BMCR 2006.07.36

Response: Nardelli on Olson on A. Bernabé, Poetae Epici Graeci

Response to 2006.07.27

2 Responses

Response by

Whether or not I am the first to do so, I would like to utter a protest against Prof. Olson’s style of reviewing. It behooves every author to acknowledge mistakes and accept criticism; now there is not a single one piece of his in this journal that does not reek of venom and is not bitter in the extreme — a true pain to the reader, who is certainly not subscribing to BMCR for such dubious pleasures.

Let it be said that no review should be the occasion for fighting one’s own petty battles nor parading one’s technical likes and dislikes in matters philological, as is the case in Olson’s handling of Bernabé. Having read that the twenty inaccuracies out of the one hundred ancient references in that book which he had checked “is five to ten times the acceptable rate of error in a carefully prepared critical text”, I was prima facie inclined to admire this severity as an instance of (daring) perfectionism; but, since he once directed the same exact charge at Hordern in his Timotheus (BMCR 2003.01.20), viz. at another work of scholarship literally overburdened with references the sloppiness of which he seems to have been the only reviewer to identify, I am wondering whether he is not indulging in gratuitous recklessness. This feeling is further strengthened by his arrogant preferences in citation style — once more a leitmotiv in his reviews; even a first-rank work like Magnelli’s Alexander Aetolus fails to satisfy him in that respect: it is said to cite too many ancient parallels and to quote too much Greek (BMCR 2000.11.14). As if the author himself was not the best judge!

What bothers me most is that Olson is not quite so chalcenteric and capacious an Hellenist as someone who patronises virtually every scholarly work he is writing about needs be if his manner is to pass muster as adequate reviewing style. When one browses through his own Aristophanic commentaries, one gets the impression of a learned, sensitive and by no means dull worker, but hardly one in possession of an encyclopaedic learning: the bibliography as such is compressed, the covering of the notes somewhat uneven, and the secondary references in them few and far between — hardly on a par with other recent commentaries (e.g. Braswell and Gerber on Pindar, Hutchinson on his select lyric poems, Davies on Trachiniae) but rather on the same footing as the ones in the far more succinct Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics volumes. The contention that “readers and reviewers should not necessarily assume that I am unaware of the existence of everything I fail to cite; my general policy has been to cite only the literature I find best or most useful” (Olson, Acharnians, p. viii) sounds more like a faux-fuyant or a lame excuse than like a methodological disclaimer: sure the bibliography is huge, but any purchaser of a scholarly, major commentary is entitled to find at the very least some directions in the mass of relevant literature, something in-between the near vacuum of Kirk’s first volume of the Cambridge Commentary to the Iliad and the all-embracing doxography of (say) the Stellenbibliographie zur Historia Augusta. It will not do to object that this brevity was indeed the practice of the other Oxford commentators of Aristophanes, from Dover on, for the series grows more ambitious as time rushes by.

Consequently I am afraid the very same criticisms Olson lavished on nearly every edition he reviewed for BMCR would apply equally well to such masterpieces as Friis-Johansen & Whittle on Aeschylus’ Supplices, Bollack on Oedipus Rex and Wankel on Demosthenes’ Against Cleitophon, each of whom is hell-bent on discussing the secondary literature and citing parallels and each of whom, in his forest of references, is bound to have committed various mistakes. In my view, this is where one cannot follow Olson; he may check and recheck his own sparser references so as to give them perfect to his reader, this achievement is hardly to be expected of authors who provide many hundreds of references (and a sample of 100 out of the thousands embodied in Bernabé seems a very restricted sample indeed), and he should not have addressed such tart words at Magnelli, Hordern and Bernabé for what they possibly could not do in their complicated works. This is not to say that one ought not to present as clean and proof-read a book as is feasible. But it is gross to claim that Dr. X or Prof. Y are incompetent editors of their prose; before your average reviewer does it in earnest, he should do well to make sure he is not blinded by his preconceptions.

Olson, in my opinion, lacks measure; he rants on technical details so much that, finally, they seem to count more for him than the contribution to scholarship the book under review does (or does not) make. I continue to admire his energy, but not always his judgment and definitely not his manners. And I will take his fuming seriously when he will publish a work with as much technical display of erudition as the books he is in the habit of butchering.

[For a response to this response by David Konstan, please see BMCR 2006.07.56.]

[For a response to this response by S. Douglas Olson, please see BMCR 2006.08.36.]