one disagrees with the author of the paper, would it not be friendlier, and more useful to say:  "Here is how I think Dr. Quincebottom might strengthen his conclusion," rather than treating the unfortunate Quincebottom as having committed a mortal sin that requires ritual shaming and public humiliation as the only appropriate atonement?

The Academy is too often conceived as the arena for the expression of barely concealed and marginally sublimated aggression, despite all the fine talk about the search for truth and contributions to knowledge.

I have on the very rarest of occasions written a genuinely hostile review, but only when I considered the author to be morally reprehensible as well as wrong.  [The two cases that come to mind are my classic review of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind and a review of a forgettable book by the egregious Harvey Mansfield.]

Perhaps these reflections are merely evidence that I am, in my dotage, becoming senile.  I hope not.


Superfluous Man said...

You have made an excellent point. On the other hand, we need to be aware of the Marty Peretz types, and similar influencers in this world and the often very subtle ways their mode of thinking about things often creep into our own lives and into our subconscious minds in such a way that we are not aware of it. I'm guilty of the latter far too often and I want to be called out when I'm not creating proper dialogue or going off on tangents that stray from or pollute the point I'm trying to make. Of course, this kind of dialogue usually doesn't intrude into non-political discourse, but sometimes it does.

C Rossi said...

I agree with Superfluous Man (I am an avid reader of Turgenwv) that you have made an important point about the insularity of academic discourse. I remember as a young student being asked by a professor to attend a faculty gathering of some sort; this was a rare honor. I was considering going to graduate school at Yale in lterature at the time (I later found that Paul de Man who was more than chummy with Nazism was head of the program at Yale). At that time, I felt this must be what academic life is like: important discussions of important matters by serious people. I was shy but began speaking to a faculty member and made what I thought was a reasonable statement about something that I can no longer remember. He puffed up and responded harshly asking me whether I had read the letters of Keats; I had not and fessed up. His response was that I had no right to speak on the subject if I had not read the letters of Keats. He wondered off and left me alone while he sought out fellow readers of Keats's letter. I gave up on graduate school, became what I thought of as an itinerant scholar and vowed never to read Keats's letter whatever wisdom they may contain.

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

On reviews of philosophy books:

Since it's part of my job to keep abreast of the latest in certain sub-fields of philosophy (sub-sub fields of metaphysics and epistemology to be somewhat less imprecise), I'll weigh in with my $0.02. I don't think the situation in philosophy is at all like the situation you describe in music. Certain kinds of technical competence (esp. in logic) are now more widespread than ever before, which makes work published today easier to understand (therefore also easier to refute) than ever before. However, I think just about any philosopher nowadays will agree that far too many philosophy books are published, even by the most respected presses such as OUP. Many, perhaps most, books published nowadays are short topical monographs that contain no more original research than the average 20-page journal article (in fact, turning 20 pages of original research into a book is a trivial task; it's not uncommon to use books for CV padding by recycling material from articles, sometimes simply by reprinting published articles in their original form); and then there is the endless stream of edited volumes with no quality control: most of the work that ends up in them would not pass peer review.

It would actually be very easy for a careful reviewer to *justifiably* pan a randomly selected philosophy book by any of the four leading publishers. But it isn't often done. I think inconsequential and careless work tends to simply get ignored rather than reviewed in a negative way.