Where Have All the Mean Book Reviews Gone?

Literary critics have gone soft. Despite all the snark, sass, and anger in media and online today, one area has become remarkably nicer — book reviews. Where have all the hatchet jobs gone?

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Literary critics have gone soft. Despite all the snark, sass, and anger in media and online today, one area has become remarkably nicer — book reviews. A look around the latest literary criticisms leaves you feeling upbeat, even excited about coming books, much to their publicist's delight. So where have all the hatchet jobs gone?

American critics didn't always used to be this gentle, one-time hatcheter Lee Siegel writes in a piece in The New Yorker today, explaining that "the mild tone in American book reviewing today is not a permanent feature of the American character." That tone used to be "savage," and it was one that Siegel grew up with. "Contentiousness was not just an intellectual style; it was a social habit," he writes, and explains that he deeply studied the "dark art of the takedown." The negativity still exists outside of America, though. "Shredding a new book is a kind of fox hunting that is still legal today," Australian author Clive James wrote in The New York Times in June. But, he notes, "Such critical violence is far less frequent in America."

James would know, as his smackdown reviews remain harshly negative and eminently enjoyable, like his gleefully mocking piece on Dan Brown. "As a believer in the enjoyably awful, I would recommend this book wholeheartedly if I could. But it is mainly just awful," he began, and ended on a similarly blunt note: "Should you read this book? Of course you shouldn’t." There's a certain energy and fun in reading that type of openly dismissive post, like that scathing New York Times food review of Guy Fieri's new restaurant. ("When you hung that sign by the entrance that says, WELCOME TO FLAVOR TOWN!, were you just messing with our heads?") Any one of Dale Peck's many reviews, too, such as:

''Terry McMillan's How Stella Got Her Groove Back is the most lazily written book I've ever read. Some people -- namely, the book's publishers -- might be inclined to characterize its style as 'breathless,' but I think of it as a panting, gasping, protracted death rattle.''

Reviews like this certainly get attention. And that's the point. Who doesn't enjoy watching a good literary fight?

But on the whole, American reviews take on a more accepting mood. Take, for example, the lit-reviewing n+1 magazine, which came about out of purposeful opposition to The New Republic's "indiscriminately negative" reviewers back in 2004. Even a year before that, Heidi Julavits of The Believer pointed to the rise of snark, rather than prior reviewers more thorough criticism, in explaining this mildness.

Siegel at The New Yorker has his own theory as well — follow the money. "Writers — including serious ones — began to be financially rewarded for their previously marginal ideas; in the process, they expressed them with less bitter ardor," he writes. Once this bubble of literary critics was popped by mainstream writing jobs, the consequences of a negative takedown were far more serious. "Now that authors could make a living from their advances, a withering takedown could be a blow to someone’s livelihood," Siegel explains. Thus — poof! — the hatchet jobs vanished. It's similar to how you're allowed to make fun of your friend's funny voice, but nobody else can.

There really is something lost in the lack of hatchet reviews nowadays. They're fun! And even for the author, they might not be so bad. The Internet feeds on anger and hatred, and this can spill over to books. This was perhaps never more evident than in the blazing success of Reza Aslan's book Zealot, which hit the No. 1 bestseller spot after a hilari-bad interview on Fox News. People hate-watched that interview, and then hate-read the popular BuzzFeed post, and by then, they knew the name of the book and so bought it. Consider Guy Fieri — would you have even known he opened a restaurant in Times Square if not for the angry review?

Any press is good press, so it's time for literary reviewers to beef up on their feuding and bring back the hate-review. The Internet has sharpened our hatchets — now it's time to brandish them.

(Photo by Maxal Tamor via Shutterstock)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.