Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Digging Out
I've finally finished my review of Rome and the North, an essay collection about the reception of Gregory the Great in Germanic medieval Europe. It's impolite to scoop your own reivew (for Mediaevistik), but I wanted to talk about the difficulties of reviewing and why reviews in academia are more important (in the long run; they don't do a lot for immediate sales).
The Humanities are faced with a crisis of specialization. People carve out narrower and narrower niches hoping -- reasonably -- to be the "world expert" on something. It's what you do for your Ph.D. But then it's really hard to get your super-specialized work published. I received quite a few rejection letters on the Wills article that said "well done, but too specialized for super-journal X."

Then, when you finally find a place that wants to publish you, you have to try to convince other people who only read about 10th century Anglo-Saxon Female Saint's Lives (and really only those without identified Latin sources) that they need to read your book for valuable context. So you desperately hope that your reviewer is interdisciplinary enough to be able to understand what you've done well and what's ground-breaking.

Not easy to find (or be) one of those.

A friend of mine had a review begin "I don't know much about Anglo-Saxon, but I know what I like." Now this was a very positive review, but I think my friend would rather have someone engage her on real points of argument, or even point out that hapax legomenon can only properly be applied to a unique lexeme, not to a unique inflected form of that lexeme. Just because a word only appears once in the accusative case does not make it a hapax legomenon if there are 30 instances in the dative case. But I digress...

The book I reviewed was difficult because I'll never been current on scholarship in Middle Dutch, Old Frisian, or the various Germans, and I'm only somewhat current on Old Norse. So I fell back on the one piece of advice I have to give: when in doubt, write a short, clear and fair summary. And, to quote a fellow member of ISAS: "It's nice to be important, but it's imporant to be nice."

Thankfully I haven't had to review a really bad book, yet.

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