Book Reviews, Served with a Healthy Side of Snark

When writers say they don’t read book reviews, they’re usually referring to their own. Not me. Whether I should or not, I do read reviews of my own books. I don’t, however, read book reviews generally. I peruse the New York Times Sunday Book Review, as well as the book sections of the magazines to which I subscribe. I also find myself really enjoying Huffington Post’s new book section. But I wouldn’t say I make a point to have my finger on the pulse of critical response.

Perhaps the casualness of my book review browsing explains why I spotted a common thread among three reviews I happened to read last week. My brow first furrowed when Entertainment Weekly panned Michael Connelly’s Nine Dragons as a novel that “read like it had been scribbled during a red-eye from Los Angeles to Hong Kong.” Those were some hard words to handle, coming as they did from my pop-culture bible about my crime-writing God. Apparently also for book blogger Sarah Weinman, who tweeted, “What bug crawled up [the reviewer’s] butt?” Can’t we all just get along?

It turns out the reviewers were just firing up their keyboards. The following Monday came Janet Maslin’s review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Maslin treats Ehrenreich’s thesis as “the makings of a tight, incisive essay,” then dismisses the admittedly “short book” as still “padded with cheap shots, easy examples, research recycled from her earlier books and caustic reportorial stalking,” with a central point “that’s as obvious on this book’s last page as it was on the first.”

But Michiko Kakutani wasn’t going to let her colleague take the week’s prize for creative dissing. Her review of Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City is so scathing I felt myself wincing with every new phrase. Just a few? “Tedious, overstuffed.” “Insipid, cartoon version.” “Sorely tries the reader’s patience.” “The characters turns out to be an annoying and tiresome lot.” And finally, “lame and unsatisfying.”


Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t yet another writer railing against a bad review. Nor is it a claim that reviewers should only review books they enjoy. Nor is it a general indictment of the enterprise of reviewing. Nor am I claiming that the above reviewers were inaccurate.

Instead, I find myself asking questions: If a reviewer concludes that a book stinks, what is the appropriate tone for the resulting review? Does the reviewer do enough by saying the book is (to their mind) bad, or does colorful condemnation help make the point? Do scathing one-liners make for more effective — or at least more readable — reviews, or are they just unnecessary snark?

I ask because it seems to me the few bad reviews I read (hopefully not mine, fingers crossed) seem to be getting snarkier. Maybe I’m wrong about that. Like I said, I don’t scour book reviews, so my sample size is woefully unscientific. And if you listen to Brad Meltzer, stinging reviews are nothing new.

But it would make sense if reviewers were getting meaner. With newspapers struggling generally, and book reviews taking a disproportionate hit, reviewers and their editors might reason that readers would rather see blood shed on the page. And if their main competitors are websites and blogs, well… let’s just say there’s no shortage of churlish comments online.

Author who read a bad review? Or reviewer who read a bad book?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Are reviews getting snarkier? Should they? And, best of all, what are some of the harshest reviews you’ve ever read (or received)?

I’ll start. (1) Maybe. (2) Honestly not sure. (I know, I’m very decisive today.) (3) The Independent (UK) on my debut novel, Judgment Calls: “Does the name Burke ring any bells? Why, it’s James Lee’s daughter and she’s written a legal thriller about as thrilling as a trip to the dentist. Dull as ditchwater, in fact. She’s a former assistant DA in Portland, and if I was [sic] her, I’d have stuck to the day job. Me, I’ll stick to her daddy’s books.” Nice.