I spent last week at the Annual Conference of the Association of American Geographers (AAG), a mammoth event with hundreds of sessions spread over 5 days and 3 hotels in New Orleans, Louisiana. I had a fantastic time at the conference, and I loved exploring New Orleans in my time off. I have attended the conference before, in Chicago in 2015, so I knew what to expect from this epic exchange of knowledge and research. But I also had some new experiences, including participating as a panellist in an Author Meets Critics session.
Author Meets Critics sessions are odd. Primarily designed to publicise recent books (I think!), panellists speak about the book, and the author(s) then respond to those comments. Most of the time, the majority of the audience has not read the book, so it can be hard to formulate questions when the floor is opened up to audience discussion. The number of critics depends on the length of the session, but can range from 3 to 5.
At the AAG, I was taking on the role of critic for Revolting New York: How 400 Years of Riot, Rebellion, Revolution, and Uprising Shaped a City, which attempts to document almost four centuries of contentious history in one of the most famous cities in the world. I really enjoyed reading the book, and I had an idea what I wanted to say about it, but I had never actually been to an Author Meets Critics session before, and I wasn’t sure if what I wanted to say was appropriate. So I went to two other Author Meets Critics sessions before the Revolting New York one. The critics in the two sessions took very different approaches, and I liked one much more than the other.
The first session I went to was for Paul Routledge’s new book, Space Invaders: Radical Geographies of Protest (2017). Routledge, and most of the panellists, have published work that has been influential on my understanding of the geography of social movements and protests, so that was a second reason for me to go along. I haven’t read the book, in fact I wasn’t aware of its existence until I saw the title in the conference programme. All of the critics (and there were five of them!) talked about what they liked about the book, and what they didn’t like. It was effectively a verbal review. Times five. With the author in the room. Whilst none of the reviews were overwhelmingly bad, it still felt pretty brutal. I felt quite uncomfortable during the session, and I also found it quite difficult to engage with the discussion.
The second Author Meets Critics was for Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of WW1 to the Streets of Today (2017) by Anna Feigenbaum. I have read this book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I also got a lot more out of the discussion of the book. There were only three critics, which gave Feigenbaum the time to briefly outline the book for those who hadn’t read it, as well as responding to the critics at the end. In addition, rather than reviewing Tear Gas, the two critics built on it, discussing which elements they found most interesting and how the book fit in to contemporary academic debates. As an audience member, I found this approach much more engaging.
Luckily, this was the approach I had decided to take in my role as critic for Revolting New York. I do not think it is perfect, but I didn’t feel comfortable pointing out what I didn’t like/agree with when the book’s editor, and several of the authors, were in the room. This doesn’t mean I wasn’t critical, however; it is possible to critique something without being negative about it. I instead discussed the elements of Revolting New York that got me thinking, the issues it throws up that I think are worthy of further discussion. The two issues I focused on were: comparisons between New York and London; and the impact of terminology and whether we study events alone or as part of wider social movements. I think it went pretty well, if I do say so myself, and the terminology issue in particular carried on through the audience discussion.
I suspect that not everyone will agree with me on this, some people might not have a problem with pointing out a book’s weaknesses with the author in the room; it can even be argued that it is more fair than publishing a review to which opportunities for response are limited. For the audience however, I think it is downright awkward. I personally think the constructive approach is more engaging for the audience, particularly if they haven’t read the book yet. I would definitely take this approach again if I get asked to participate in another Author Meets Critics panel.