Reviewing Reviewers

by zunguzungu

Young hungry academics like myself have to always be on the look out for soft targets, and become connoiseurs of les fruits lowhangings. Most of the fortresses of cultural capitol are heavily defended, and after only a few years of starting to vaguely know what I’m talking about, the incredible skepticism I have for someone like Casanova realistically has to be evenly leavened with the reminder that, just maybe, she’s quite a bit smarter than I am and I actually just don’t fully understand what she’s on about. Not to say that there aren’t legitimate criticisms to be made, of course, but its much harder to read sympathetically, to draw the good stuff out of a flawed project, and the temptation to simply fire away is often hard to resist. After all, she’s been working on this project for a long freaking time, and I’ve only devoted a handful of afternoons to it. One can still be skeptical, of course, but one must also be cautious. Eventually, I suppose, I will develop enough hubris not to doubt the vastness of my own erudition, but at the moment I am under no such illusions.

But I think I’ve found an underbelly I wasn’t aware of before, a kind of barrelled fish waiting to be shot, a right-handed quarterback primed to be wasted by the right linebacker: book reviewers themselves. They don’t see it coming; they’re there, standing at the top of the critical food chain passing judgement with the lofty unconcern of a Green Zone bureaucrat in the earliest days of the occupation. This makes them uniquely vulnerable. After all, even bloggers expect to have to defend themselves, and write with the comment bar in mind, and a real academic work, like a book or an article, has got to be built to withstand assault from anyone with the minimal amount of cultural capitol necessary to squeeze off a review. But how often do reviewers get called on the shit they pull? You generally only read a review carefully if you’ve not already read the book under review, which gives the reviewer a major advantage; yet, if you haven’t already conceded that important tactical advantage to the reviewer, it’s probably because you’re not interested in a review but in a critique, and that’s what you’ll read. I, however, will fire at anything that’s not armor plated. That’s what a blog is for. 

But that’s not even the main advantage. For example, the book China Shakes the World: A Titan’s Rise and Troubled Future — and the Challenge for America is about a subject I’m interested in, but not one that I know anything in particular about. I certainly haven’t read the thing. But listen to these carefully cherry picked excerpts I’ve collected from the “booklist” review on Amazon:  

“Kynge demonstrates how China’s thirst for jobs, raw materials, energy, and new markets…will dramatically reshape world trade and politics. China’s appetite, though unpremeditated and inarticulate, has become a source of major change in the world. Napoleon said, “Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.” In the early days of the twenty-first century, China has started shaking the world with its prowess in manufacturing…The question Kynge offers answers to is how the world will cope with China’s extremes of both strength and weakness”

So, we’ve learned that China is inarticulate and unpremeditated but hungry, a kind of immature baby conscious only of its instinctual desires, and as it blindly seeks to cram resources into its maw, it poses a grave threat to “the world.” China is not part of the world? Delicately sprinkling Malthusian overtones over her prose, we are reassured that the proper destiny of world resources is the world (not China), a world composed of articulate and meditated nations, not hungry presumably, and not inscrutably alien Asians. But, luckily us, Kynge has scruted them, and will teach us, we articulate and meditated world-dwellers, how to deal with the extra-terrestrial Chinese menace. And, after all, if so accomplished a sinologist as Napoleon agrees with Kynge’s argument, then what more is there to say? if you can’t trust an 18th century general and despot for instructions on how to deal with the challenges posed by an advanced form of an alternate state-capitalism in the twenty-first century, well, who can you trust?

Certainly not me, that’s for sure. But whether or not that was a useful exercise, it was kind of fun. And there was an actual point buried in that eviseration of a hapless reviewer: reviewers don’t expect to be reviewed and they say a lot of silly things as a result. So game on, I say!  Next up: I, a non-Arabist, critique non-Arabist reviewers who critique David Levering Lewis, a non-Arabist, for not being an Arabist. Stay tuned.