Thursday, April 22, 2010

On Reviewing, redux

The latest issue of the American Book Review arrived in my mailbox today. The title of the editorial--"Criminal Editors"-- immediately caught my eye, and so I read it first. What, I wondered, could that be about? What it's about is a lawsuit an author is bringing in a French court against the editor of an international scholarly journal for publishing a review that basically characterized the plaintiff's book as meticulous but not going as far as it might have in exploring its subject matter. The ABR editorial refers to the review as "negative" (presumably because that's how the Chronicle of Higher Education describes it in its article NYU Professor Faces Libel Lawsuit in France for Refusing to Purge Negative Book Review. Imagine, if every editor had to work in fear that every review that's not a glowing rave might provoke a lawsuit.
Soon after it appeared, Ms. Calvo-Goller wrote to Mr. Weiler, saying that the review, by Thomas Weigend, director of the Cologne Institute of Foreign and International Criminal Law and dean of the faculty of law at the University of Cologne, was defamatory. She asked that the review be removed from the site....

....Mr. Weiler refused to remove the review but offered to publish a response from Ms. Calvo-Goller, "so that anyone reading the review would immediately be able to read her reply," an approach that "would have amply and generously vindicated all possible interests of the author of the book," he wrote in the editorial. "I continue to believe that in all the circumstances of the case ... removing the review by Professor Weigend would have dealt a very serious blow to notions of freedom of speech, free academic exchange, and the very important institution of book reviewing."

Faced with what he notes is "the heavy financial burden of defending such a case — expenses which are in large part not recoverable even if acquitted," Mr. Weiler has appealed for "moral and material assistance" from the academic community and writes that he is optimistic that he will be acquitted at trial. "Any other result will deal a heavy blow to academic freedom and change the landscape of book reviewing in scholarly journals, especially when reviews have a cyber presence as is so common today."
You can read this so-called "libelous" review that the author is claiming "could cause harm to my professional reputation and academic promotion" here. (As someone who has received a few vitriolic reviews in her time, I have to wonder how she would have reacted to receiving an actual hammering.)

The author, by the way, is a senior lecturer at the Academic Centre of Law and Business in Israel. I find myself wondering if she teach law students. Only yesterday I was reminded of all the potential damage John Yoo could be doing in his role as teacher.

I'm also reminded that I recently came across a news item about a lawyer using the law to bludgeon his opponents-- viz., Juneau County Distrinct Attorney (in Wisconsin), Scott Southworth, who
warned that teaching a student how to properly use contraceptives would be contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor punishable by up to nine months behind bars and a $10,000 fine. He said it would be promoting sex among minors, who are not legally allowed to have sex in Wisconsin.
This is presumably because Wisconsin State has just passed a law "requiring schools that teach sexual education to adopt a comprehensive approach." In Juneau County, at least, the teachers charged with teaching sex education are caught between a rock and a hard place. (The AP story can be read here.) And I'm also wondering whatever could such a law mean, that minors "are not legally allowed to have sex in Wisconsin"? They have a law prohibiting that? I'm wondering what a "minor" is. Any Wisconsin folks reading this who could clue me in? But to get back to Southworth's campaign and the new law:
Wisconsin schools aren't required to teach sex education. But under the new law, which was backed by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, schools that do must teach a range of topics, including the benefits of abstinence, the proper use of contraceptives, how to make responsible decisions, and the criminal penalties for underage sex. Parents can choose to keep their children out of the classes.

Southworth says he is not trying to bolster his reputation as a social conservative for a potential run for higher office, but his stance has proved popular with antiabortion groups.

Matt Sande, the legislative director of Pro-Life Wisconsin, which opposes the new law, said every district attorney in Wisconsin should follow Southworth's lead.
Sex education is contributing to the delinquency of a minor?
A negative review is libel?
Torture is legal and a prerogative of the POTUS?

Using the law to bully people who don't have the resources to defend them has become utterly commonplace. Bet that editor never imagined he'd find himself hauled into court on such a charge.

But do get back to "Criminal Editors," here's Jeffrey R. Di Leo, in his ABR editorial:
If book reviewing is to distance itself from the perception that it is simply a promotional service for the publishing industry, then it needs to engage in legitimate practices....As an editor, I face both positive and negative reviews on a regular basis. The backbone of reviewing rests on reviewers competent to handle the books they have been assigned and level of honesty regarding their responsiveness to the text before them. Reviewers with an ax to grind or a preconceived notion of what they are going to say before they even read the book are to be avoided. However, if a fair assessment of a text results in a negative consequence, then it is the obligation of the reviewer to report it and of the editor to publish it. Anything less compromises the integrity of the review process.
He also notes that reviewers tend to err "on the side of sympathy" when they feel themselves reacting negatively toward a book-- or else simply refuse to write the review.

Justina Robson, by the way, discusses her experience of the costs for reviewers (in the sf field) for writing less than unalloyed praise, in her review of Greer Gilman's Cloud & Ashes for Strange Horizons this week.


Athena Andreadis said...

This issue is already a problem in such countries as the UK and Australia, whose libel laws are far more stringent than those of the US. In this connection, you may have heard about Simon Singh and the homeopathists.

Like everyone here, I've been on both sides of reviews. Personally, I think an author should speak up if s/he has good reason to think that a reviewer misread the book, or didn't read all of it before rendering judgment (it won't change the review, but it may put a lazy practitioner on notice). But suing for a review that's perceived as negative is both excessive and pathetic.

On the third hand, people who complain that literary book/article reviews can sting (and they can) often have no clear idea how hurtful and damaging reviews of grants and scientific papers can be -- and what they can do to someone's academic career, a term that is almost synonymous with "job" (aka salary, pension, health insurance) ever since the positions of academic researchers became almost entirely contingent on grants.

Athena Andreadis said...

Postscript: I read the review. It's actually mild and rather neutral. It may be the author's first book -- and people tend to be jumpy around their firstborns.