Thursday, August 14, 2008

Sarkar, Fuller and Negative Reviews

NDPR recently published a review of Fuller's recent book by Sarker. As noted by Leiter, the review concludes with
These excursions into fancy allow me to end on a positive note: the lack of depth or insight in this book is more than compensated by the entertainment it provides, at least to a philosopher or historian of science. No one should begrudge us our simple pleasures. I'm happy to have read this book, and even more so not to have paid for it.
While entertaining, I wonder whether such negative attacks are really worthwhile. I myself have not been immune to the temptation to put down a book that I thought should never have been published, as with my remarks (also in NDPR) that
Its main virtue may be to stand as a cautionary example of how not to write a history of analytic philosophy.
But what do such reviews achieve? Perhaps the thought is that they send a message to the philosophical community that this book is not worth reading or even buying. Reviews, then, act as a kind of gatekeeper that warn off naive readers who might otherwise make the mistake of thinking the book is somehow onto something. But an equally effective means to achieve this end might just be to not review the book in the first place. NDPR reviews a lot of books, but even here there is no need to be comprehensive and the mere fact that a book is slated for review already confers on it some special status.

The problem, of course, is that most of us (including myself) agree to review a book before we read it and decide if it is worth reviewing. So, I propose that editors allow potential book reviewers an out: they can review a book in a given time-frame, or else decide not to submit a review by some deadline. For this to actually stop bad books from being reviewed, the editor would have to agree to abide by the "no review" verdict.


Brad said...

For what it's worth, I prefer to know why a book isn't worth reading—not just that it isn't.

Anonymous said...

I used to review products for an online magazine. If I got something to review that was awful, unless I had reason to think my readers were particularly interested in the product, I would simply send it back without review. It's easy to write a scathingly negative review, but in most cases, little is gained by it.

Kenny said...

To some extent, writing an extremely scathing review would seem to be self-defeating. In some cases, seeing a negative review of a book from a particular author might give me a very positive view of the book, depending on the issues for which the book is being attacked. Writing no review, as you suggest, would be a much more effective means to the end of denying the book publicity.

Of course, to make sure that books don't get denied reviews just because someone got bogged down in work, you'd want an explicit announcement that this was the case from the potential reviewer, rather than just defaulting to no review.