‘The physical appearance of the book is attractive’: moderating praise & mitigating criticism

Hyland, K. (2000) Praise and criticism: interactions in book reviews. In Disciplinary Discourses. University of Michigan Press.

I enjoyed this… Like all Hyland’s work it is accessibly written so one can motor through the non-essential bits without losing the thread. There are some absolute gems in here that made me laugh out loud – particularly in the section on mitigation of criticism. Recommending a book as ‘an interesting [one] to borrow from the library shelf’ is a subtle sting indeed, and I sincerely hope I never write a book that induces a reviewer to conclude with a compliment on its physical appearance.

As I prepare to write my own book review (having not quite finished the book yet… eeek), I focused my attention on what was immediately relevant to me in as a potential reviewer in the field of humanities and social science. I am also planning to examine closely two book reviews – one from my chosen journal (IJAD) and Robert Farrow’s 2013 review of Martin Weller’s The Digital Scholar.

I have synthesised from Hyland’s chapter the following typical structure and components of book reviews:

  1. Describe reputation/experience of the author, observing their authority and appropriate placement in the field.
  2. Summarise and comment on general aspects of content (coverage and approach) in a neutral or positive light.
  3. Comment on specific aspects of content (argument, insight), balancing praise and criticism.
  4. Further comment on some or all of the following as relevant:
    • style (clarity, organisation, readability)
    • readership (value, relevance)
    • text (extent, currency of references, quality of diagrams)
    • author (their experience, reputation)
    • publishing (price, quality, production standards)
  5. Positive finish – to re-establish the reviewer’s credentials as an honest and reasonable scholar – in soft disciplines this tends to refer to general content rather than the book’s value for readers.

The Farrow (2013) review I looked at definitely seemed to follow this model; I will write more about that in my next post.

Aside from the obvious interpersonal implications, I thought the point about the genre being ‘parasitic on the one it critiques’ (p44) was of particular note. ‘Parasitic’ is a strong word, and to me there seems to be a contradiction between this notion of a book review as offering ‘no fresh evidence to the community’, and its purpose as outlined on p48 as providing ‘an overview of the text for prospective readers while raising particular problematic issues for the field’. However, Hyland points out that the general pattern of global praise and specific criticism in book reviews serves both the evaluative role of the genre and the interpersonal one.

I skimmed over the section in this chapter that discussed the criticism of stylistic blemishes and poor writing, as I can’t see myself reading enough of a poorly-written book to be able to write a review of it. In fact, I think that would require a rather dubious kind of motivation, as hinted at in the Crowley example on p54-55. I really wanted to read the rest of that review – it looked entertaining – but as it was taken from outside the research corpus the full reference wasn’t listed (I presume it wasn’t from a review of one of Hyland’s own books?!).

To conclude – here are the results of Hyland’s analysis of the mitigation of criticism:

Techniques for mitigating criticism:

  1. Praise-criticism pairing
  2. Hedging
  3. Labelling as personal opinion of ‘ordinary reader’ (N.B. designating oneself as the source of praise¬†works in the opposite way – i.e. it marks certainty)
  4. Abstracting criticism to general audience or third party
  5. Metadiscourse (about the review itself – e.g. ‘to get gripes out of the way first…’)
  6. Limited praise – inferring through omission
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