A response to Dr Stone's one-star review of my book on Amazon
This has so far been the most shocking review of my book
; a starker contrast to the overall positive reviews is hardly imaginable. When I saw it I first couldn’t believe what I was reading, then I recognized the name of the reviewer, Dr. P R Stone – surely that’s the same Phillip R Stone who’s the Executive Director of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research at the University of Central Lancashire. To get such a vendetta-like malicious “review” from someone like that was particularly disappointing (and I wonder why Stone did this, really ... well, I can have a good guess, as pointed out elsewhere
But let’s take a look and discuss the review point by point.
First, here’s a screenshot of the review:
The text is entitled “Neither a Guidebook nor History Tome”. To that I would say: “of course not, that’s not what the book is trying to be”. It’s an “Atlas”, in coffee-table-book form, intended to provide an overview of dark tourism. This intention is clearly stated in the book’s introduction, and at no point does it claim to be a guidebook or a history book (although history does of cause feed into it). So the review could just as well have been entitled “Neither a Novel nor a Cookbook”.
The actual text of the review calls the book “an interesting idea”, although the title and the rest of the review strongly suggest that Stone didn’t actually get the idea behind my book. He’s quick to then launch the first damning value judgement, namely that it “fails to produce a coherent text”. Well, it’s an “Atlas”! Who looks for coherent long-form prose in an Atlas?!? Of course it is fragmented; it has to be! It’s in the very nature of what the book is.
Next comes the accusation that this is a “subjective [...] list” of visitor sites. Is that to say there is an “objective” one? I’m not aware of any such list and doubt it could possibly ever be arrived at. So any selection of destinations will to some degree be subjective, that’s unavoidable, though I did strive to give the selection as wide and representative a spread as possible. But it is true that it is subjective inasmuch as it is largely (95% to be precise) based on my own travel history, which is probably wider than that of any other dedicated dark tourist (see also below about the point of “expertness”). And that’s a good thing – it’s based on first-hand experience! Moreover, the book is not just “a list”! Some entries may be short, but it’s most definitely not just a list (it does, in addition, contain lists, clearly marked as such, of additional places in the form of separate box-out sections, but the main body of the book is a succession of chapters, not “a list”!)
In brackets Stone claims that the destinations described in the book are “mostly military”. This is simply not true. I went through the table of contents and counted around 30 sites that could be described as military. 30 out of 300, that’s 10 per cent. Not “mostly”.
Stone goes on to say “sites that might constitute so-called ‘dark tourism’”. Is that to imply that they might not? Later on it says “mostly well-known visitor sites”. So do well-known dark-tourism sites constitute dark tourism or not? It seems a bit of a contradiction. (Or rather: negativity for the sake of it.) But so what. See below on the issue of “cherry-picking”.
Next Stone embarks on an exercise of proper character assassination. He writes “Hohenhaus claims to be a ‘world expert’ on dark tourism” … objection! I don’t, the publishers did. This is taken from the press-release text, reproduced on Amazon, that was drafted by the publishers’ marketing/PR department (and it actually says “authority” not “expert”). I actually expressed reservations about this, but my senior editor insisted on keeping this claim, saying “you’ve been to all these places yourself, you’ve written extensively about them on your website, of course that makes you an expert”. And indeed, note that it says “expert in dark tourism”, and NOT “expert in academic dark-tourism research”! That I would never claim and wouldn’t have let the publishers claim. But that claim simply doesn’t exist.
Hence Stone’s next blow misses the mark: “but it is only his first ever book
and he has very limited academic publications in the area
”. Firstly, a small correction: it’s actually my second book, as you can see from my list of publications
. But the publishers argued that this is to be read as “his first book with this publisher” and that mentioning my earlier first book from the 1990s was not relevant, also given that it was in a different field and is no longer easily obtainable. So they dropped the reference. But more importantly, Stone’s castigation is of course rooted in the academic publish-or-perish principle by which academic expertise is measured solely by the number of one’s publications (quite regardless of their content and quality, by the way), in book form or articles in academic journals. I remember that well from my own academic career in my previous life in the field of linguistics (hence the majority of entries in my list of publications
are in that field rather than in DT). What this totally disregards, however, is a) this website with its thousands and thousands of pages written over the course of 15 years (I guess acknowledging the existence of this website would have undermined the character assassination attempt), and b) that there may be other forms of assessing expertise. In my case that is solid practical expertise. Having been to over 900 separate dark destinations myself, and in total to well over a thousand if I count numerous repeat visits to certain places (e.g. three times Chernobyl
, some 15 times Berlin
, etc.), I am an expert/authority in the actual practice
of dark tourism – and that’s precisely what the publishers, who specifically commissioned
the book, wanted to tap into (they did NOT want an academic book!). And at no point is the claim made that this also makes me an academic expert. So Stone’s observation here is beside the point and serves as nothing but a malicious personal attack.
The next point is that the book is guilty of “cherry-picking
”. Well how could it possibly be otherwise? When you make a selection of 300 items out of a much longer list, then of course you want the best bits included. Why should that be negative? Had I NOT included all those “well-known visitor sites” within dark tourism, THAT could have been cause for justifiable criticism. An Atlas of Dark Destinations naturally has to include all the big names everybody knows. And it’s hardly the case that the well-known sites constitute the vast majority in the book, as Stone claims. Of course, familiarity with dark places will vary a lot from person to person, but I would guess that not too many readers of the book will have heard of places like Goli Otok
, etc. before. So the book does also offer less well-known sites.
Next comes another misdirected blow. Stone emphatically stresses that the book “is not a tourist guide” as it “does NOT provide any tourist guidance/site addresses/visitor tips”. Well, some tips are included, but it is true, details of practicalities are not covered. That was a conscious decision by the publishers. In my first draft, things like prices and access details were mentioned but I was asked to do without such details, as they age too quickly. Basically a book giving such details is outdated before it even hits the shelves. Hence it was decided to do without this. HOWEVER: as is clearly stated in the “About this Book” section following the intro chapter, for every place outlined in the book, such practical information, as well as further historical background info, personal observations and visitor tips, CAN be found in the associated chapters on my website, i.e. here, where, unlike in a paper book, it is possible to update practicality details such as opening times and admission prices (although it’s too tall an order trying to keep everything up to date, for over a thousand places, that it cannot be helped that I will be behind in various places). The complaint that this is not a tourist guide is also unfair insofar as the book doesn’t actually claim to be such a guide. Instead it is stated in the intro that it aims at providing an OVERVIEW as well as inspiration for travellers to then dig deeper, on my website, say, and perhaps even go visiting some of these places themselves. It does not claim to be a traditional tourist guidebook. That’s entirely in Stone’s own imagination.
The same is true for Stone saying that the book “is neither a history book”. Well it just isn’t and doesn’t claim or try to be that either. So it’s like criticizing a cookbook for lacking political depth of argument or a philosophical treatise for being too highfalutin and not having any pictures. You have to measure a book by what it’s supposed to be and not something else.
And then there’s the addition that the “analysis” for each site is “lightweight
”. Well within the place chapters that is largely true, out of necessity, as is also explained in the intro; but at the same time the box texts about certain historical events or background details, say about the Falklands War
, the Rwandan genocide
or about radiation, all give extra weight to the book where that is lacking in the place chapters. Of course Stone makes no mention of these box texts.
I have to wonder what Stone expected of this book: a non-cherry-picking, i.e. comprehensive account of all, even the least well-known, dark-tourism sites together with practicality details as well as lengthy historical and academic analysis prose for each and every one of them, and all that within its 352 pages? If anyone can explain to me how that should be at all possible, then I’d be keen to be enlightened …
The final assault is on the star
and dark ratings
in the book. The latter have attracted criticism before (here
), and I have to admit that the “About the Book” section could and probably should have been clearer. To clarify: these are not ratings of tragic histories as such, they do not weigh up one tragedy against another. Instead they are indicators of how palpable
these histories are at the sites for visitors today
. Thus a high rating can serve as a warning that a visit to that particular place might be emotionally challenging, while a low rating may be less cause of such concern. Knowing beforehand that a visit to a place like Murambi
can be harrowing, while a visit to Colditz
hardly will be to anyone, is valuable rather than “totally unnecessary”. And in that sense, from a point of view of the intended readership, i.e. potential visitors, these ratings are not at all “insensitive
”, rather on the contrary: they sensitize potential visitors as to what level of difficultness they have to expect when going to the site in question. All this is also not “for reasons only known to” me, but is made quite clear on this website
. And if there are to be more print runs or editions of the book, I will make this point clearer in the book’s intro too.
The star ratings, on the other hand, are totally separate and give an indication of simply how well a place is commodified for visitors (Stone seems to get the two ratings a bit mixed up). A mere simple monument in the middle of nowhere without any commodification
does have lower tourist value than a full-scale museum with an exhibition in several languages and guided tours on offer. Those are the differences reflected in the star ratings. Neither they, nor the dark ratings, have anything to do with with levels of “moroseness
” as Stone claims. Again, that word features nowhere in the book and is entirely in Stone’s own imagination. A “moroseness rating” would indeed be problematic (perhaps even “totally unacceptable” as Stone emphatically adds at the end), but that’s not what my ratings are.
By the way, Stone has himself engaged in weighing up sites on a six-point scale between “lightest, lighter, light, dark, darker and darkest” as a “dark tourism spectrum” (Sharpley/Stone 2009
:21); and as soon as you allocate examples to points on such a scale (as the authors do) this is in principle the same as what I do with my 10-point dark ratings. And that’s fine because both are simply intended to reflect reality. So why is it OK for Stone to scale “darkness” (or “moroseness”?), but he finds it outrageous if I do basically the same?
By the way, it is interesting that Stone should use the term “darkometer” in this context – given that this word does not feature at all in the book. But it does feature on this website
(where it is borrowed from the Lonley Planet
), so I have to assume that Stone must be aware of this website to at least some degree. That he is hiding that from the review (except indirectly with that slip with the term “darkometer”) is rather telling. It seems that Stone is trying to make out that my book is a lone, single effort by an unqualified author making unacceptable claims. But this is not the case. And I’m certain that Stone must know this.
Overall, I thus see this as a “review” that says more about the reviewer than it does about what is being reviewed.
Of course the single-star rating on Amazon pulls the overall rating for the book down a bit now, no matter what I argue here. Since Amazon reviews are open user-generated content, such imbalanced user power cannot be averted (or commented on). But I wonder what Stone makes out of the fact that about 80 per cent of all Amazon reviews/ratings are five star. I guess it’s that very fact that Stone was trying to work against with this unfair and off-the-mark negative review.