Reviewing an edited collection can seem a daunting task, presenting different challenges to a review of a monograph. In this piece, LSE RB Managing Editor Rosemary Deller shares five tips for writing a review of an edited volume, including examples of how contributors to the LSE RB blog have approached their reviews. If you are interested in this topic, you may also like to read this feature on writing introductions to book reviews.
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While contributors to the LSE RB blog often feel reasonably confident about writing a review of an academic monograph, the prospect of reviewing an edited collection can provoke more uncertainty. A question that I typically get asked is: how could I possibly comment on all this content and do it justice in 1000 words? Whether the collection has a relatively concise eight chapters or is one of the dauntingly mammoth Oxford Handbooks, this concern is shared by many of those undertaking a review of an edited volume. In this piece, I share five tips for approaching a review of an edited book.
Accept that you can’t comment on all of the chapters – and your review will be stronger for it
One of the key anxieties when it comes to reviewing edited collections is the fear of not being able to cover all of the content. However, accepting that you cannot review each individual chapter in a volume doesn’t jeopardise your capacity to do justice to the book; rather, it can enhance it. Since any book review can be considered a judicious balancing act between the right amount of description and evaluation (with more weight typically on the latter), then the risk of trying to review all or even most of a book’s chapters in a review is that the resulting piece – especially in our concise reviews of 1000 words – ends up providing a flat descriptive overview, rather than an insightful critical commentary on a collection’s strengths and possible shortcomings. For this reason, it is neither feasible nor constructive to try to comment on all of the essays in a volume. To narrow in on a selection of chapters is not a failing in a book review of an edited collection, but integral to critical engagement.
Narrow in on chapters that exemplify or demonstrate some of the overarching themes or concerns of the collection
With that in mind, how to select the best or most appropriate chapters to comment on? One suggestion is to focus on those that exemplify a collection’s overarching themes, shared methodology or political outlook. A noteworthy example can be found in Ekaterina Svetlova’s review of Uncertain Futures (edited by Jens Beckert and Richard Bronk), where she discusses a couple of chapters that illustrate the volume’s two main themes. Faced with the task of writing a review of The Sage Handbook of the 21st Century City (edited by Suzanne Hall and Ricky Burdett), which has 37 essays, Frederik Weissenborn structures his review around what he considers the three central contributions to the collection. Taking a slightly different approach, Fabrizia Serafim in her review of Feminism and the Politics of Childhood (edited by Rachel Rosen and Katherine Twamley) discusses chapters that demonstrate two key themes she identifies in addition to those explicitly signalled by the editors. This method of choosing chapters is likely to be particularly useful for edited volumes that have been organised following a conference or which explore a specific topic across a small number of disciplines, where there are connective tissues between the chapters that can be drawn out for discussion.
Don’t be afraid to showcase your own research interests and expertise when picking chapters to focus on
Although it can be useful to select chapters that reflect some of the commonalities across a collection, it may be that an edited interdisciplinary volume presents more diverse offerings. Here, it can be productive to select several chapters that speak to your own research interests, especially if you contextualise this choice within the body of the review. A great example can be found here in Jim Reynolds’s review of Looking Back and Living Forward: Indigenous Research Rising Up (edited by Jennifer Markides and Laura Forsythe). Reynolds narrows in on the chapters on Indigenous law, which is his own area of expertise, while also identifying a couple of additional contributions that caught his eye. In a different vein, in her review of Decolonization and Feminisms in Global Teaching and Learning (edited by Sara de Jong, Rosalba Icaza and Olivia U. Rutazibwa) Fawzia Mazanderani discusses how one of the contributions prompted her to reflect on her own teaching. Reviewing through the lens of your expertise and practice is not self-aggrandising: it can help your own evaluative voice to come to the surface and it gives the added value of casting an informed and knowledgeable eye on the book’s treatment of a particular topic.
Remember that edited volumes are not the same as monographs – make sure you attend to these differences, and the collective labour involved, in your review
From reading drafts of reviews of edited collections, it can be easy to forget that they have a different format to a monograph: for instance, collections don’t have an author; instead, they have an editor/editors and contributing authors. Although questions of structure, what to include and what to exclude are components of writing any book, they take on particular significance in an edited collection. Remember to appraise the holistic organisation of the volume in the review, including the work of editing – have the editors done a good job in selecting the contributing authors? Have they organised the chapters in a logical, illuminating manner? Do the introductions and conclusions provide an effective entrance into the text and a satisfying close to it? Do the essays speak to one another; is there repetition of content? In his review of On Race, edited by George Yancy, Leonardo Custódio does a great job of appraising Yancy’s editorial approach, including some critical reflection on the geographical reach of his selected contributors. In a related vein, remember to give the names of the contributing authors when discussing their chapters to ensure that you acknowledge the collective labour that goes into an edited volume, as Jodie Matthews does so well in her review of Posthuman Glossary (edited by Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova).
Flag scholarship by early career researchers and emerging scholars, not just the recognised big names
It is not uncommon for edited collections to feature a particularly big name in a chosen field. While it can be tempting to focus on that chapter due to the potential familiarity of the contributing author, edited collections can often be the place where postgraduate students and early career researchers publish for the first time. So if a chapter by an emerging scholar catches your eye, a review of an edited volume can be a great place to draw attention to their work and flag its value to other readers and researchers.
Rosemary Deller is the Managing Editor of the LSE Review of Books blog. She received a PhD in English and American Studies from the University of Manchester in 2015 for her thesis looking at co-constructions of gender and animality through representations of meat in contemporary culture. Prior to this, she studied Politics at undergraduate level at Newcastle University and has an MA in Gender Studies from Central European University, Budapest.
This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the London School of Economics.