This weekend’s New York Times features a not-terribly-clever op-ed by Bob Garfield that purports to support the recent decision by BuzzFeed.com banning negative book reviews. However, if you read it closely you’ll see that it’s actually a satirical piece poking fun at BuzzFeed’s decision. Unfortunately, the satire falls flat because the writing is weak — far too precious and pleased with itself to have any bite.
Nevertheless, I agree with Garfield. I think BuzzFeed made a terrible decision — a decision that appears to have more to do with its e-commerce business model (if a book review is positive, readers are far more likely to click through to Amazon to buy a book) than with its intellectual integrity. When a publication makes an editorial decision not to publish negative reviews, it insults its readers and compromises the independence of its reviewers. Such a decision is antithetical to intellectual culture. I hope that BuzzFeed reconsiders its decision, because it would be a terrible thing if other media outlets followed suit.
It’s not that I believe negative reviews should be published indiscriminately. On the contrary, I think it’s a good idea for publications to focus mostly on reviews of books or other cultural productions that they think have some value — particularly if those books (or films or CDs or whatever) have been overlooked.
But there are occasions when negative reviews can play an important role. For example, if a book is popular and/or well-reviewed, but undeservedly so, a negative review is in order. Also, if the book or cultural production represents an important, and unwelcome, cultural or political trend, an unsympathetic review may also be useful and illuminating. Certainly, it’s not a good idea to write excessively harsh reviews of obscure books or writers — that just looks like bullying. But well-known writers and books should be fair game for a rigorous, and even robustly hostile, critique.
Finally, let’s face it: nasty reviews are fun to read. With that in mind, I thought I’d round up some classic hatchet jobs. I wouldn’t necessarily say they’re my all-time favorites — I may well be forgetting some that I enjoyed even more. But those listed below are extremely entertaining examples of this particular genre. (Please note that though eleven are listed, I could only find links for ten of them). Many of them have an underlying seriousness that touch on issues that go way beyond the particular book, film, etc. being reviewed. Enjoy!
1. George Eliot, “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” Westminster Review, 1856
Before she became a novelist, George Eliot was an essayist and critic. This witty, razor-sharp essay, which ridiculed some of the more absurd popular female writers of her time, was one of her best, and it remains highly readable. Some of the issues she identifies — for example, what writers of fan fiction now call the Mary Sue problem — still plague popular fiction today. Eliot’s main point in the essay is that despite the appalling low quality of the novels by the female authors she was reviewing, women were every bit as capable of writing good fiction as men were. Just a year later, she proved the truth of this statement by beginning her own career as writer of some of the greatest novels in the English language.
2. Dwight Macdonald, “By Cozzens Possessed,” Commentary, 1958
A classic demolition job by a great critic. James Gould Cozzens is a midcentury American novelist who is totally forgotten today. It doesn’t matter; this essay is still highly compelling and readable. Macdonald first lays out the evidence of the near-universal acclaim Cozzens’ novel, By Love Possessed, has received. Then he sets to work at taking it apart — mostly by simply giving it a close read, and quoting passages that vividly demonstrate how dreadful the writing is. Cozzens’ reputation never recovered. It doesn’t hurt, also, that following his analysis of the novel, Macdonald interpolates bits of a Time magazine interview with Cozzens, which revealed him to be a philistine, a sexist, and an openly racist bigot. Another classic Macdonald hatchet job was his blistering review of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which drained the poetry and majesty out the King James edition. I couldn’t find that review online, but it’s in Macdonald’s collection Masscult and Midcult.
3. Pauline Kael, “The Sound of … ,” McCall’s, 1965
I couldn’t find this review of The Sound of Music online, but it appears in Kael’s collection Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Kael was a great fan of Hollywood musicals, but she was allergic to what she referred to as “the sugar-coated lie” of The Sound of Music. Her pen dipped in venom, she explains why. Legend has it that this delightfully rude and ill-tempered review got her canned from her job as movie critic at McCall’s.
4. Lester Bangs, “Chicago at Carnegie Hall, Volumes, I, II, III, & IV,” 1972, Creem (included in his collection Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung).
The great rock critic takes the piss out of 70s rock dinosaurs Chicago. He does it by writing a review in which he claims, with apparent sincerity, that their 1972 live album is a “classic.” Only his review is, you know, vicious satire.
5. Frank Rich, “Moose Murders,” The New York Times, 1983
Moose Murders is a legendary 1983 Broadway turkey that opened and closed on the same night. According to the play’s Wikipedia entry, “it is now widely considered the standard of awfulness against which all Broadway failures are judged.” Plenty of other Broadway shows lasted just one performance — or didn’t even make it out of previews. It’s hard to say why, out of all the famous flops in Broadway history, Moose Murders is the one that, above all the others, became notorious. My strong suspicion is that what propelled Moose Murders into legend is Frank Rich’s hilarious New York Times review, which vividly captures what sounds like an absolutely surreally awful night at the theater. For example, Rich writes: “I won’t soon forget the spectacle of watching the mummified Sidney rise from his wheelchair to kick an intruder, unaccountably dressed in a moose costume, in the groin.” Yep, that certainly does sound … memorable.
6. Molly Ivins, “I Am the Cosmos,” originally in Mother Jones, 1991
Unlike the other essays on this list, this piece is not a negative review of a book, film, play, or record, but a takedown of a person: Camille Paglia. Even though it doesn’t quite fit the theme it’s so awesome and so funny I couldn’t resist including it. Tragically, Ivins is no longer with us — and yet Paglia lives. The universe is the opposite of just.
7. Katha Pollitt, “Not Just Bad Sex,” The New Yorker, 1993
Back in 1993, the media were falling all over themselves heaping praise on Katie Roiphe victim-blaming ode to date rape, The Morning After. It looked like Roiphe was poised for Susan Sontag-level stardom as a public intellectual. And then, with one New Yorker review, Katha Pollitt stopped that cold. These days, Roiphe’s books still get some respectful views but she’s been reduced to writing (mostly) personal essays. No one asks her to weigh in on the great political and intellectual questions of the day. With her calm, careful evisceration of Roiphe’s book, Katha Pollitt devastated Roiphe’s moral and intellectual credibility to be taken seriously as a thinker and writer. Earlier this year, Roiphe referred to Pollitt’s review (albeit not by name) and whined about something she thought was unfair. Twenty years later and she’s still smarting over a bad review? You know this one drew blood.
8. Matt Taibbi, “Flathead: The Peculiar Genius of Thomas Friedman,” New York Press, 2005
Matt Taibbi chainsaws Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat. ‘Nuff said.
9. Scott McLemee, “Decline of the West,” Inside Higher Ed, 2009
Scott McLemee is a national treasure — a graceful writer and astonishingly versatile and insightful critic, essayist, and old-fashioned man of letters. This review of a recent book by Cornel West is appropriately respectful of West’s early work, but barbecues him over his decades-long descent into hackishness and self-parody. A small masterpiece.
10. Pankaj Mishra, “Watch This Man,” London Review of Books, 2011
Mishra’s smackdown of Niall Ferguson is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. It starts by comparing Ferguson to The Great Gatsby’s Tom Buchanan, and just keeps getting better, and by the time you reach the end, the man’s reputation is a smoking ruin. Whiny Ferguson threatened to sue the LRB for libel — a punk move if ever there was one. Fortunately, he didn’t follow through.
11. Laurie Penny, “The Problem with Naomi Wolf’s Vagina,” New Statesman, 2012
Last year’s publication of Naomi Wolf’s silly book, Vagina: A Biography, inspired many brilliantly nasty reviews. There were so many good ones that it was hard to select just one for this list, but Laurie Penny’s was particularly outstanding for the depth of its feminist analysis. Brava!
UPDATE: I’ll make this list a baker’s dozen.
12. How could I have forgotten this one? Commenter ItinerantPedant reminds me of Mark Twain’s 1895 slash-and-burn classic, “Fennimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”
13. Finally, New York Times critic Pete Wells’ takedown of Guy Fieri’s Times Square restaurant, published in 2012, is a howlingly funny literary masterpiece. Trust me on this one, folks.
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