BMCR 2022.11.26

BMCR: A view under the hood

This paper was first presented at BMCR’s 30th anniversary celebration in October 2022.

 

Introduction. BMCR as event[1]

My involvement with BMCR reaches back to 1993, the year when as a graduate student I published my first review (BMCR 1993.06.15). That’s already a long acquaintance. But my involvement became different in kind when I joined the editorial board in 2011, and again when I became an associate editor in 2012; it changed altogether when I joined Camilla MacKay as senior editor in 2015.

But years are a poor index of the work at BMCR. It might be more meaningful to say that some time ago I assigned my 5,000th book. It takes more than one email to place a book. Indeed, it takes more than one to receive a book and decide whether to list it; to find a reviewer; to answer the email that comes from its author, inquiring whether it’s been placed; to check with editors and associate editors about the concerns the review has provoked; and so on. Two very great pleasures of the job are the opportunity it brings to be in contact with, on last estimate, every classicist on earth, and the (thin but broad) sense one gathers of the work of the profession as a whole.

What I’d like to do in this essay on the occasion of BMCR’s anniversary is to reflect a little on the work of the Review, and to a point on what is revealed about the culture and character of the discipline, on the basis of remembered email. I organize these reflections around the life cycle of a review or, perhaps I should say, around the life cycle of a entry in our database, since not every book that is brought to our attention receives a review.

In all of what follows, essential preconditions of the Review’s work today were established in the years covered by Jim O’Donnell’s remarks at the celebration (published version here). These concern the timeliness, size, and audience of BMCR, but above all the early decision to issue each review as a separate publication via its own email. This transformed the appearance of each review from a publication into an event, one experienced simultaneously by nearly 10,000 people. That experience of simultaneity endows the community (and to a point, the discipline) with a kind of shared temporality, and with an awareness of itself as a community, in a deeply powerful way.[2]

I might add that working with BMCR very much and very rapidly changed my sense of how I had to communicate in professional life. From nearly the first email I wrote, I understood that each message was a reflection of the institution, and would affect the institution. The tone had always to be polite. But I came nearly equally rapidly to understand that this was also, quite simply, the most effective way to proceed.

 

Listing the book

The overwhelming majority of books listed by BMCR are brought to our attention by electronic announcements from publishers. These are not perfect: even major university presses in the US and UK have failed to notify us of central books in classical studies. But the problem that demands energy and attention is not books in Classics that we fail to receive—as soon as these are brought to our attention, we seek to remediate the problem. Instead, our energies are focused on overlisting: publishers’ mailing lists regularly notify us regarding books at the margins of classical studies and beyond, and we have to decide what to list. In her paper at the anniversary, Jodi Magness reflected on the shifting frontiers of classical studies, and I very much hope that BMCR has participated, and perhaps occasionally led, in expanding the boundaries of the classical.[3]

I feel acutely a responsibility to place as many books as possible. It is probably important to acknowledge not only that we fail, but we fail at scale. In any given year, we receive between 900 and 1100 books, and we probably place 750 of those. Why do we fail? Because sometimes no one whom I approach accepts; and because no qualified person subsequently volunteers.

The more important question is probably why do we seek to review so many books, not least given the extraordinary strain that volume places on our editorial process. The answer undoubtedly lies in the pressure created by BMCR’s own success, along the lines that I outlined earlier, and the feedback loop that this success has created. No one expects a review in Classical Journal, or Latomus, or Journal of Hellenic Studies or Journal of Roman Archaeology or perhaps even Gnomon in quite the same way. What is more, precisely because of BMCR’s ongoing and easy accessibility—where, as Jim Zetzel points out, one might have expected an emailed review to be ephemeral—authors of books want a BMCR review, with the result that many authors write to us to inquire whether their book has been placed, and, if the review is delayed or unlikely to be submitted, whether they might submit a second copy so that we can list it again. This is anguishing correspondence. I can say no more than we do the best we can, and that we long ago decided that there comes a point where we have to devote our limited resources to new publications.

 

“Too busy”

When people turn us down to review a book, two reasons are cited more than any other.[4] A small number suggest that that they might have a conflict of interest, and these we parse as best we can. The fact that the potential reviewer is concerned is often a heartening sign about their sense of professional ethics. In any event, the number of such cases is not great and they are on the whole unproblematic.

A far greater number cite overcommitment, and this is of course in many cases entirely plausible. Ours is a profession where commitment is often existential rather than contractual, and many, many colleagues take on absolutely as much as they can (or more).

The cases that interest me are those in which scholars allow that they are indeed working in the very area of the book … and either accept to review, on the grounds that they “need to read the book anyway”; or decline to review, because busy with their own projects. I would love to find a way to toggle more of these latter replies to “yes.” It is of course true that I seek in general to place books. But I also feel quite strongly that the sustaining of (sub)fields is a communal endeavor, in which public acts of sympathetic engagement and also of judgment in respect of each other’s work are essential to a field’s continuance.

This dynamic of loose reciprocity within the discipline extends, naturally, to other processes in professional life where it is far more essential. One thinks especially of peer review for works of scholarship and external evaluation in cases of tenure and promotion. It’s not simply that those with tenure have themselves been beneficiaries of this work on the part of others, as those who have published in journals and university presses have benefitted from the anonymous labor of the field at large. I also urge that the alternatives to peer review, and to the critical judgment of scholars in the field in matters of promotion, do not bear thinking about. In their absence, one has neither a discipline, nor faculty as we presently understand the term.

But the overall story of BMCR in this regard is an exceptionally optimistic one, a point to which I will return.

 

The review arrives

The overwhelming majority of reviews that arrive in the BMCR inbox are wholly professional. We accept them; each review is read by an editor, an associate editor, and a senior editor; queries and concerns are hammered out with the reviewer; and the review is published. But reviews as first submitted are occasionally problematic, and I want to remark on a few areas that generate a lot of email.

Many people for whom English is a second (or third) language nevertheless write in English, but not everyone who does this writes English well. BMCR now publishes in five languages. The decision so to operate was made precisely in order to represent back to the profession its own linguistic diversity; and also, and especially, to enable the Review to draw on the intelligence of the full roster of available talent. (On this issue see the remarks by Jim O’Donnell here, and the numbers assembled by Camilla MacKay.) I understand that scholars write in English in order that their own text will be widely read, and often as well from a very admirable desire that the book under review should be assessed somewhere in English so that its contents may be most widely known. For my own part, I urge people to write in the language in which they can convey most clearly their thought at its most complex.

Occasionally, a review falls short in some way that we find significant, and correspondence with the reviewer fails to result in a publishable text. In a very small number of cases per year, we decline to publish. That silence has affective and professional consequences of which we are acutely aware.[5] I wish it did not happen.

Finally, there was a time when one often read in reviews in Classics remarks of the form, “I wanted to like this book, but then I discovered that the author didn’t know Greek.” (Not long ago, I participated in a sequence of conversations about scholarship on rabbinic Judaism and heard several times the analogous judgment, “I’m concerned that so-and-so doesn’t really know Talmud.”) Since something like all authors of books in classical studies once passed qualifying exams in Greek and Latin, I have always been inclined to discount such statements. What they are voicing, it seems to me, is an aesthetic judgment, which, from lack of a relevant apparatus, they put in moral terms. Instead of saying, “I don’t like the form of this scholarship, or recognize its topic as pertinent to the field as I understand it,” they write: “The author of this book is not really, or is not fit to be, a classicist.” What one wants from these people, and what BMCR asks them to provide, is a reasoned account of why they find the argument of the book under review to be unsuccessful.

On this reading, what “knowing Greek” amounts to is a cultural construct with many different significations, few of which receive substantive articulation and none which commands universal assent. It’s a shorthand about politics, which is to say, it reflects an anxiety about the discipline and its boundaries, and our place and the place of work (and persons?) who discomfit us in respect of those boundaries. And it says something about Classics that this anxiety is expressed as an anxiety about language. One thing, but only one of the things, that we might say about this anxiety-about-language, is that it effects a translation of a political and aesthetic position into a technical one. It’s a distraction, and a disguise—a sort of strategic ambiguation.

Some years ago I spoke on a panel about graduate education at the SCS. I expressed concern, even ire, on that occasion about the role of sight translation exams as barriers to entry to the profession of Classics. What professional skill does the sight translation exam test? On what occasion after one’s qualifying exams will one have to write an article, or prepare a chapter, or write a book, without access to a dictionary? The more serious issue is obviously that “we” use sight translation exams as threshold requirements to join the profession not simply because we don’t think about language competency in sophisticated ways. We do so because we have trouble agreeing on other lowest-common-denominator definitions of “Classics” whose competencies we could test. The intolerable price that we undoubtedly pay is the exclusion of many bright and creative minds from the profession.

If the profession has not yet revised the means it employs to assess graduate students, it has at least accomplished one thing. BMCR for one does not readily allow the language of “knowing Greek” or its kin. Instead, we have tried to participate in an expansion of what gets reviewed, which amounts to an expansion in the ways of being a classicist.

 

The review doesn’t arrive

Sometimes reviewers write to say that they will not be submitting the review, either because they no longer want to write it, or because they don’t want to be critical. The latter claim, although not new, is now made on an altogether different scale than ever before. (Here I tread on ground traversed also by Jim Zetzel in his essay from the anniversary.) In many cases, the reluctance must arise precisely because criticism in a BMCR review is a public act, accidentally but truly one of the few public acts that the profession affords.

I try to ameliorate the anxiety that this provokes by urging people to review the book and not the person. Indeed, it is the recent surge in such cases that gave rise to the new statement along these lines in the Guidelines. I have also encouraged people to produce at least a summary or short note and suggested language whereby a reviewer can offer advice about the utility of the book for this or that audience.

But this is not my preferred outcome. I understand our profession fundamentally to depend on the regular exercise of judgment about our work by our peers; and I firmly believe this to be a good thing. Reviews that summarize are simply not as useful as reviews that engage. Scholarly readers are often instrumental readers; they want to know whether the book will be useful to them, where it can be trusted, and where one must read with eyes wide open. More than that: did the book make you think? To pose that question, and to answer it seriously, does not require one to be captious. One can be critical about scholarship without infringing the dignity of scholars.

 

A project of the discipline

I end on a note of optimism, and of gratitude. A corollary to the claim that I have placed 5000 books is that an astonishing number of people have been willing to do unrequited labor for the profession. They do so not simply instrumentally—because they “need to read it anyway,” or because they want a free book. They review because they find pleasure in coming to grips with—in thinking with—the creative and scholarly endeavors of their peers. To return to terms that I used earlier, BMCR flourishes because, for many of us, our relationship to scholarship is aesthetic (in the best sense); and our relationship to our profession is existential, or moral, and not contractual.

More importantly, the scale of the work that BMCR requires makes it more than a map or a guide to the discipline. The range and number of persons who participate in that work make BMCR very much a project of the discipline. I for one am deeply grateful to work in such a community.

 

Notes

[1] For assistance with this essay, my thanks to Jim O’Donnell, Camilla Mackay and Sarah Nooter.

[2] Some measure of this may be found in Camilla MacKay’s remarks at the anniversary on how many reviewers are contacted just after their texts are published.

[3] Certainly in my time as senior editor, we have consciously expanded to include more reception, more Ancient Near East, more Early Christian Studies, more history of scholarship, more Graeco-Arabic, more Syriac… and we have had to recruit editors, or ad hoc readers of reviews, to make this possible. Other issues of importance to this topic that I cannot touch on here include the questions of whether to review books that were not subjected to peer review (and the related problem that peer review is not uniformly practiced across various national contexts), and whether to review self-published items.

[4] I set aside the issue that, because we receive only electronic notices, we sometimes do not have ready access to the full table of contents and therefore invite a review from someone who has contributed to the book.

[5] By this I intend only that BMCR’s silence means that a easily-discovered, open-access guide to the book and its argument is not available. I do not generally credit, nor wish to engage, with claims that a book review has meaningful consequences for the evaluation of personnel for tenure and promotion.