Perhaps the main problem with the Mormon Studies Review, which led to this awful explosion in the last couple of weeks, can be crystallized by looking at the titles it has held over the years and thinking for a moment about what they mean.
At first, it was the FARMS Review of Books on the Book of Mormon. It then became the FARMS Review of Books, the FARMS Review, and finally, just the Mormon Studies Review, expanding out the “MS” and dropping the “FAR” at the start. That is quite a journey, and expresses a range of personalities whose conflict with one another appears to have finally produced this explosion between Jerry Bradford and Dan Peterson.
The scope changed dramatically from just books dealing with the Book of Mormon at first, to all kinds of stuff related to Mormonism at the end. But those changes in scope were pretty straightforward.
The complicated part is a matter of genre. The Review started as a publication that specifically did book reviews, and ended up as a publication that invites “substantial freestanding essays that make further contributions to the field of Mormon studies.” And my hunch is that Jerry Bradford would want to emphasize these freestanding essays as the core of the publication going forward, even though they are mentioned second, as an “also” in the current description of the journal on the Maxwell site. But see, book reviews are just a very different category from regular scholarly essays. It seems to me the tensions between these two genres, mixed with a blurring of the boundaries by various parties, might explain most of why the Review has come to a point where it finds it impossible to move forward.
Book reviews may be of interest to scholars, but the typical book review is completely different from the typical scholarly article or essay. The typical book review acknowledges and sometimes announces the publication of a book and gives potential readers a sense of what the book is like. It may also offer some critical commentary to help people decide whether they want to buy/read the book, and what they should expect to get out of it if they do. The reviewer may indicate points she agrees with and points she would criticize, but the criticisms are usually expressed in a brief way that is intended to be suggestive rather than decisive. They may suggest lines of analysis that could be developed and expanded on another occasion in an essay, or perhaps in a book, which would count as scholarship.
When a book review is a review of a scholarly book, then, it is usually written by a scholar, for an audience of scholars, but intended mainly as commentary on scholarship, both about this particular piece, and about interesting possibilities for further scholarship, rather than a piece of scholarship itself.
However, there are two crucial ambiguities in the nature of the category. First, there is ambiguity about how much commentary to give, and in what depth. Some book reviews only describe, some only describe and praise, and some may get quite long and go into great depth, including sustained, reasoned critique. While some publications have a certain form and length for their reviews, the format varies widely by publication. There is no clear line between a long, careful book review and a straight-up article, because if the critique is sustained enough and thoroughly enough developed, it pretty much starts to look just like a scholarly article.
As it happens, the Review has exploited this ambiguity quite actively and unabashedly at times. Some essays in the Review are more like novellas of 100 pages or more. It was publishing some pieces that really looked more like freestanding essays for a while before it became the FARMS Review. I wrote one of them, actually responding to an essay itself (not even to a book!), but that I was willing to shoehorn into the category of a review because in other ways it seemed a good fit for the Review and its audience. The editor invited me to write it, and to exploit the ambiguity as much as I felt like. I was excited to learn, though, that just after my piece was published, the Review changed its name to just “FARMS Review“, so I didn’t have to explain any more that my piece wasn’t really just a book review, but a 17-page essay. I wanted to get credit for it as a piece of scholarship, on which more below.
But there’s another ambiguity that’s equally important. Book reviews are not always reviews of scholarly work. Reviews of scholarly work are aimed at scholarly readers, written in a scholarly tone, and written by scholars. Reviews of other work, which we might just call popular work, because it is for a broad audience, don’t have to follow any of these rules. Depending on the nature of the work it is responding to, the appropriate tone, style, and content may vary dramatically. It would seem silly to write a book review of a popular work in a scholarly tone. The point of a review is to inform people who might read the book, so the audience of a review is more or less the audience of the work being reviewed. Similarly, if the person writing a book isn’t relying on scholarly credentials for credibility, the person reviewing the book doesn’t need scholarly credentials to discredit it, so the author pool is completely different. Perhaps most importantly, if a work is not scholarly, and is in fact polemical, then the assumption prevailing among scholars that disagreement must be respected goes out the door. It is fair to lampoon the author of a popular work when commenting on it, just like it is fair to lampoon President Obama, or Mitt Romney, in a political opinion piece.
If reviews of popular books are not scholarship, what should we call them? Some people in the Mormon Studies world seem to think they are just bad scholarship, but they miss the point. The goals of a popular book review are different from the goals of scholarship, so they should be judged by different standards. What standards? As informative writing, addressed to a general audience, perhaps we should think of them as a type of journalism.
This means that there is a considerable variety of stuff that has been published within the Review. One might feel it is a bit of a zoo, to use a journalistically colorful term. Mere variety is not necessarily a problem. Zoos can be delightful, fascinating, precious institutions. The Mormon theme shared by all this material is enough to make this combination sensible for the Review’s traditional audience, which has been quite broad, including both scholars and many thoughtful laypeople, but pretty much only Mormons. For these people, the FARMS name itself gave credibility to the work. FARMS was run by a bunch of faithful, believing BYU professors, willing to use their scholarly tools to illuminate questions of great spiritual significance, and for most readers of the FARMS Review of Books, that combination of faith and scholarship has been the rare and precious thing they were looking for. My distinction of three genres would have seemed a fussy distraction to many of them.
For purposes of addressing an audience of non-Mormon scholars, though, it becomes a problem that the Review includes three quite different kinds of material: articles, scholarly reviews (which are also best understood as a kind of journalism), and more straightforwardly journalistic, popular reviews.
In a scholarly context, part of the point of a journal is to establish standards of quality in scholarship, to judge submissions by those standards, and to only publish work that meets them. This way readers know they are only reading the good stuff, while authors can point to publication as proof that they measure up, and use this to argue for tenure and promotion. But that means the same standard has to be applied to everything the journal publishes, or else it’s not clear (at least, from far away) that there is a standard.
Essays and articles are the bread and butter of scholarship, and to do their job, they require this context of a uniform standard. If a journal isn’t known for such a standard, scholars often won’t bother to write for it, because they may not get professional credit. So, a straightforwardly scholarly journal can comfortably publish both articles/essays and scholarly book reviews (clearly marked out in different sections of an issue), but not reviews of popular books.
In the meantime, a publication devoted purely to book reviews could review both popular and scholarly material, and do so in a style that varies with the subject. There are publications like the New York Review of Books that offer extremely interesting and informative, journalistic commentary. Reviewers include highly respected scholars, and being published in NYRB is an impressive thing. The journalistic format allows for greater freedom than a scholarly context, which means this writing is often much more interesting than scholarship, even for scholars to read. One is free to explore, to present conjectures and make controversial statements without having to prove everything fastidiously. Book reviews in this vein may have a strong element of political commentary. It’s great stuff, but it’s a different thing from scholarship, and trying to include scholarly articles normally would just not make sense. The thematic commonalities, combined with the special audience of the FARMS Review/of Books, have made it a workable combination in this case, though, and indeed one that many, many people have found deeply satisfying to a range of needs.
In the end, how important is scholarship, really, and how many people actually want to read it? How many people’s lives are changed, testimonies built or saved, by starchy scholarship? Very few. The popular audience is much bigger, and the stakes are much higher. One could argue that the popular material is actually more urgent and important, at least in the near term. Scholarship is also very important stuff in its sphere, though, and crucial to the life of universities, which are key to our economy and culture.
So, we have three kinds of content, all of which have their own great value, but which in the long run can’t really flourish in the same journal. Those pesky articles in the long run need a special, controlled environment to thrive. What do we do?
I would have thought that the obvious thing would be to split the journal, forming one journal for articles and some scholarly book reviews, while preserving most of the book reviews, and the freer, journalistic essays, for something more like the pre-2003 FARMS Review of Books.
There are some things that might make that tricky. Is there enough material, particularly scholarly articles of sufficient quality? Does BYU care enough about the popular material to support a Review of Books, or would it have to become an independent operation again, as it was originally? Would there be one editor of both publications, or who would take over what? Would the donors care about the scholarship, or would the scholarly journal go broke? I may comment on the first question another time, but having mentioned the others will leave them at that.
Another problem with that scenario is that the journal already changed its name a year ago to Mormon Studies Review, which would have seemed the natural time to crystallize the distinction between the FARMS-branded, popular material aimed mainly at a Mormon audience (plus, perhaps, segments of the anti-Mormon industry), and the purely scholarly material that one would want non-Mormon academics to recognize as sound scholarship. Yet it stayed a single publication, while evidently the editor is heart-and-soul committed to continuing to publish the popular, thinky-journalistic (or even journalism-for-scholars) material (with good reason). Moreover, if someone wants a straight, stodgy, buttoned-up scholarly journal on Mormon Studies, trying to take the FARMS Review of Books as I know it and turn it into that, even gradually, seems like a counterintuitive and uphill path to me. Is it too late to say, uh, actually we meant this to be two journals, representing the two conflicting impulses of the FARMS Review? I am very curious to see where the Review goes next.
When we look at it this way, though, I think it becomes clear that much of the grumpiness surrounding the Review comes from the fact that people looking on from a certain distance (like smallaxe at FPR) have had different expectations of what it should be, depending on what kind of writing they happen to like to read, and in many cases it did not meet those expectations. In part this is understandable, because it includes different kinds of material that are appropriately held to different standards, and to some extent are of interest to quite different audiences. However, in part it is unreasonable, because people are judging work by standards that should not be applied to it, because it is a different category of work. Some folks of course hate the Review and everything it represents mainly because they are just on the opposite side of some of the controversies on which authors commented in the popular material, or have personal reasons (perhaps involving faith or lack thereof) why they want the scholarly claims defended in the Review to be false, but neither of these are indications of bad scholarship. In journalism, making people mad can be a sign you are really good at it.
I’ve been wondering what was going to happen with the tension between these categories for many years . . . it never occurred to me that it would lead to offense and acrimony, though, and I am very upset about that.
I will be eager to see what happens with the Review next.
[needless to say, as a longtime participant in Mormon Studies, I have been provoked to many, many more thoughts than this by the recent events at the Maxwell Institute. I may go into a few more issues another time.]
[and what genre is this? a blog post! so, any factual or logical errors should be understood as an invitation to correct me!]