Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Every i dotted and t crossed

A review for Beowulf and the Critics just came in (from Medium Ævum, sorry, no link) and it's fairly negative. No problem with that. I've gotten a bunch of positive reviews, including the Mythopoeic Society's award for scholarship, so I can't complain that someone didn't like the book. And the review is reasonable; the author (whom I don't know) has apparently no axe to grind and doesn't take me to task for unreasonable things. But it got me to thinking about some reviews that I've done, and the problem of reviews in general.

Reviews in medieval studies (and probably in other fields within English as well) are big opportunities for people to drop H-bombs on their rivals, promote their own work and play that annoying kind of "gotcha" that medievalists are so good at. But reviews are also essential, because there is so much scholarship out there and so little time to read it all (though I have to admit that I personally am not very much guided by reviews; I read the Bibliography for Old English when it comes out in the OEN, immediately ILL everything that sounds interesting, and spend the next few months working through the pile of articles and books).

Most of the larger problems of reviews simply will only be solved if people are nicer to each other, which is unlikely to happen on a large scale, but there is something that might be worth emphasizing through informal networks: it does not invalidate an entire large work of scholarship when an author (plus anonymous reviewers, editor and copy-editor) misses a typo. It's one thing to point out substantive errors (such as the typo of Richfield for Lichfield in my book that my reviewer caught) that could confuse someone. It's another to do what I did in a review where I pointed out that the author had mis-spelled the title of his own article in the bibliography. That was a petty "gotcha" moment and I now really wish I could take it back.

Yes, of course, everything is supposed to be accurate and flawless, etc. But it is very unfair (and I see this all the time in medieval reviews) to focus on tiny little jots and tittles while ignoring the big picture of whether or not the work itself is of decent quality. I certainly am a niggler. For some reason, I notice little things that no one else appears to care about, and when they are wrong they bother me, and they possibly reduce my confidence in the author or editor. But my personal quirks shouldn't be elevated to "high standards" of, say, lack of typos when they miss the point of the main argument and only tell the reader that the ankle-biting reviewer had a sharper eye for some detail.

I think a short paragraph at the end of the review that says "minor errata" or just "errata" and then lists corrections and page numbers is very useful. I tried to do this for my review of The Culture of Translation in Anglo-Saxon England by Robert Stanton (but I really only found one switch of Alfred for Ælfric in the entire book). I'd like to see people move away from the "gotcha" and stick to the substantive criticism that should be included in a good review.

This seems to be the case for the on-line Medieval Review, by the way, which suggests that having practically unlimited space in which to write actually reduces the number of petty comments: perhaps there's a connection, though it seems paradoxical.

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