Interesting stuff

by Henry on March 11, 2004

Bill Tozier and Cosma Shalizi on the tough-love approach to academic peer review. Cosma opts for the frank and brutal – “This MS. is completely lacking in scientific interest and should be rejected.” I’ve never had the heart to do this myself, but I don’t know that my slightly more hesitant approach to stinkers (usually something along the lines of “this manuscript may have had some merit, but I couldn’t see it”) is any more pleasant or helpful for the author.

Also via Cosma, this admirable Michael Chabon piece on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series in the New York Review of Books. Chabon captures precisely the strengths of the first two volumes, and the weaknesses of the third. Nor does he worry about catching genre-cooties – he unapologetically situates the books in a wider fantasy/sf tradition dating back to Vance, Moorcock and others.

Ellen Fremedon on ‘grading with Gollum’ (via Chad Orzel).

And sometime blogger Scott McLemee savages William Vollmann’s multi-volume ‘treatise’ on violence in a review for the NYT. My favorite bit:

Vollmann’s prose has a distinctive way of cycling between two styles. In one, the sentences snake through dense thickets of figural language, wrapping themselves around elephant-size metaphors, which (jaws unhinged) they try to swallow. In his other voice, the tone is flat, narrating the scene in a detached and almost affectless way, like some cross between Alain Robbe-Grillet and Joe Friday on ‘’Dragnet.’’


Appreciation of ‘’Rising Up and Rising Down’’ properly begins—and will, for most people, immediately end—with awe at its physical presence. Whatever the genre, it is a remarkable example of the book as furniture.

is rather well put too.



Stephen 03.11.04 at 2:15 am

I must admit that I enjoyed the first two novels of the Dust series but found the third one a lost cause.

It wasn’t the anti-Church message — I’ve really enjoyed some novels with that kind of message. It was the inability to bring the plot threads together in a clean resolution. Whence comes the land of the dead in a universe that evolved? How does the “miracle” that the protagonist is supposed to find her way to work a miraculous resolution that requires no one to encourage or tell her the way to find?

Pullman manages to juggle a lot of neat archtypes into the air, but he can’t pull the balls down in the end.


jason 03.11.04 at 2:30 am



Ophelia Benson 03.11.04 at 2:30 am

Yeah, isn’t that review of Scott’s brilliant? Such a phrase-maker! Like –

“A strange book, then. It is rigorous, like Euclidean geometry, yet twisty, like a pretzel.”

And –

“Many passages are covered with so much polish that they form little globules of self-parody.”

And the comparison with Canetti at the end has made me want to read him.


Kieran Healy 03.11.04 at 3:29 am

I read the three books when the third one was being published. The first volume was so good that it made me worried about how he was going to follow them, and, sadly, the second and especially the third books just seemed to lose control of the plot completely. What a shame.


John Quiggin 03.11.04 at 4:44 am

On referee reports, I’ve always been tempted to write “This paper has problems, but none that couldn’t be resolved with a change of approach, topic and author”. I’ve had plenty of candidates, but like Henry have always gone for some sort of sugar-coating instead.


Timothy Burke 03.11.04 at 4:59 am

Peer review of journal articles in the humanities is messier, I think. Rarely can you just disqualify something for being outright wrong, and almost any other critique is often just that–a critique, and not an act of quality control, in which you properly tell the editors that the article is factually wrong or sloppy or amateurish. So peer review tends to be the place where people grind axes and quietly enforce their own particular and sometimes narrow orthodoxies with completely clean hands. Given the number of journals out there and the number of academic authors needing to place a draft version of a chapter from a monograph in those journals, I’m not clear why this is the place to plant one’s feet and enforce standards, at least not in those disciplines where there’s a strong lack of agreed-upon standards to begin with. The line between disciplinary gatekeeper and open-minded enforcer of standards can be pretty thin.

With books it is another story: at that length and breadth, I think a different level of responsibility and even transparency of a sort kicks in.


Matt 03.11.04 at 5:23 am

Timothy (or others)
Do you really think the quality control is higher for books than journal articles? It may be so, but it’s not obvious to me, at least not in philosophy. Rather, it seems that if one can bring oneself to finish a book, one can find a publisher, while that’s not the case w/ articles, at least in a journal that people care about. I mean, I think that the percentage of books that range from mediocore to crap runs as high or higher, even w/ many good presses, maybe even w/ Oxford, as do all but the lower journals. Obviously this is based on a quick look at both journals and books, but it’s my impression anyway. If you think it’s quite off, I’d be interested to hear about it. (In general I’m more impressed w/ someone who’s published a number of articles in top journals than someone who’s published the same number of pages in a book, even w/ one of the top presses, but I’m certainly open to the idea that this might be wrong.)


Keith M Ellis 03.11.04 at 5:38 am

I was very disapointed in the third HDM volume, because I just can’t stand it when an author starts beating me over the head with the brick of a his/her simple-minded theme. Or, perhaps I should say, beating his/her characters and plot to death with the brick of his/her theme. I was glad to read that review because I had suspected that many of the folks that thought so well of HDM did so precisely because of the monomaniacal stridency of the third book.

Maybe my Atheists’ Club membership ought to be revoked, because I had the same sort of problem with The Poisonwood Bible.


Henry 03.11.04 at 5:44 am

In pol-sci, the received wisdom as I understand it is that it’s harder to get an article accepted by a top journal than a book accepted by a top press. In the article review process, there are certainly people with axes to grind, and unfair decisions, but my personal impression is that a good piece will find a home sooner or later with a decent journal, even if not always the journal of first or second choice. Others may disagree. The commonly received notion of what constitutes a good article is narrowing though, and it may well be that some quirky, innovative stuff is not getting through the filters because it’s perceived as being too off-base. I’m always attracted to a bit of eccentricity in an article myself – but I don’t think that my tastes are representative.


teep 03.11.04 at 6:52 am

I’m trying (and not succeeding as well as I’d like) to get through Pullman’s His Dark Materials which several people have encouraged me to read over the last two or three years.

I’m not sure what the problem is. I’m a pretty good, speedy, experienced reader. I read and enjoy quantities of genre fiction, some of it rather dodgy in terms of literary quality. I read actual literature without being forced to do so. I should be able to rip right through these books, if they’re as good as I’ve been told… but no ripping is happening.

It’s not the YA feature that is off-putting. I can read a lot of juvenile material without being irritated by it. For example, Louis Sacher’s Holes and Lois Lowry’s The Giver were potent mouthfuls of unexpected strength, like shots of ice-cold vodka. They were quite yummy, in different ways. I didn’t have trouble finishing them and I had no difficulty sinking into the works after the first ten pages or so.

Pullman’s books are not coming alive for me. The first one was okay. I’ve started the second three times. I figure I’ll take another run at it on a weekend when I have four or five hours of nothing to do. Maybe that’ll help. *sigh* I’m starting to think, though, that I am not cut out to appreciate these books.


Brian Weatherson 03.11.04 at 6:57 am

In philosophy it is generally much harder to get an article accepted at a top journal than a book at a top press. The best journals are running acceptance rates of about 5% right now. Basically the standard is, if there’s any reason to reject this paper, reject it. That’s not the standard for books though.


dsquared 03.11.04 at 7:20 am

A former colleague, reviewing a fundamentally awful finance theory paper for the editor of a sixth-tier journal, was reduced to making the doubly-pointed comment “This article is not suitable for publication in any journal, even yours“.


Dave F 03.11.04 at 10:52 am

Strange, isn’t it, how bad books make for brilliant review writing, rather in the way crummy fiction makes good movies?

I used to read a book a night, more or less, but nowadays novels of less than 500 pages are rare as hen’s teeth. Is this considered to be value-added, I wonder, since most run to about 200 digestible pages of prose, the rest being padding (I strongly suspect book editors are responsible for this).

I used holiday time to wade through Pynchon’s “V” and “Gravity”s Rainbow”. because they were worth every page, albeit with a certain amount of serious grappling. As are the weighty good reads of Neal Stephenson.

But anyone who has had a stab at the doorstops of Mr Bret Easton Elllis, for example, – in particular “Glamorama” – would surely agree he is suffering from phenomenal verbal flatulence.

Maybe it’s an American thing, the anxiety about the Great American Novel, but British new wave SF writers, among others, are awesomely overendowed in the wordage department.


Donald Johnson 03.11.04 at 12:47 pm

I’m Christian, so it was a bit of a relief that atheists also found the third volume of HDM a bit preachy. I also found it a bit odd that someone would use a fantasy novel soaked in supernaturalism (the quantum multiverse bits are a thin materialistic veneer) to write a sermon in favor of materialism. It’s cheating.

I still liked the books, even the third one.


Timothy Burke 03.11.04 at 1:05 pm

I rather liked the third volume of His Dark Materials, though I agree it went over the top occasionally on the thematics of the whole series. There’s a scene in it that I found absolutely heart-breaking and beautiful–I’ll avoid details as some here are still (trying) to read it; for that scene alone I give it some props.

On peer review, my sense is that history doesn’t quite have a journal of such overwhelming status that everyone strives to get in it, and where the standard is so high that it’s hugely selective. As far as books go, I don’t mean to say that books are always better than journals, merely that most people do a more honest job at peer reviewing books. If people are going to gatekeep and ideology-enforce, they’re going to do it with journal peer review, in my experience.


Doug 03.11.04 at 1:36 pm

It’s been a couple of years since I finished the Pullman, and I remember thinking that the third was a disappointment, but heartened that Pullman had reached such heights with so much of the trilogy. If the third book didn’t live up to everything that was promised in the first, it was hard to see how anything could. I mean, lots of folks that Dante is pretty much downhill after Inferno, too. I liked all of the echoes of Milton in HDM.

I have the feeling that we are living in an era of cheap pieties, and I was happy to read a book — a children’s book — that took on common bromides so directly. None of the coyness of Christian interpretations of Tolkien or Rowling for Pullman: God is dessiccated and wants only to end His misery. It’s a bracing counterpoint to the easy but false certainties of the Bush era.

On the shortcomings front, Pullman is in good company as “uneven series, tendency to browbeating the religious message.” That’s Narnia in a nutshell. I hope HDM finds as many readers.


vivian 03.11.04 at 2:43 pm

It’s a lot of fun to come up with pithy, nasty rejection sentences, but actually sending them off to the author/editor adds nothing but misery to the process. What kind of person is proud of getting off on hurting strangers’ feelings? It’s not even like flaming online, where there is the possibility of interaction, rebuttal, resolution. It’s different from publicly attacking someone’s published view, where one has to defend the attack substantively, not simply with snarkiness. Are any of us so pathetic that we need to wallow in cheap insults against someone clearly less brilliant? Oscar Wilde type wit has its place, but that place isn’t peer review of an attempt, however bad, at knowledge production.

Now how to draw the line between being direct – “this piece has no merit as written” – and being nasty. I suspect that in most instances the distinction is clear; when in doubt, don’t be gratuitously nasty.


David Yaseen 03.11.04 at 3:14 pm

I’m slogging through Rising Up and Rising Down, and, thus far, I have to attribute McLemee’s review to a case of tall-poppy syndrome.

It is an enormously ambitious book, and as such invites this sort of mocking critique. “Going to solve violence, are you? Oh, aren’t you precious!”

Vollmann repeatedly disavows any claim to having disposed of the subject, and says of his distillation of it, the Moral Calculus, that it’s certainly incomplete and probably wrong. All of his grand conclusions (at least through the first third of the second volume) are likewise explicitly left open to doubt and scrutiny.

McLemee sifts through the book, searching for “the proverbial needle in Vollmann’s 3,300-page haystack,” and is dismayed to find very little in the way of direct assertion. Given the author’s early and repeatedly expressed intent to avoid such, I can only wonder why McLemee bothered to look.

The book is an attempt to illuminate and make sense of the phenomenon of human violence, and to work toward defining the circumstances and motivations under which it may or may not be termed justified. It does not pretend to have the answers.


Ophelia Benson 03.11.04 at 3:57 pm

Hmm. Well if Vollmann is really as humble as all that, why write 3,300 pages then? That’s not a very humble thing to do. If you’re going to write 3300 pages they damn well ought to be 3300 brilliant pages.


Trickster Paean 03.11.04 at 5:01 pm

Maybe because he had 3,300 not quite so brilliant but really very good pages to get out. As for humility, it takes a staggering amount of balls to put your work up for public examination, whether its one page or 3,300. David Yaseen is obviously talking about Vollmann’s goals in writing it, not his humility, as being misinterpreted, and you do the same, Ophelia.

The majority of writing is not brilliance – most of it is crap. That anyone has gotten anything good out through the course of history, I’m convinced, is largely historical accident and luck (and that residue of luck, skill).


biztheclown 03.11.04 at 5:26 pm

I’m still on volume 5 of Rising Up and Rising Down so I can’t state my full opinion yet. I can state however, that that review is just terrible. I can’t believe I’m reading the same book as this guy did. In fact, I suspect I’m not, as I am reading carefully, paying attention to the arguments, reading the footnotes, and trying not to make foolish judgements like the reviewer’s “I read Gibbon, Gibbon is a friend of mine, and Vollman is no Gibbon” schtick.


Ophelia Benson 03.11.04 at 6:20 pm

Oh damn, it takes balls to put your work up for public examination?!? Oh crap! Oh damn oh hell oh rats! I can’t do it then! Disqualified before I start, oh it’s so unfair, I want my money back.

“trying not to make foolish judgements like the reviewer’s “I read Gibbon, Gibbon is a friend of mine, and Vollman is no Gibbon” schtick.”

Try not to make foolish paraphrases while you’re at it. The comparison with Gibbon is relevant on account of how Gibbon wrote, you know, a lot. Another great thick book. Scribble scribble, eh Mr Gibbon? So there is naturally a question, is such a long book worth the reading? How does it compare with other very long books?


Keith M Ellis 03.11.04 at 6:35 pm

So we are to compare books by length, then?


chun the unavoidable 03.11.04 at 7:02 pm

Studying the initial critical reception in the middlebrow press of important books will give anyone who’s interested an important insight into this matter.

I’m not going to tell you what that insight is, however.


Ophelia Benson 03.11.04 at 7:14 pm

Yes, that’s right. That’s all book reviewing is, a protracted game of Whose is longer. Along with of course Who has balls.


Sebastian Holsclaw 03.11.04 at 7:45 pm

“This MS. is completely lacking in scientific interest and should be rejected.”

The other reason to avoid statements quite this bald is that you risk being remembered as the idiot who discouraged the genius if they ever actually make something of themselves. It is an outside chance, but still….. :)


harry 03.12.04 at 1:06 am

I liked all three of the Pullman books too. The third is by far the weakest (why is it the one that won the pirze?) as all agree. But it was not disappointing. The weakness was inevitable: from about half-way through Northern Lights it is pretty clear that short of actually having made some real and profound and secret discovery about the actual physics of our world Pullman is going to be unable to give us the truly spectacular end that the first book deserves to have in the third. I know what you are talking about Timothy and like you I found that scene agonising.
For what its worth there is no discernable difference in the reactions to HDM from my Christian and athiest interllocutors — if anything I find the Christians are more willing than the atheists to give him the benefit ofthe doubt in book 3.
I read that he has a Hollywood movie deal. Can anyone confirm that? How the hell are they going to make movie of a book like that?


Ted M 03.12.04 at 11:03 pm

Tom Stoppard is has written the screenplay, so there may be some hope for it. However recent news reports indicate New Line fears the response from religio-Americans, so who knows if it will be recognizable in the end…

This page collects news about the film’s progress.

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