A while ago, I was talking with a colleague about a somewhat savage review of one of her books. Because I know both the topic and the reviewer in question I was not greatly surprised - the reviewer and my colleague have a number of long-standing personal and professional disagreements. And that's the problem. The reader has a right to believe that a review is an impartial opinion of whether a book is worth the effort of buying and reading. Sadly, many a review is not quite so objective.
A review might well be written by someone who has written a rival book, or who has a pet academic theory and is miffed that the current book does not whole-heartedly endorse it. Then there's the 'catty post-grad' type review which doesn't get past a list of the typos and minor errors to look at the book as a whole. Or the journalist who has evidently not read the book past the blurb on the back cover ... and well, one can go on and on. I consoled my colleague by pointing to a wonderfully batty review of one of my books on amazon.com. This is a non-fiction account of the Roman army in AD 100. The reviewer says 'I was most disappointed with the novel. The characters are ill-defined and one-dimensional. The plot had no unusual turns and was easily predictable.' Well, quite.
Compare this with Michigan War Studies Review of the same book (at http://www.michiganwarstudiesreview.com/2010/20100305.asp). This is one of my favourite reviews, in that it is both critical and informative. The comments were valuable to me when I came to write 'Gladiator' as a follow-up book.
Because a good way to get books is to review them, I sometimes ask certain journals if they want me to comment on a book I need to read anyway; so I've some experience on the reviewer's side of the fence. However, I have the advantage of being fairly well-known in my field, and if there is something in a book I am not sure about, or disagree with strongly, I usually contact the author and ask about it. Then even if we still disagree, I include both my opinion and the author's rebuttal. This is because I feel strongly that a review is not a platform for the reviewer's own opinions, and it is certainly not the place to score a few points in an academic grudge match. If a review doesn't help readers to decide whether a book is worth reading, then there's no point in doing it.
Fortunately, and despite the examples of bad reviews I've given above, most reviews are by professionals or amateurs who are both passionate and knowledgeable. Generally, a good book will get plenty of good reviews. And in that context, a really negative review sticks out like a sore thumb and is more of an indictment of the reviewer than the writer. A review in an influential journal definitely affects short-term sales, but in the long run it can't keep a good book down or puff a bad book up.
And I always remember what a wise editor told me many years ago. 'Never answer a critic - unless he's right.'
Of Writers and Authors
Somewhere I read that there's a difference between writers and authors. For me, last month was an author month. Being an author means air travel, doing interviews with the media, having conferences with publishers and agents, giving talks (in this case at my old college in Oxford) and boozy evenings in pubs.
There's a lot in favour of being an author, and it's my guess that many people are thinking about the author side of the business when they say they want to write a book. However, you become an author when you've written a book. Actually writing the thing is a horse of a different colour. For that you have to be a writer.
Being an author is a social business. It involves talking to people, from reviewers to editors to the general public. On the other hand, a writer inhabits a solitary, perhaps even a lonely world, where the all that matters are ideas and the blank space on the word processor where you put them. For a non-fiction writer, there's also the facts, and where to find them.
You're a writer if you feel vaguely dissatisfied when you have not written your self-imposed quota of words for the morning, and a non-fiction writer if you can spend all afternoon in the library nailing down a single detail (which you may later decide not to use anyway).
An author enjoys reading good reviews and seeing his name in the media. A writer looks at his royalty statements and wonders if he wouldn't make more money flipping burgers. On the face of it, the author has it much better. But the odd thing is that although I enjoy both sides of the job, on the whole I still prefer being a writer.
Around the UK in 14 days
Usually I write up this blog while relaxing after morning coffee and musing on the world as it relates to writing ancient history. This time things are somewhat different. After a time there comes a point where personal contact with others is necessary. While most things can be done over the net and phone, eventually a face to face meeting is the best way sort things out.
However, as it takes a lot to get me out of my comfy mountain valley these days, when I do go, I make sure I get my money's worth from the trip. So I'm in England for the next two weeks. During this time I will go to two archaeological sites, two museums, Oxford and Cambridge universities and the British Library. I will also see two other writers, four publishers several editors, and do various interviews for radio, magazines and a history website.
So far so good. I've arrived and been around Caerleon, one of the archaeological sites on my list, and things are looking good for the rest. It is going to be a busy start to the month.
If it can be said ...
...it can be said clearly. These words were by a German philosopher, Schopenhauser, I think. While I note that Schopenhauser does not always seem to follow his own dictum, it is a good one nevertheless.
It is also one that some of my colleagues in academia might also consider taking to their hearts. I'm particularly talking about a certain sociologist here, because I've recently been looking at how Roman senators of the first century AD behaved towards each other.
(Or to put it another way, the dynamic of interpersonal relationships of a homogeneous semi-horizontally stratified peer group has been explored in terms of social and economic exchanges across a spectrum of result-based activities.) And believe me, that's putting it clearly in comparison to some of the stuff I've been wading through. Sometimes technical language is essential for an exact meaning. But sometimes this jargon-laden text is employed not to explain a difficult concept, but to hide that the concept is elementary. Indeed, I have on occasion parsed a particularly difficult sentence for meaning, and discovered that there is none.
Now I'm not objecting too strongly, because there's also some worthwhile ideas buried under all that guff, and anyway, if all academics were able to express themselves in a way that members of the general public enjoyed reading, I'd be out of a job.
Yet I've just started Alan Cameron's "The Last Pagans of Rome", which is eight hundred or so pages of highly technical argument. I don't agree with all of his conclusions, yet they are written in crystal-clear prose which carries his meaning unambiguously. If he can make analysis of subscripts to classical texts a pleasure to read, is it that hard to describe (for example) where, when and how people say hello to each other?
One has to pay due respect to Murphy's second law* but if the year goes as planned it should be a good one. I've two books which should be coming out, and another two that I'll be writing. As ever,the more I get into the topic of a new book the more I look forward to writing it. The problem is, I looked forward to it so much I got started early, and am having trouble picking up the threads now that I'm back after the holidays.
I had already set up a number of maps locating where my protagonists were at key times, and much-annotated time lines with scrawls that my time off has rendered somewhat cryptic. L6.C7 I understand, because I tend to write text references in Latin or Arabic as convenient, so this refers to a quote in chapter 56, line 107 - but in which text? 'Chk H re pel' means that I want to check what Herodotus says about peltasts, but why I wanted to do that I now forget. And then there's something written in Greek that even a Greek probably couldn't understand.
Having done some archaeology, I can usually unerringly dig down to a printout or journal from the strata of paper that slowly builds up around my desk and computer monitor, but after a three week break the piles are looking both ominous and unfathomable. I know, for example, that there's an article on trireme building I'm going to need soon, but it's currently a needle in a paper haystack. Also somewhere in that haystack are my passwords for two text repositories and to my virtual classroom for the e-Learning course I'll be starting next week.
I really did enjoy my holiday break. However I suspect I might need another three weeks to get back to where I was before I took the time off.
*If everything seems to be going smoothly, you have overlooked something.