Hatchet Jobs


In case you missed the snarky fun, last week The Millions ran a provocative article on the demise of the book review. I’m not sure that I agree that the book review is a dying art, and the art of pronouncing things dead (like the publishing business) is certainly thriving, but it is true that I rarely read literary hatchet jobs—and when I do, some sophomoric bit of me thrills at the claws-out, gleeful malice that seems evident in every line.  Bad reviews are, I imagine, both fun and easy to write, perhaps even more satisfying than flinging an offending volume across the room, which can become an expensive habit if you use an e-reader. Thoughtful ones are more challenging, and reviews that reveal and transfigure a book’s contents (rather than the biases of the reviewer) are few and far between.  Unqualified raves, meanwhile, seem undignified, insufficiently serious. Most of the time.   Earlier this month the NYTBR ran Christopher Buckley’s love letter of a review of MORTALITY, Christopher Hitchens’ posthumously published collections of essays.

A few days later, in the letters section, I was interested to note that at least one reader found Buckley’s rosy review problematic. Irate in Armonk wrote “Buckley’s review reads like another tribute from the vast boys’ club of Hitchens’s intimates. I’m sure many authors would like to have their books reviewed in The New York Times by their friends, but that wouldn’t serve your readers. Neither did this review.”


His criticism brought to mind a particularly pungent line from the Millions essay that called the “nauseating chumminess of the publishing world… the Scylla of book criticism.” He called “Reviewerly narcissism… its Charybdis.”  Touche.

I’m curious to know if you can cite any particularly illuminating or excoriating reviews, and  if you believe the book review is dying or finding a new life online.

4 Responses to Hatchet Jobs

  1. Anon for a reason says:

    It isn’t dying. It’s just changing. I would go as far as saying it’s being reborn.

  2. Another Anon says:

    The only review that matters these days are the one our friends do, out of their own experience. Not many people still care about high-profile reviews, unless it involves literary prizes of some sort.

  3. Joelle says:

    I have never read reviews because I don’t like to know anything about a potential read. I don’t even read the jacket copy. However, Sara Zarr recently did an interview with newspaper critic, Scott Renshaw, on her podcast This Creative Life. I found it fascinating and it made me think I might read his reviews. They sounded like works of art. http://www.sarazarr.com/archives/2919

  4. emily says:

    I LOVE long winded, serious reviews like the ones found in the New Yorker and the NY Review of Books. Often the review is meaty enough to dissuade me from purchasing the book, or to ask my community library to buy the book, or to buy the book for my own personal collection [still in paper BTW]. But then, I do serious research and sometimes just have to have source material.

    I LOVE the odd snarky review from the old New Yorker and I love the glorious movie reviews by Anthony Lane:


    Who, then, in “The Dark Knight Rises” does the rising? Not Bruce; the slacker we see wandering through the Wayne mansion at the beginning can hardly get out of his pajamas. Carnally, too, he seems about as risen as flatbread; over three films, we have waited for him to have Bat-core sex, hanging upside down from a rafter and emitting cries of sonar, and what has he given us? Not a squeak.

    A LINK TO THE SITE: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/cinema/2012/07/30/120730crci_cinema_lane


    ALSO: I LOVE JAMES WOOD — he alternates between being a sourpuss critic of “THE NOVEL” [as understood by contemporary literary leaders in University programs] and between writing, lovingly, about some new work using all the tropes favored by those self-same literary leaders. James Wood is, after all, a university denizen.


    Sometime back [2-3 years] James Wood did a fabulous review of the state of current critical-literary-review in which he lambasted the intellectual pretense that abounds among the literati. Sadly I can no longer churn it up — but he did bring all the silliness to light that rockets about among those who ponder “the novel.”

    THEN, I had an opportunity to rub elbows with students at the Michener Center for Writers, UT-AUSTIN. Gloriosky! Those kids actually buy into the so called ‘theory’ of the novel. EEK!

    They even fight over it.

    So, my personal observation: money is made in romance novels and the so called ‘small literary journals’ go broke. Yeah, yeah the journal stories do show up in “Best Short Stories of [year].”

    And, maybe the small journal stories DO REALLY address some aspect of HUMAN LIFE — but the stories that can find something to say about real life, and say it with fun and drama, those are the stories of the ages.

    The rest is hooey.

    Yeah, I love book reviews :)

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