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  • On the Management of Camels
  • William W. Savage (bio)

'A person should not be allowed to review someone else's book,' the bilious professor was wont to roar, 'unless that person has written at least two books of his own.' On such occasions, he was usually holding (or, more likely, waving in the air) a journal he'd just received, and he'd seen something in the book review section that had set him off. Perhaps the work of some old-boy pal of his had been skewered, flayed, or otherwise laid to rest by a rookie scholar, an upstart, a person clearly unaware of established pecking orders. The bilious professor could sometimes be seen staring at the names of reviewers on a journal's Contents page and muttering, 'Who are these people, and why are they permitted to review important books?'

Something clearly was amiss in the back half of his quarterly, and the bilious professor believed it stemmed from the misdeeds of the book review editor. No, he had never met that individual; but he knew all he needed to know, based on previous dealings with other book review editors. As arrogant as he was prolific, he was certain that book review editors were the reason why the most favourable comments he'd ever received on any of his several tomes were tepid at best. Except for faint praise, he'd have had no praise at all, and he felt damned by it. Indeed, he'd grown crotchety, waiting for the worm to turn; but it never did. If only those editors would send his books to his closest friends, the way he expected them to do, damn it all.

To make matters worse, the same editors who sent his efforts to the richly undeserving – reading his stuff was, to his mind, an honour, like becoming a knight of the realm, don't you know – never sent him anything to review. Formerly they had, but not lately. [End Page 169] He was a sourpuss who'd often demonstrated that he was peevish, churlish, and snobbish, and I guess there had been enough objections from offended parties over the years to keep him out of the rotation. He was loath to acknowledge what was patently obvious to others: he had ceased to be hot stuff, professionally speaking, and had become an old poop.

The ranting of this particular professor is offered as evidence that book review editors have a tough row to hoe. They work at a thankless task, made worse by the peculiar attitudes of the academic audience they serve.

Consider a bit of what the work entails: editors must decide Who should be asked to review What, then ask Who to review What; make sure Who receives What, if Who agrees to review it; and hope against hope that Who does the job and reviews What in timely fashion. If Who is a laggard, an editor must send reminders; and enough of those will result in a demand that Who return What, so that another, more punctual Who may be sought. There are publication schedules to be met. Say an editor works for a journal that publishes a hundred or so reviews per quarterly issue. That's a great many Whats and Whos of which to keep track, and there is no rest for the weary.

As well, book review editors must be ever vigilant. Not that anyone teaching in a college or university ever would be guilty of intentional duplicitous behaviour, but I once knew a genuine PhD who reviewed the same book for two or three different journals and claimed to be unaware that he'd committed a professional faux pas.1 The book he'd reviewed had been written, after all, by a friend of his, and he was just trying to be helpful. He was crushed to learn that he'd done his friend no favours. It had honestly never occurred to him that anybody or their tenure committee would want a whole bunch of different opinions when they could get the same good one over and over again. Nowadays, some journals require potential book reviewers to submit curricula vitae and sign legal...


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pp. 169-173
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