My review of Eugenio Barba's latest book, On Directing and Dramaturgy: Burning the House (Routledge: 2009) will appear in the next issue of New England Theatre Journal, and my review of John Donohue's Kage: The Shadow (YMAA: 2011) will soon be appearing in The Journal of Asian Martial Arts.
The scholarly book review isn't a genre I have a whole lot of experience with (I am in the fortunate position of having published peer-reviewed articles before having done book reviews), and I found it surprisingly difficult in both cases to even get started. That said, in both cases once I got going I finished surprisingly fast.
While I was thinking about this blog post I found a few resources on scholarly book reviews that if I were just a bit smarter I would have looked up while I was actually writing the things and may shed some light on the task (I know that I have some current grad students among my readership):
The thing that's been on my mind is the function of the book review in the wider sphere of scholarly discourse. Reviews are considered a lesser genre in academic life and do not "count" very much in hiring, tenure, and promotions from how I understand it. So why do them?
Because all scholarship is to a large extent an ongoing informed conversation among interested parties, and reviews are part of the conversation. If you are a scholar, you are in it for that conversation. Reviews of scholarly books don't function the way a commercial review does, and may in fact come out years after the books themselves. They're a record of one qualified individual's response to the work presented. They can exist as part of the commentary on the ideas in a book, and also serve to promote the field and keep the scholarly discourse going. On one level the scholarly review is an act of citizenship in the community.
Also (let's be honest), you get free books.
In my case, I reviewed one book by a master theatre practitioner that is in part a retrospective of his life and career, and one novel (albeit, a novel written by a scholar).
Let's talk about Eugenio Barba's book review first, as that is the more straightforward of the two:
In the case of Eugenio Baraba's book, I'll be one scholarly review among many (I've actually seen others since sending mine on to my editor). This is a book I would have read anyway so when I saw it on the list of options it was an obvious choice. Eugenio Barba's work is very influential in several of my areas of interest, and he is a name to conjure by in physical theatre circles. An opportunity to review something of his is not something I could pass up. He is somewhat controversial in certain circles, but his contribution to the field is undeniable.
Now then, let's talk about me doing a scholarly review of Kage: The Shadow, which is in fact a suspense novel:
This was unusual in that I was reviewing a work of fiction for a scholarly journal. It is a work of fiction with a strong thread of martial arts running through it, and it was for the Journal of Asian Martial Arts (JAMA), so it makes sense that such an assignment might come about.
I find the author, John Donohue, to be particularly interesting as he is sort of a lesser known and more badass American version of Umberto Eco. He is both a scholar and an artist (a combination that I can respect obviously). Prior to receiving this novel his scholarly work was occupying a certain amount of space on my bookshelf, and now (much like Eco), he's represented in two genres. As the scholar/artist double life is something I'm in the midst of myself, it's nice to see that there are people senior to me in both worlds that are making it work.
JAMA may be the only journal in which the pedigree of my black belt matters as much as the pedigree of my doctorate. This journal serves a very specific (though very cross-disciplinary) niche in scholarship. There had already been several commercial reviews of Kage:The Shadow in circulation when I got this assignment, and it was already being lauded as an excellent piece of fiction. So in order for my review to contribute anything worthwhile to the conversation about the representation of martial arts and violence in culture (hey look, it's one of my academic specialties), I had t0 do something different from the commercial reviews.
I focused my review on the book's presentation of martial arts as a culturally transplanted practice, and about how martial arts were described as functioning in the action sequences. This allowed me to contribute something to the scholarly conversation based on my own expertise while avoiding retreading the ground covered by journalists. I also wrote a bit about the presentation of the practice of scholarship in the novel, as the protagonist is a PhD and his scholarly training is a major factor of both plot structure and character development. As I'm in the position to comment on both of these factors in depth while being freed of having to cover everything that the standard book reviews covered, this was a really enjoyable experience.
Both publications are going to be coming out in the next few months. The issue of The Journal of Asian Martial Arts that contains my review will be out very soon, and I believe that New England Theatre Journal will be out early next year. You'll have to seek those journals out for yourselves if you want to read my reviews. You might go check out the books themselves, they're well worth a read.