Brian Leiter's Law School Reports

Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Academic Law Needs More Fora for Serious Book Reviews!

That, in a nutshell, is the theme of this recent article by my former colleague Sandy Levinson.  Discuss!  (Submit comments only once, they may take awhile to appear.  Signed comments are more likely to be approved.)

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I think Prof. Levinson's points are well taken across the board -- d'accord! The MLR's editors have carried the laboring oar in this area of legal scholarship for decades; the Annual Review of Books Related to the Law was (and is) really "the" forum for browsing the latest monographs. The joy of this issue was (and remains) that reading it cover-to-cover is both professionally useful and fun. My sense, from talking to the book review editors at the MLR over recent years, is that the task of editing a 700-900 page de facto "triple" issue (the length that some of the 1990s MLR survey issues reached) was simply beyond their institutional capabilities. Even in its more recent, comparatively svelte, iterations, it still represents the most visible forum for reviews of new books related to law and legal thought.

I think that the problem is that too many student editors assume that a book review, which is, by its very nature, a derivative kind of enterprise, cannot make significant independent contributions to legal scholarship. This, of course, is plainly wrong, but I think it explains the blanket bans on review essays in fora like the Duke Law Journal. The best review essays do not, in fact, constitute mere "book reports," but use the review essay form to make an important point (or points) that interconnect with the book under review.

What might be helpful, in convincing student edited law review editors to rethink the bans on review essays, would be empirical data showing that a review essay can garner as many citations downstream as an article or essay. I suspect that this is true for reviews in leading law reviews, such as Michigan, Chicago, and Texas. Again, the core problem is a common misconception that a book review cannot say anything of value and represents a "Cliff's Notes" version of a longer work; until this changes, it will remain difficult to place book reviews. This then presents a chicken-and-egg problem: prudent legal scholars, and particularly younger scholars, will naturally avoid writing in a genre that significantly decreases the possibility of securing a good forum for their work. If leading law reviews, such as Texas, were openly to compete with Michigan in a sustained way, perhaps the form could be restored to its past glory. A new, competitive annual review edition might also present a real market opportunity for a law review in the 12-30 echelon to improve both its stable of authors and its citation count. Just a thought.

Posted by: Ron Krotoszynski | Aug 18, 2009 12:01:14 PM

I commented at TaxProf but will restate my view in more detail here:

1. I don't think it's that law reviews won't publish book reviews. In my experience it's actually a little easier to place a review in a "big" law review than a regular article. I think there aren't that many good reviews submitted

2. I think a lot of it has to do with the kind of books being published. Most books that I see are either extensions of previous articles or pitched at an exclusively academic audience. There are very few treatises and similar works being published of the type most likely to interest student editors (or general readers). Less attractive books (at least to the audience in question) means less interest in reviews

3. As you recently noted, reviews are more fun when they disagree with the book. In today's academic culture, relatively few people are anxious to "trash" a colleague's work for fear the same will be done to them. More civility equals fewer interesting book reviews.

Mike Livingston

Posted by: mike livingston | Aug 18, 2009 2:42:10 PM

We need a law NDPR.

Posted by: Chris Green | Aug 18, 2009 2:57:00 PM

Professor Levinson discusses the need for more book reviews. And one of the commentators mentions the need for a law NDPR. But perhaps what is really missing is not exactly book reviews, but rather book symposia; Perhaps, in other words, what we need is not so much (or not only) a law NDPR, but rather a law Philosophical Books, or some such.

It was precisely this thought that led us – at the Hebrew University Faculty of Law – to establish a new journal, The Jerusalem Review of Legal Studies, which will be dedicated to in-depth discussions of recent legal-scholarship books. Each book will be commented on by three or four scholars, and the author will reply. The first two symposia are one about Doug Husak's recent book, and one about David Rabban's recent book. We hope to have a website up soon, with more details.

Of course, such a journal cannot cover as many books as a book-review forum can. But still, it seems to help – among other things – address some of the needs discussed by Professor Levinson (so I hope the mild promotional tone of this comment is okay…).

Posted by: David Enoch | Aug 19, 2009 4:59:53 AM

I am delighted to read the comments above. I also have a confession of error. It turns out that Keith Whittington's book was indeed reviewed, in the Yale Law Journal, by Jamal Greene, 117 YALE L. J. 886 (2008), available at http://yalelawjournal.org/117/5/greene.html

I apologize both to the Journal and to Professor Greene for this mistake. For better or worse, it scarcely affects the central argument.

Posted by: Sanford Levinson | Aug 19, 2009 2:32:17 PM

Important issue; good treatment here and by Levinson. Maybe SSRN could be enlisted to help, perhaps with new titles. I'm on the editorial board of one SSRN journal on which I don't believe I've ever seen a book review posted. The rise of SSRN might be part of the problem--it doesn't seem to have space for book reviews, although nothing about the post-your-own PDF format stops them. Not that I blame SSRN: book reviews were declining in law journals before it got so dominant in law publishing.

As Professor Levinson mentions, tenure standards might be another problem. We might fix the problem by creating more fora yet leave junior colleagues still fearful that a their review wouldn't count. I would favor an overt promise to count a book review as half an article. That much might not suffice (especially if the review is as good as Sandel on Rawls) but junior colleagues could be encouraged to know that their work would count for something.

Posted by: Anita Bernstein | Aug 19, 2009 11:17:59 PM

Here's a link to the post I wrote on Prawfsblawg when Levinson's article came out: http://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/prawfsblawg/2009/07/levinson-on-the-vanishing-book-review.html. Let me add to that a note of agreement with Prof. Bernstein that it would help if SSRN were more charitable about counting book reviews -- that is, adding them to the author's SSRN page and counting them in the download total. Whether SSRN downloads should be the coin of the realm or not, as long as they are treated as such this will be one more disincentive to scholars who ought to be writing book reviews. Let me also reiterate what I said in my post: that rather than talking to each other about this, we ought to be talking to the journal editors about it.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Aug 20, 2009 11:29:27 AM

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