7 of the Most Vicious Book Reviews, Ranked

Phillipa K. Chong on the reviews we hate to love about the books we love to hate

Photo by Daniel Schrädler via Flickr

Many critics love reading mean book reviews, even if they don’t like to write them. This was a finding from my book Inside the Critics’ Circle wherein I interviewed critics about what it was like to write reviews in the current state of book culture.

While critics admit reading really negative reviews can be entertaining, some worry about the human being at the other end of the review. But this doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to be critical without being cruel. 

Let’s turn the tables and review some book reviewers according to the abSURD scale, which refers to Author of Book’s Subjective Units of Review Distress. This for-entertainment-purposes-only metric expresses how upset an author can expect to be based on how professionally the criticism is offered based on what reviewers told me. The scale runs from 1 (it sucks to get a critical review, but the review has professional merit) to 10 (ugh, here’s your axe back).  

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Parul Sehgal’s review of You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian in The New York Times

abSURD scale: 2/10

“[P]edophilia, necrophilia, child abduction, child murder, mass murder… And for what? This is a dull, needy book.” Ouch. Seghal also suggests the viral success of Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” approximates a one-hit-wonder. 

The review bites, but it’s fair and well-reasoned, as it focuses on the content and writing style—even if it’s unflattering. Someone in Roupenian’s shoes would likely find this review upsetting, but my interviews with book critics tell me it’s fair game.

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H.L. Mencken’s review of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald in Chicago Tribune

abSURD scale: 2.5/10 

#TBT to a 1925 review of The Great Gatsby. Mencken calls the story “obviously unimportant,” the characters “mere marionettes—often astonishingly lifelike, but nevertheless not quite alive.” Critics I interviewed stressed that language, deep underlying themes, and characters that come alive are key elements of a good read. That Mencken finds The Great Gatsby, the classic hailed in its time, is perhaps surprising but fair.

Yet Mencken devotes a good amount of space lamenting the tendency of a type of early-success-writer who is “too proud to learn new tricks.” Fitzgerald is absolved of this sin, Mencken describes his earlier writing “extraordinarily slipshod—at times almost illiterate” but observes improvement in Gatsby. Still, the extended reflection on early-success might raise some eyebrows by today’s standards. 

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Sandra Newman’s review of City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg in The Guardian

abSURD scale: 5/10

Critics buzzed about City on Fire—it was Hallberg’s debut novel, and, per Newman’s opening line, earned a “whopping $2 [million]” advance. The critics I interviewed generally felt that things like the size of an advance, whether a book was optioned for film or TV, etc. have no place in a book review. It sets up an external standard: the book was okay, but was it worth $2 million? 

Newman calls the book bloated, arguing that it could have been cut by 200 pages. She describes passages as slow, “stonily inert,” and full of “soul-searching” that interrupts action. It’s clear that Newman is skilled at identifying the book’s problems with plot and character, and those are fair critiques. However, her focus is problematic: “The book is certainly impressive … but I can’t explain the adulation that has been accorded this one.” It’s good, but not $2 million good.

Steven Pinker’s review of What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell in The New York Times

abSURD scale: 6/10

Steven Pinker scrutinizes Malcolm Gladwell’s star power: “Gladwell has become a brand. He is the author of the mega-best sellers.” But it’s not enough to convince him that Gladwell is more than “a minor genius who unwittingly demonstrates the hazards of statistical reasoning and who occasionally blunders into spectacular failures.”

This feels like an anti-Gladwell essay—it’s a bit personal, with Pinker challenging Gladwell’s intellect and integrity. There’s an informal norm among critics: it’s okay to punch up, but not down. To write a takedown of someone lower on the status ladder is frowned upon. But Pinker, himself a famous psychologist and writer, “punches across.”  That keeps it solidly in the middle of this abSURD list.

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Peter Kemp’s review of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt in The Sunday Times

abSURD scale: 8/10

“Donna Tartt isn’t one to ditch a winning formula.” Tartt’s candidacy for punching up is immediately established with her “phenomenally successful” debut novel identified in the first line.  A few reasoned digs about Tartt’s originality, plotting, and writing style and unavoidable puns are offered: “No amount of straining for high-flown uplift can disguise the fact that The Goldfinch is a turkey.” But then Kemp goes on to make a dig at “awed Tartt admirers and devotees of websites such as the Donna Tartt Shrine.” Why drag her followers, if not to critique her large, devoted following? The swipe at Tartt fans is unnecessary. Kemp is not just reviewing the book, but Tartt’s celebrity writer status. That makes it very abSURD. 

Emily Hill’s review of The Power of Cute by Simon May in The Spectator

abSURD scale: 9/10

Hill comes out swinging, half-joking that Simon May’s “baffling” book must be “a sneaking yet sparkling satire on what a university education will get you (£50,000 of debt and the authority to pronounce a penguin cuter than a mermaid).”  

Hill is clearly unconvinced by the book, if not annoyed by the “unpindownability” of its topic (what exactly is “cute”?). And no one is owed a good review. However, what makes this review unique in the group is how much Hill inserts herself into the review: “The self-deprecator in me wants to tell you I’m too stupid to understand a word of [the book]”; one chapter “may be a compelling idea to flaunt at dinner parties (I wouldn’t know – no one ever invites me).” Yet, it’s unclear how much of the review is a representation of the book’s content rather than a reflection of Hill’s energetic annoyance with the book. The former crucial for helping the average reader determine whether or not they might like to look up a book for themselves.

Because of the intrusiveness of the reviewer and the lack of providing a book’s gestalt, this breaks the rules governing good, if savage, reviews.

Michiko Kakutani’s review of The Discomfort Zone by Jonathan Franzen in The New York Times

abSURD score: 1/10 or 10/10

Michiko Kakutani famously criticized Jonathan Franzen in this review, and in many ways, it follows all the rules we’ve outlined thus far. First, it’s a very critical review of a very famous, bestselling author—and, it’s okay to punch up or across. Second, it’s a review by a famous (read: notoriously tough) critic, so she’s a professional and her critiques land. But, while people remember it as a character assassination, it also has merit. Hear me out!

The oft-quoted line, “Mr. Franzen turns his unforgiving eye on himself and succeeds in giving us an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass: petulant, pompous, obsessive, selfish and overwhelmingly self-absorbed,” undoubtedly hurts. But is Kakutani out for Franzen the author, or Franzen the subject? It’s unclear, and this ambiguity makes the review seem particularly cutting.

But look at the rules again: she’s not attacking him, but his work. She paints Franzen as self-absorbed, but the implication isn’t that he’s a bad person; he’s a bad writer whose memoir makes for a disappointing read. The narrative is narrow, and the characters are flat. This is a critical error in any piece of writing. At the same time, she tips her hat to sections in the book that are incisive. Overall, while pointing out its failings, Kakutani also provides a good gestalt of the book’s content so that the average reader can make an informed decision on whether or not to read it.

So, it’s not really character assassination if Kakutani is quoting Franzen’s own words. But, because it’s not always clear if she’s attacking the real Jonathan Franzen, or his literary counterpart, this review toes the line. Depending on your perspective, it’s either a professional critique, or a savage personal attack. Either way, it was a selling review.

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