Book reviewing should be a measurable academic output

Book reviewing is becoming a lost art. Globally, many academic journals have terminated their book review sections due to the difficulty of extracting reviews from always tardy reviewers, a lack of volunteers, or for space considerations.

Yet, journals like the American-based African Studies Review subjects its book reviewers to very exacting standards to ensure maximum value for readers.

The relationship between authors, reviewers and readers (now described as ‘audiences’) completes the chain.

For example, on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria show, the Global Public Square, he routinely highlights recent books, interviewing their authors on breaking news topics, providing explanations on contemporary and historical issues.

Books remain, thus, a key part of the public sphere, enabling discussion, policymaking and knowledge.

Books, like films, are inactive until viewed and read. When duly engaged, they can exert significant social impact.

While many newspapers still allocate book review sections, however short, even as 50-word book bytes, these are being lost from many academic journals.

The reasons are because of the cost of web hosting and the cost in time of managing the book review process, which usually requires a dedicated editor with the patience and persistence of Job.

Added, is the cost of the book and of couriering a copy to a reviewer, though e-copies are helpful, if risking leakage and a less comfortable read. Often, frustratingly, the reviewer fails to write the review.

A waste of time?

Curiously, for South African universities, reading and reviewing translates to ‘wasting’ time, as current professional practice is aimed at the garnering of measurable productivity publishing units of full research papers, books and chapters only, which are indexed in specific ‘accredited’ lists.

These can be ticked in a template signed off by a ‘line manager’ whose own ultimate arbiter is the institutional human resources division. Here, the ultimate target is not a scholarly community but a scholarly community reconstituted as productivity auditors.

In South Africa, only ‘full’ research outputs count: reviews, review essays, research letters, editorials and commentaries are often considered distractions. Thankfully, not so in the South African Journal of Science, published by the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf).

Book reviewing is one of the benchmarks listed by ASSAf when its panels periodically evaluate South African journals. If ASSAf takes book reviewing seriously, so should all authors.

Why book reviewing matters

For me, book reviews have several benefits.

• Book reviews encourage an intense reading of a book and one can re-use the review in a longer article on the same topic.

• Book reviews are the basic stepping stone also to writing a thesis, especially for the literature survey.

• Reviewing is crucial academic activity; post-publication reviews can challenge authors to rethink their work, to revise in a subsequent edition, and to progress knowledge.

• And, of course, reviews assist in publicising the book and its author/s.

• Extended book review essays of single or multiple books become mini-articles exploring matrices of works on particular topics, connecting, mapping and developing particular areas. And, book reviews sometimes feature in a journal’s top read list.

• Authors appreciate book reviews, even from those that are critical of their work, as someone made the effort to read and write about it. Everyone benefits. For example, a devastatingly critical review of my second book, The SA Film Industry, published in 1979, shifted me onto a very different analytical path that underpins my conceptual frameworks to date.

• Reading reviews of my own books alerts me to other issues, other perspectives and reader responses.

A building block in an academic career

Often, as a book review editor for a visual anthropology journal, I write the review myself. The benefits: I get a free copy of the book, I get to read the book intensively, which I might not otherwise have done; and, very often, the author contacts me and establishes a long-term working relationship.

So that’s a valorisation of just doing a book review. And, I don’t have the frustration of constantly chasing up unreliable reviewers.

Like doing peer reviews of articles and books, doing book reviews is a necessary stepping stone to something else. My colleague, Kenyan-based Addamms Mututa, some years ago submitted a detailed review of an anthology on African cinema to a journal that I co-edit.

Highly impressed with his analysis, I invited him to take on the book and film review portfolio. This he has done with distinction, and he is becoming one of the most widely read academics on the topic, now submitting sometimes lengthy and detailed reviews to other journals also. Such work becomes a building block in developing a career, a portfolio and a global network.

Addamms Mututa notes that book reviewing has the added benefit of getting a more comprehensive picture of new directions in academic thought, new research trajectories, new ways of thinking and new relationships with multiple disciplines.

Writing book reviews can be fun. Reviewers are granted a degree of poetic licence, resulting in a synthesis and dialogue between the book author and the reviewer. In this way, one arrives at new knowledge in a laborious but exciting way.

For this reason, book reviewing should be recognised by academic auditors as actual measurable academic labour.

That labour is a direct, symbolic and critical investment in the scholarly community as a whole.

An excellent example of such a community can be seen on the very comprehensive continuously updated book review page authored by Chris Merrett and managed by the Academic and Non-fiction Authors’ Association of South Africa (ANFASA).

Keyan G Tomaselli is distinguished professor, humanities, University of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is founder and co-editor of Critical Arts and the Journal of African Cinemas, and serves on the editorial boards of four university presses in South Africa, Canada and the USA. This commentary is updated and elaborated from the ANFASA magazine.