How to review a book you don’t like without destroying your professional relationships — University Affairs

Four options to approach a tricky dilemma.


I was asked to review a book written by an acquaintance with whom I must be on good terms. But the book is a fairly perfunctory treatment of its subject, and I was disappointed by gaps in its citation list. How do I write a critical, honest, but diplomatic book review?

– Anonymous, history

Answer from Dr. Editor:

Is “anonymous” an option? Assuming that’s not the case – and assuming that you don’t want to appear like you disagree – here are a few ways you could approach this book review:

1. Keep it literal

Articulate what the book is doing that has never been done before. Is it the first to discuss an archive of Event A or Person B? Does it provide access to materials or information not otherwise accessible? What’s in the book? You can state neutrally what the book is about, what theoretical lens it uses, what time periods and geographic scope it has. You’ll find that the verb “describes” is a useful alternative to the adjective “superficial.”

Avoid half-hearted or weak praise. And since your audience here isn’t the author, but other readers of the journal, you shouldn’t write your book review the same way you give feedback on bachelor’s theses, sandwiching positives between negatives to make the content more palatable. Get inspired by the book you’re reviewing: keep it shallow.

calibrate expectations

We have all read scientific books that fall short of our hopes and expectations. The sentiment is common among readers and writers alike:

So compare the book you are reviewing with others that you feel the same way about. “Like Nguyen’s title did for [topic X] …”; “Like Gagnon titleauthor New book Details…”. If the book you are reviewing is part of a series, you can compare or contrast it with the scope of the other books.

Readers familiar with these other books will understand into which category of books you place the one being reviewed; Unfamiliar readers will see that you are not comparing the book you are reviewing to the pioneers in your field.

3. Bring it up in conversation

You were disappointed with gaps in your citation list – so what would happen if you expanded the dialogue and included the book in new conversations? Can you relate the themes and arguments in this book to the texts that you think should have been quoted? “A review of this work along with texts by authors A, B, and C may indicate a need for further work [area X] or ask new questions [significant topic Y].”

A place to get inspiration: John Morley’s extensive Academic Phrasebank contains conventional sentence openers for academic writing in all disciplines, grouped into categories such as “Signal Transition” and “Classify and List”. His “Be Critical” collection includes eight subcategories, each with around a dozen sentence openers, such as:

  • “One question that needs to be asked, however, is whether…”
  • “Smith’s argument relies heavily on the qualitative analysis of…”
  • “Smith’s analysis does not take into account… nor does it examine…”

While you might want to tone down some of Morley’s word choices, the options in his phrasebook can give you some pizzazz as you write words on the page.

4. Getting weird

Last time I wrote about book reviews, I came to this conclusion: “If you want your book review to matter in your field […] then you should write something unusual, something collaborative or original or expansive.” Your book review can be more than a simple synopsis and rating, if that’s what you want.

Unlike, say, fellowship applications or tenure dossiers, book reviews are a low-stakes genre — you risk little to lose by taking a creative or imaginative approach, and research suggests the rewards for doing so could be greater than that of a conventional review. If you’ve always wanted to experiment with writing – print a dialogue or an interview; Embed hypertext – do it now.

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