Thursday, February 7, 2008

Dirty, Smelly Barbarians

So, in a recent New Yorker (yes, I am a sterotype -- an academic who reads The New Yorker) there's a review of David Levering Lewis' God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 by Joan Acocella.

Oh, where to begin? I just don't have the energy...

Should it tip you off that Ms. Acocella is an author of books on Mark Morris and Willa Cather? Surely, there's a medievalist out there who could've written this? Should it tip you off that Prof. Lewis is a professor at NYU -- who's won 2 Pulitzers for biographies of W.E.B. DuBois (click on teaching interests)?

Anyway, I'm glad that Ms. Acocella has read Edward Said. I'm glad that she thinks that "revisionism" is a new kind of trend in historiography. Still, I don't know if you can accurately judge historiographic trends in medieval studies by the work of a non-specialist (writing -- and this isn't meant in a perjorative way -- a trade publication). Oh, and the Franks may've been concerned about incest in the 8th century. That DOES NOT mean, however, that they were sleeping with their brothers and sisters every five freakin' minutes.

Read the review and judge for yourself.

PS -- the title of the post refers to the whole "Franks are dirty, smelly, sister-lovers" thing.


Anonymous said...

When reading Ms. Acocella's review and your post, I was reminded of the earlier link to Dr. Nokes's observation on allegory. Ms. Acocella's observations mostly relied upon a New Criticism reading of the essay. I thought she did a great job pointing out inconsistencies in Professor Lewis's treatments of the Muslim and Christian societies. As you pointed out, this treatment was ultimately unsatisfactory as she had little independent knowledge of the historical context of Professor Lewis's analysis. Is it common for respectable (non-academic journal) publications to rely on similar readings by intelligent, non-specialists who focus on inconsistencies in analysis and ignore possible inaccuracies in readings of primary sources and general assumptions about the period?

Matthew Gabriele said...

Not sure, but I it is common for non-academic journals (and newspapers) to use non-specialists to review books. I don't know why they don't ask specialists though. Part of it has to do, I think, with self-imposed "ivory-towerism" but the other part probably has to do with the declining/ virtually non-existant place of the public intellectual in our society. What I mean is that, it just wouldn't necessarily occur to anyone to ask an academic to review a book for The New Yorker. Alas.

Linda C. McCabe said...


I'm not a subscriber to The New Yorker and tend only read it if there is a copy in a waiting room somewhere, so my familiarity with that magazine is limited.

After a quick search of their website I found Joan Acocella's bio which includes this:

"Acocella received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She has written on dance, literature, and the arts for many publications, including the New York Times Book Review, Art in America, The New York Review of Books, and the Times Literary Supplement." (emphasis mine)

So she usually writes on dance and the arts.

It seems as if The New Yorker is more interested in assigning new books to be reviewed to their stable of writers that they have confidence will turn in a column in on time that will entertain their readership more than they are in contacting experts who might write a freelance review.

So...if you wish to make sure that your expertise on a subject is reflected in a book review than you might need to bell that cat yourself. That will include getting your foot in the door with publications who continue to publish book reviews.

A friend of mine gave a talk a few years ago to my writers club about different ways writers can support themselves financially and he specifically brought up the idea of writing book reviews. His area of expertise is in analyzing the political movements of the Far Right, Neo-Nazis and Fascists. He took the idea of keeping abreast of new material in his field as an opportunity to make money. Not many book reviewers would be interested in that political topic and he was able to tailor book reviews for several publications with slightly different angles.

Each time he had his byline of his own book that was available for purchase.

Another benefit was that he was able to curry assignments from the LA Times for news articles as well as a result. (IIRC)

You might consider following in that advice for Lewis's book, or any other book that you feel qualified to render an expert opinion. You have a forthcoming book, and that can be one method to help publicize it before and after its release.

David Nicolle has the book Poitiers AD 732: Charles Martel turns the Islamic tide due out next week. Perhaps you could submit a review for that book to The New Yorker or another publication. Or even a comparison contrast with Lewis's book. Just a thought.


Another Damned Medievalist said...

Just aaaaargh! You know, LDW has regularly reviewed history books in our field for major newspapers and journals -- in other countries. I generally like The New Yorker, but this kind of stupidity makes me glad I cancelled my subscription. It sounds like a truly crap book, though, and I swear... Dark Ages? and Frankland (what's wrong with Francia? It sounds so much better)??