Central to the work of scientists is submitting our writing to review by other people. This includes both the review of grant applications, and the review of scientific manuscripts. From time to time, we receive reviews that we find unfair, or uninformed, or unwise, and when this happens, we wonder how to reply.
Richard Kluger was apparently faced with a similar question in August of 2007, after his book "Seizing Destiny" was reviewed by Richard Brookhiser in the New York Times. Here is Mr. Kluger's letter of response, as it appeared in the New York Times Book Review:
August 26, 2007A Different DrummerTo the Editor:I must confess to a moment of churlishness when, after being lulled by your reviewer’s discussion of my book “Seizing Destiny” (Aug. 12), I was awakened by the artful thrust of the hired assassin’s knife. In the next to last paragraph, Richard Brookhiser wrote: “I cannot recommend this book, however. Kluger’s writing is some of the worst I have ever had to read. ... If I had not agreed to review this book, I would have stopped after five pages. After 600, I felt as if I were inside a bass drum banged on by a clown.”But rather than childishly taking offense at what I interpreted as a gentle rebuke, I soon realized how dutiful — brave, even — the reviewer had been in soldiering on after those first five thoroughly nauseating pages. He even kindly illustrated my utter ineptitude by singling out this sentence I had written on the French Revolution: “French grievances were vented in alternating waves of liberation and repression that swept the overwrought masses toward the cauldron of anarchy.” How could I have butchered the English language so grievously?Suddenly I understood how mistaken the Book Review’s critic had been about my last book, “Ashes to Ashes,” in his highly laudatory review — and how besotted the jurors were who voted it the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, not usually awarded to wretched writers (I being the fortunate exception). How foolish, I thought, the Times columnist Bob Herbert had been for referring to my “Simple Justice” as a “brilliant and powerful book.” And how blind the former Times reporter Anthony Lukas, a garlanded book author, had been for stating that my book “The Paper: The Life and Death of The New York Herald Tribune” was “probably the best book ever written about an American newspaper ... a brilliant piece of social history.” And how insensitive to hideous prose were the judges who placed both those books among the five finalists for the National Book Award in history for the years in which they were issued.Here at last, I appreciatively recognized, was a critic astute and forthright enough to do for me what no other reviewer had done before: tell me I am a clown, not a writer. How sad I was for the publisher of my four books of social history, Alfred A. Knopf, which has gained its eminence by bringing out books by similarly dreadful authors. How bad I felt for the four eminent writers and scholars — Joseph Ellis, David Kennedy, Justin Kaplan and Dan T. Carter — who had unaccountably offered admiring words about “Seizing Destiny” for the back of the book jacket. And how insensitive Kirkus was for calling it, in a starred prepublication review, “brilliant.”Rather than continue writing, I will henceforth devote my energies to mastering one or another percussion instrument (if not the drum, on which your reviewer seems to feel I have a head start). It was an honor to be so subtly awakened from my self-deception by Mr. Brookhiser, who has honed his own skills by laboring for 30 years on the staff of National Review, a beacon of insightful commentary as well as fair and balanced judgment. Thanks, too, to your staff for selecting him. As we say out here in Berkeley, that iniquitous den of bluest liberalism, have a nice day.Richard KlugerBerkeley, Calif.