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Monday, April 28, 2008

In (Partial) Defense of the Michigan Books Issue, and of Book Reviews Generally

Stephen  Griffin has an interesting post at Balkinization lamenting what he calls "the sad decline of the Michigan Law Review's books issue."  He argues that the review has recently ignored significant works in constitutional law and theory, while disdaining the con law-related books the editors have chosen to review recently.  The comments, especially those by Kevin Jon Heller (pointing out that he pitched a review to Michigan, and asking whether Griffin has actually tried to review any of the books he mentions) and Sandy Levinson (arguing that all law reviews are displaying a sad decline in the number of book reviews they run) are especially interesting.

I think Sandy is right.  With some exceptions, law reviews are not paying enough attention to the "front of the book" and "back of the book matter" -- essays, book reviews, occasional pieces of various kinds -- that don't fit the main article format but are nonetheless often the most engaging, instructive, and readable pieces in the book.  In particular, book reviews not only perform the service of discussing and critiquing important book-length contributions to the law; they are also far more sharp and genuine expressions of the views of the reviewing author, and are superior in some sense to mainline law review articles in that space constraints force the author not to use the kitchen-sink approach (reviewing the entire history of the literature in the area, etc.) that so often bloats journal articles.  Law review editors really ought to think about how the whole book looks and reads, and make room for shorter pieces and more innovative and unconventional projects, most certainly including book reviews.  Too many journals don't even have a book review editor at all.  (Incidentally, while we're talking about the back of the book, I think Columbia deserves praise for having and using essay editors in a fashion that has distinctly improved the overall product.)

But we can't simply lay the blame at the feet of the editors, as Stephen seems to do.  I'm the incoming faculty advisor to my school's law review, and I've encouraged them to run more book reviews and think generally about the shape of the book.  Have other faculty advisors done the same?  And as Kevin notes, Michigan actually, and commendably, does accept short-form proposals for reviews.  So perhaps the problem lies with faculty members who are not fulfilling their scholarly duty to engage important books in their fields by proposing and writing book reviews.  The fault, dear Stephen, lies not in our stars. . . . I should also note that I proposed and published a review in last year's Books Issue of Kenji Yoshino's Covering.  Maybe they didn't call the section in which they placed it "constitutional law and theory," but that's surely what the book involves.

One last point: Although I hope journals will run more book reviews, they should do it right.  Those few journals that do habitually run reviews usually rely on soliciting pieces from prominent authors.  Not only does this limit the potential number of reviewing authors to folks who are already part of the same elite conversation, but it gives rise to all kinds of self-dealing problems.  A friend informed me, reasonably reliably, about a recent set of reviews in a prominent journal that were motivated variously by some students' desires to meet and flatter particular professors and, in one case, to get to know a particular judge in hopes of landing a clerkship.  (Other anecdotal information, omitting specific names, is welcome from commenters with knowledge of such behavior.)  We could do with much, much less of that kind of thing.  Journals should not only accept submitted reviews, but should also allow and encourage more short-length proposals by would-be reviewers rather than wait for the full review. 

I admit that this is a self-serving recommendation, since I'm about to pitch some law reviews on a joint review of recent/forthcoming books on judging by Jefferson Powell and Richard Posner.  (And yes, I'm more than happy to hear from editors out there who might be interested in running my review.)  But it's good advice nonetheless.       

Posted by Paul Horwitz on April 28, 2008 at 09:25 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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As an Articles Editor at a top-tier law review, I can attest that many of us are acutely aware of the dramatic decline in book reviews being published as of late and would very much like to publish more, but it's not as easy as it sounds. We keep an eye out for book reviews in the submissions queue, but receive no more than a handful of unsolicited book reviews each cycle. Alternatively, we'll sometimes consider soliciting reviews for a particular book, but even putting aside that this would require us to be on the lookout for good books to review and to think of appropriate reviewers for them, this requires us to give the potential reviewer a guaranteed offer to publish the review without knowing what we'll get — something we are VERY reluctant to do, because we've had repeated bad experiences with guaranteed pieces. If we've already promised to publish the piece, then the author often sends us some shoddy half-done piece in terrible shape with most of the footnotes still to be filled in, expecting us to take care of the rest, and it's a nightmare for our editors; and even one we take care of that, the substance of the piece often winds up being below the quality we'd expect from pieces we accept through our unsolicited submissions process. So we've given up on soliciting reviews, and while we'd love to publish high-quality book reviews if people submit them to us, it seems not many people are interested in writing book reviews and shopping them around without being directly invited to do so.

Posted by: Anon | May 4, 2008 4:37:54 AM

A question about process: My understanding of the non-academic book review world (my husband has written a few) is that reputable book reviews do not accept proposals because of the opportunity for abuse--i.e., asking to review your friend's or your enemy's book. Instead, the editors choose books they want to review and seek out appropriate reviewers. That would be a tall order for law students. What is the practice in other academmic fields?

Posted by: Jennifer Hendricks | Apr 29, 2008 10:14:27 AM

This issue of the MLR book review issue didn't have any serious legal philosophy in it. That seemed surprising to me.

Posted by: matt Lister | Apr 28, 2008 3:39:00 PM

Is the alleged problem limited to constitutional theory or are there other areas in which people think the MLR book review issue is subpar?

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Apr 28, 2008 3:32:23 PM

My guess is that the on-line companion's that accept stand-alone submissions (NW, Wash. U, Virginia, Columbia, USC) would be as likely to run a book-review essay as any other type of piece that otherwise fits their guidelines.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Apr 28, 2008 12:51:05 PM

Brett, do you mean the online companions to law reviews? I'd be perfectly happy if law reviews ran more book reviews while using the online format, or if they allowed and encouraged submissions of short book reviews online, say 3-10 pages, while reserving space for more substantial review essays in their print pages. But my sense is that few if any online companions are emphasizing book reviews at all, let alone even a little bit; feel free to let me know if you are aware of facts that suggest otherwise. Although I think the reduced prestige factor would lead fewer people to take online book reviews as seriously as they would print reviews, the volume and comprehensiveness of such a format might make up for any losses in prestige in justifying such a switch on the whole.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Apr 28, 2008 12:08:44 PM

Might the new online companions be publishing some of the types of work discussed in this post? If so, how seriously will the scholarly community take those placements?

Posted by: Brett McDonnell | Apr 28, 2008 11:20:41 AM

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