The reviewer as gate-keeper

By and large, I enjoy reading and writing book reviews. And I’ve mentioned before about my chat with a friend about the purpose of book reviews wherein he offered the following description of the reviewer’s task:

To help the writers know they are understood and appreciated without too much attention to their mistakes, to help the readers know whether or not it is for them, to identify one or two critical issues worth discussing along the way, and to ease the conscience of the reviewer about all the free books s/he has acquired through this means, not all of which were ever read.

I still like my friend’s ‘reviewer job description’ and, as a rule, it represents what I hope to do when I’m reviewing a book. During a recent binge with Updike (now there’s a reviewer!), my antennae were re-alerted to my responsibility as a reviewer to engage critically with the text/s under my surveillance, to dwell longer – though not for too long – in those somewhat less salutary spaces (whether they be factual or editorial) within the book’s covers, particularly when the book is otherwise especially praiseworthy, or when the author is a friend. By neglecting such a task, it seems to me that reviewer’s are doing neither the author nor the reader a favour, are abrogating an important responsibility, and are left feeling like the bookseller’s unpaid serf who has sold short the book’s author, publisher (good publishers and editors do care about this kind of thing), readers, and the reviewer’s own academic credibility (not that I hold the latter too tightly anyway).

One of my favourite bloggers, Mary Beard (professor in classics at Cambridge), recently had this to say about reviewing:

If reviewing doesn’t act as a gate-keeper of sorts, the success of a book will come down only to the size of its publicity budget and the enthusiasm of its publishers’ tweets.

Of course, gate-keepers worthy of hire will be those who are cognisant of, and honest about, the limits of their knowledge; but they will endeavour to humbly keep gate, which is, I’m assuming, a somewhat different job to being a tourist guide, or to being an author’s, publisher’s, or bookseller’s hooker. Gate-keepers worthy of hire will certainly be those who, in Stephen Burn‘s words, talk less ‘about themselves, spinning reviews out of their charming memories or using the book under review as little more than a platform to promote themselves and their agendas’. They will also be those who will, and that as best they can, tell the truth like Presbyterians; i.e., decently and in order.


  1. Reviewing a book is an onerous task, I’d agree, best left to ‘experts’ in the field. Sometimes I’ve read a book that’s received a less than great review and enjoyed it very much – but that would be my ‘take’ and I’m no expert. Same with films.

    However, if we are ‘reviewing’ a person, say, then if we are Christians, I’d turn to our book, the Bible. And perhaps Galations 3 26-28 are verses to take notice of. We have a supreme reviewer and that reviewer has no limit on their knowledge. As we journey along, stumbling and sinning, kindness and gentleness go a long way.


  2. Critiquing others properly is an art form that I’m still trying to acquire. When people feel that their person is being critiqued and not just their ideas, is the problem their maturity or the way I express myself? I know there’s no absolute answer to this but it’s something I’m trying figure out for myself.


  3. Philip,
    Whether the problem is ‘their maturity’ or ‘the way I express myself’ – this may not be the point for the person who feels they are being critiqued.
    The point may be that they feel singled out and vulnerable – especially when everyone’s closet has skeletons.


  4. I understand the problem you have in mind, Philip. But is it really a problem? Why not say, ‘of course, I’m critiquing you and not just your ideas – indeed, that’s how seriously I take your ideas’. Or rather, ‘In calling into question the kind of intellectual moves you are defending, I am also necessarily calling into question the kind of person who makes the mistake of thinking that such moves make sense.’ When someone reacts to your critique of their ideas in a defensive and personal way, they are on to something, even if they would be better to respond in kind (i.e., by calling the moves you are making into question). All of this relates to something the British moral philosopher, A. E. Taylor said in his Gifford Lectures: that when we posit a moral theory, we are not just staking abstract ideas… we are staking our selves. You could connect this with what Charles Taylor has in mind when he talks of the relationship between moral frameworks and personal identity, or (in a slightly different way), Martha Nussbaum’s work in ethics, or Pierre Hadot’s on Greco-Roman philosophy, or Wittgenstein’s talk of ‘forms of life’, or Iris Murdoch’s talk of the relationship between moral theories and the good. The same is true, I think of theology and philosophy more generally (which, of course, is not to opt for a cheap existentialism).
    Anyway, the problem is not that people think you are calling them into question when in fact you only have their ideas in view: you never only have their ideas in view, but always – along with their ideas – the kind of person who would hold them; rather, the problem occurs only when your interlocutor makes the mistake of thinking either that (a) simply pointing this out, and in so doing, implicitly demanding that we all act like ‘gentleman’ (a demand that itself involves substantive claims about what it means to be a good human being), or (b) trading insults etc, are appropriate ways of responding.


  5. Thanks for your thoughts and the references, André. Given that we ourselves are always at stake in our thoughts, maturity is required when developing them in dialogue with others. It also demands sensitivity and insight on the part of the one responding to those ideas. That’s what makes it an art that has to be learnt.


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