Getting Reviewed

I always tell my students that history has three components: source documents, without which we would have nothing to write about; historical writing, which puts the raw material of the past into context and makes it relevant; and readers, without whom the whole exercise would be fruitless. You write books because you want people to read them. Any writer who says otherwise is probably in denial.

Want to know what it’s like having your book dissected in a historical journal? Read through to the end of this entry, and learn how the process looks from my perspective.

One of the great things about being a writer, even of non-fiction, is that you have a great deal of control over your material. You decide what to write about and basically create a little pocket of your own reality between your covers. You get used to viewing things with an analytical eye.

It’s always unsettling, then, to have the analytical eye turned on you and your work. But it’s much better than the alternative, which is having your work greeted with indifferent silence.

I recently came across two reviews of Suburban Xanadu that I hadn’t seen before.

The first harks all the way back to 2001, when Suburan Xanadu was a fairly new dissertation. The British urban historian Barry M. Doyle wrote a review essay called “Research in urban history: a review of recent theses” in Urban History, a British journal.

Doyle essentially summed up all of the recent urban history dissertations from Great Britain and North America–a daunting task. And there were quite a few of them. A few of my favorite titles:

* “In my opinion this is all a fraud!: concrete, culture, and class in the “reconstruction” of Rostov-on-the-Don, 1943-1948″ (J. W. Jones, University of North Charlotte)

* “Masses in motion: spaces and spectacle in Fascist Rome, 1919-1929 (P.T. Lang, NYU)

* “The colonial city and the challenge of modernity: urban hegemonies and civic contestations in Bombay City, 1905-1925″ (S. Hazareesingh, University of Warwick)

So, in between a dissertation about tourism in Philadelphia, 1926-1976 amd the development of Westgate oin Sea as an exclusive resort, it was nice to see this:

Whilst tourism came late to Philadelphia, it was always at the heart of Las Vegas, as D.G. Schwartz shows in Suburban Xanadu: the casino resort on the Las Vegas Strip, 1945-1978 (Ph.D., University of California Los Angeles, 2000). This dissertation charts the development of the casino resort through the exploration of three factors: gender (the regendering of gambling and the importance of prostitution and sex); geography (the non-urban nature of casino resort, the Western identity of Las Vegas, the Strip’s relationship to Los Angeles, and Las Vegas as a national entertainment suburb); and government (job creation, regional development, and revenue enhancement). As other development options failed in the 1950s, casino gaming became critical for the state’s economic health, making the state a very interested player, and aiding the regulation and normalization of the industry. As a result, by the 1970s, the casino resort was no longer a semi-legitimate institution, but was hailed as an urban savior. In contrast to the sleazy world of the gambling resort…[dicussion of next dissertation ensues]

I have a feeling that Doyle just copied my abstract then, with one phrase, “the sleazy world of the gambling resort,” showed what he really thought of my topic.

It’s great having your chief academic interest dismissed as a “sleazy world.” But maybe I should run with this, and rename the website “the sleazy world of Dave Schwartz.” The only problem is that I don’t think I’m sleazy enough.

The second review is of the actual book, and appeared in the Winter 2004 issue of the Western Historical Quarterly. It was written by Perry Kaufman, who I don’t know. It’s still a strange feeling knowing that people who don’t know me personally can read my book and form distinct impressions of me. Anyway, the five-paragraph review pretty much sums up my argument and mentions a few historical details.

So, was it a good, bad, or indifferent review? On the good side, the words “masterful,” “importantly,” and “superb” cropped up. On the down side, Kaufman spent most of the last paragraph saying what my book wasn’t about: “Water, land, government, the Nevada Test Site, Nellis Air Force Base, and other related issues.” He then went on to say that if someone really wanted to read about “the history of strip resort gaming,” but if they wanted a complete history of Las Vegas, they should read another author’s book.

So the book is about the history of casinos on the Strip, huh? Maybe that’s why I titled it Suburban Xanadu: The Casino Resort on the Las Vegas Strip and Beyond and not Suburban Xanadu: Water, land, government, the Nevada Test Site, Nellis Air Force Base, and other related issues.

Any book is by nature going to be selective. I never claimed that Suburban Xanadu is a history of Las Vegas. In one draft, I started the book by specifically saying, “This is not a history of Southern Nevada,” before taking it out, because I prefer to define myself and my work by what it is, not what it isn’t.

I guess the review was somewhat positive, but I don’t see any reason to talk about someone else’s marginally related book while reviewing mine. It’s kind of like talking about your ex-girlfriend on a first date–yeah, you might have an interesting point to make, but why bring it up? And why not say what the book does do: it puts the development of casinos along the Strip into national perspective, something no one else has really done.

It’s not like I’m hypersensitive to criticism. I’ve been waiting for someone to really critique Suburban Xanadu so, if I ever do a second edition, I can do a better job. I wish that I had done more research on Reno and Southern Nevada, done an entire chapter on Atlantic City, and expanded my treatment of riverboat and Indian casinos. But I don’t lose sleep over the fact that I didn’t give a detailed history of the test site.

Just for laughs, here’s a list of more things that Suburban Xanadu isn’t about:

- rail washers
- pole dancing
- free jazz
- bread pudding
- Lord Stanley’s Cup
- cacti
- Street Fighter II
- Street Fighter II Tournament Edition
- the Lord of the Rings trilogy
- the Underwood Hotel
- performance art
- the art of Ando Hiroshige
- labradoodles
- the origins of dice
- blank verse
- Renaissance Florence
- cheese steaks
- surfing
- bossa nova

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

4 Responses to 'Getting Reviewed'

  1. /kamitwi says:

    :D I like bread pudding.
    What the heck is a rail washer?
    Unfortunately, facility with the English language does not guarantee that one’s mind is magnetic enough to pick up a paperclip. I believe that an essential qualification to enter reviewer school is to be able to comment on all manner of disparate things which are completely unrelated to the topic at hand, and somehow convince their willing audience that they are related.
    Don’t feel bad, Dave. Your book is lovely, and I suggest that you do the next one in neon as well! I like neon green, but purple might be a more appropriate follow-up, who knows?
    Hang in there! Whenever you feel down, give yourself a little justified evil grin and remember: Your book is sold, shelved, and archived. Newspaper reviews generally end up lining someone’s bird cage.
    ♠ /kamitwi

  2. Ezekiel Zechariah says:

    R is for Rail-Washer, and I do have the power to realign the universe if I want to. I also have the power to make it stay just the way it is.

    I wish someone would one day attempt a tragic history of literature, wherein he would describe how the different nations, each of which is most proud of the great authors and artists of whom it boasts, how, I say, they treated them during their lifetime. In such a history he would bring to our notice the endless struggle that the good and genuine of all times and countries had to wage against the ever-prevailing bad, wrong-headed, and absurd; the martyrdom of almost all true enlighteners of mankind and of almost all the great masters in every branch of knowledge and art would be described. He would show us how, with few exceptions, they passed their lives in poverty and misery without recognition, without interest and sympathy, without followers, while fame, honour, and wealth went to the unworthy ones in their branch of knowledge…. Nevertheless we shall see how, in spite of all this, love for their cause buoyed them up until finally the bitter struggle of such an educator of the human race was over, the immortal laurel beckoned to him, and the hour struck which is also meant for him:
    The heavy armour turns to a cloak of flight,
    Brief is the sorrow, and endless the delight.

    In other words, don’t despair if you are not as appreciated as you’d like; would you rather be Rudy from Survivor? Millions know–should I say knew–him, but you will live forever in your beautiful book. And not in a conscious state, either–which makes it even more appealing.
    ♥ EZ

  3. Dave says:

    /kamitwi asked "what is a railwasher?" Since "I live to inform," here is the answer:

    Sometimes, people who play craps get so involved with the game that to tear themselves away, even to properly relieve mounting pressure in the bladder, is unthinkable. Instead of making a trip to the restroom, they find a cup (or not) and relieve themselves, partially hidden by the edge of the table or "rail." Hence, railwasher, a slang term I picked up working in Atlantic City. I don’t know how widespread it is in the casino world.

    I actually mentioned this in my "Vegas Whales Tales" shoot, but I don’t know if they put it in the final show.

    You might also hear the term "railbird," someone who hangs around gaming tables, possibly looking to scam players.

  4. scribbler says:

    getting reviewed is always a nasty process. i find people always know better than me what i really meant to say, and make a point of telling me how i neglected to properly treat the subject. as though i stumbled across my title by pure accident and it has no bearing whatsoever on the content.

    so i’m glad to see i’m in good company.

    there’s a phrase i heard in woody allen’s film "annie hall." it reads something to the effect of "those who can’t do teach, and those who can’t teach teach gym." it’s pretty true of the literary/humanist world as well. whoever can’t write is a natural-borne critic.

    mind you, there are some great opportunities for proper criticism out there, but it’s a "consider the source" game which, in my opinion, could use some better players.

    having said that…, it’s about time somebody treated las vegas in the manner of "suburban xanadu." i like watching images of las vegas flash across my tv screen, but it’s getting rather annoying to see it all sensationalized. the city and the culture are never taken seriously, nor are their places in american history.

    most books i read or shows i watch hold the extremist stances of "vegas has and always will be a mob-run town" or "vegas was always clean and bugsy is just an overrated hack." in my opinion, this completely misses the point of las vegas. tales of the high-rollers and the residual flavour of the mob days add to the character of the city, but it’s such a small part of its development.

    besides, gambling is one of those human activities that has, and always will, be present everywhere. the legality of the gamble has always been at issue, climaxing in the development of the casino resort. and what better place to study the casino resort than las vegas?

    but in the fashion of the times, las vegas and casinos go hand-in-hand with sensationalist melodrama, so to use one topic automatically includes the reading-into of the other material. and what the test site has to do with the greater historical significance of casino resorts, apart from a neat marketing gimmick, i have no idea.

    with a subtle sense of irony: people like to criticize other’s works to put in their own bit and sound cool. and impress the babes.

    but, i think i’m just procrastinating here. i could be doing something productive like study for my spanish quiz or see if the line-up at the microwave is gone, but whatever. let the "sleazy world" abide.