Book Reviews, Served With a Healthy Side of Snark

by Alafair Burke

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.”

Yikes.

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.

29 thoughts on “Book Reviews, Served With a Healthy Side of Snark

  1. JD Rhoades

    I don’t know that they’re necessarily getting meaner. The nasty review has been around for years and has led to some legendary lines like Dorothy Parker’s review of HOUSE AT POOH CORNER, published under her pen name of Constant Reader: "Tonstant Weader Fwowed Up." Why Dorothy Parker was reviewing HOUSE AT POOH CORNER is anyone’s guess.

    Do "witty," cutting reviews sell more papers? Well, one of the reasons people tune into American idol is to see what nasty thing Simon Cowell will say next. But I don’t know that that translates to the newspaper business. Do ANY book reviews have ANY effect on newspaper sales? Other than us, does anyone even buy the paper for the book review section and would not buy the paper if they didn’t have one?

    No, I think the reason for nasty reviews is that reviewers get bored just like the rest of us, and sometimes the prospect of writing a vanilla "I didn’t like this book and here’s why" just isn’t enough to get them out of bed in the morning.

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  2. SB Sarah

    I do snarky reviews and glowing reviews and generally give my undiluted opinion about books I enjoy and books that have left me cold. But there is a key distinction that I think the final quote you gave illustrates:

    (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.

    That reviewer crossed the line like holy crapping damn because the review is about the author, not the book. I can go on at length about a book I don’t like, and I have, and I will, but it’s the book I’m discussing, not the author. These are two separate elements, and should not cross one another in a review.

    A book is a product for sales and consumption, and honest opinions of that product are always appreciated by consumers like me. That said, I don’t give a rats patoot about the author’s provenance, who his or her parents are or what his or her day job is – it’s not germane to the evaluation of the product itself.

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  3. Alli

    I tend to agree with JD ie: they need something to get them up in the morning other than writing "didn’t like it". It doesn’t make it right, but then again, I’m coming from a writer’s perspective. If I think about movie reviewers I like, I tend to favour the ones who can say they didn’t like it in a diplomatic way, and chances are I’ll see the movie anyway. But ones who slam things with sarcasm I ignore, they lose all credibility with me.

    I don’t read book reviews very often, just on a casual basis, and I don’t pay a great deal of attention to them. However, I imagine I will make the fatal mistake of reading reviews about my own book should I get published one day. I can’t help it, I’m too inquisitive. Perhaps some of the ‘Rati’s can give good reasons how to stop the urge to read one’s own reviews.

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  4. Dana King

    I do quite a few reviews for a web site, and I try to adhere to what was described to me as the $25 Rule: my job is to help the reader to decide whether this book is worth $25. Sometimes I’ll come across a book I wouldn’t pay $1.99 for, but know that’s due to my tastes (or lack thereof), so I’ll almost write a dual review. I point out what I see as weaknesses, but will include a paragraph of "if you like…" so I don’t miss the boat altogether.

    However, once in a while I’m asked to review a book by a consistently best-selling author that’s just painful to rad. His reader aren’t going to care what I say, and his reputation isn’t going to be hurt. Then I may raise the snark flag just a little, though never to the level exhibited by kakutani or the reviewer you cited who got personal with you.

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  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I agree with Sarah – going after the author is hitting below the belt. The review should be about the work, the art.

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  6. Emma

    I’m a rarity in that I write reviews, read reviews and have read reviews of my own books. If a reader does not know whether or not they want to buy the book by the end of the review, then the review has failed. Reviews can be entertaining without snark and should always be able justify what they say.

    The challenge for the reviewer is writing a review that’s also entertaining and is confined to the book under review (reviewers who include the writer’s publishing career to date within the review or review the author instead have failed). Whilst I like playfulness, I don’t like overly-snarky reviews. In fact the quoted review in the Independent would have encouraged me to buy "Judgment Calls" just to see if the snark was justified (it isn’t). Reviewers who rely on snark alone will lose me as a reader. Reviewers who balance snark with positive comments will probably keep my readership.

    Reading reviews of your own work has to be the decision of individual writers. I do read mine, but so far I’ve not received a wholly negative or snarky one.

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  7. Louise Ure

    I, too, read all my own reviews (but I find that I only memorize the negative ones).

    And JD is right … there’s a long history of snarky reviews. But I sense a greater emphasis on them now, perhaps due to our current lovefest with "celebrity" of all stripes (e.g. Simon Cowell, Gordon Ramsey et al).

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  8. Alafair Burke

    As I recall, the same publication, The Independent, named my debut novel one of their Turkeys of the Year a few months later. You know you’ve really made it when you’re a big enough name to make a "worst of" list. At the time, I chalked it up to an overseas resistance to what the reviewer clearly perceived as nepotism. Or, as the young people say, "Whatevs."

    I like the distinction you’re all working on between reviewing the book and writing about the writer. I also like Emma’s point about avoiding comparisons to a writer’s other works. Even though the tendency to compare is probably inevitable, it does penalize writers for branching out to something new.

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  9. JT Ellison

    Having been a reviewer myself, I know it’s sometimes hard not to devolve into snark when a book isn’t your cup of tea. But that’s not what a review is about. Attacking an author should never be the reviewer’s goal, and it’s usually easy to see when it’s simply a jealousy or personal vendetta.

    That said, I do wish people would stop engaging reviewers. No matter how snarky or glowing, they are entitled to their opinion. And it’s just that, their opinion. I’ve gotten bad reviews and I’ve gotten good reviews. But I’ve never, ever engaged in a war of words with a reviewer of my books, nor anyone else’s. That’s just tacky.

    Advice for authors who plan to read their reviews: if you believe the good, you must believe the bad, too. But don’t let either scenario affect you personally.

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  10. Jan Morrison

    1) Not so much in Canada
    2) I don’t see how snarky serves anyone, reader or writers- oh yah, it serves the reviewer because folks think it’s funny. Cheap I think.
    3)The Daily News (Halifax – now defunct!) on a play that I wrote – Death, the Musical "a new low in Canadian theatre" – yikes! He even hated the song titles! Fortunately people loved the show so… The reviewer also used his position as a teacher at university to dis our production to his students which simply stinks. We found out he hated the artistic director of the theatre which gave us a break! Did people need to read this review? I don’t think so. All that happened was that local theatres were less likely to take risks on original works and the theatre going population got more "Grease", "Oklahoma" and "The Sound of Music". humph!

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  11. Jon Jordan

    i think reviewers , especially in big publications are getting snarky because they feel they have power. it’s silly really. Makes them sound biter about not being published themselves.

    I think if a book sucks, why give it any coverage at all?

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  12. Michael

    I would recommend the book essays from The Believer Magazine by Nick Hornby collected in works like "Shakespeare Wrote for Money." Hornby jokes in some places that he is under strict orders to eliminate snark from his reviews. Even so, he doesn’t like everything he reads and yet he strikes a constructive tone when pointing out the flaws in works, even in some he likes.

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  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alafair

    I agree with the comments so far that slagging your book based purely on who your father is, is WAY outside the remit of a book review. (The clue is in the name, people…)

    I don’t read my own reviews unless they’ve been vetted first by my family – I’m a total wuss that way.

    I’ve found that I tend to take reviews of other writer’s work more seriously if it’s not all bountious praise. The perfect book has probably not been written. And you only have to read the glowing cover blurbs on books you hated to know that everybody’s taste is very different.

    I’d rather a reviewer said they didn’t like a book, and gave a reasoned argument as to why, than just repeated the jacket copy and made a noncommittal comment at the end. Or, if you really didn’t like it enough to praise it, why review it in the first place?

    But the only things I take issue with are when reviewers include unnecessary plot spoilers in the review. That, and I came across someone who’d had a book reviewed by a particular person who was present at a convention. The writer’s publisher, who was there, asked if the review was good, to be told, "Oh yeah, it’s a good review." But when it came out later, it was a snarky stinker. The writer would far rather, they said, have been told the truth to their face – that the reviewer had some issues with the book and didn’t really take to it – rather than lied to about a review that they then eagerly awaited, only to be very disappointed when it finally came out. I have since lost a certain amount of respect for that reviewer, I have to admit.

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  14. Erin

    Yes, I think media generally–book reviews included–are getting snarkier. Not sure when snarky chic came into fasion, but it’s definitely here. Particularly in New York (sorry).

    I read a lot, but I don’t read book reviews as a rule. I sed to pretend to read the New York Times Book Review, but really, I only ever read the headlines. I think (newspaper) book reviews are written for two audiences: Those who write book reviews and authors. They serve a marketing purpose, too, although most reviewers would never admit it.

    Bloggers have brought great value to book reviews, because they bring such a variety of voices that I can actually find people whose taste mirrors mine and whose opinions I do value.

    So another question: If not because of reviews, what does incite reading a new author or a new title? Trusted recommendations, first and foremost. I think that’s where some of the reviewer snarkiness comes from; they know they have a "closed" audience, and that makes them cranky. And as far as nepotism is concerned, truth be told, I read your first book because of your name…but kept reading them because of their merits alone.

    So snark on, reviewers dearest. You’re entertaining, if nothing else.

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  15. Michelle Gagnon

    I take issue mainly with two things that have proliferated with the advent of unpaid, online reviews:

    #1: Spoilers. I had one reviewer reveal basically the entire plot of a novel, including every twist. Unacceptable, and something they certainly don’t advocate in journalism school.

    #2: Wild inaccuracies: this same reviewer, who it turned out was pitching her own editing services, also claimed I had my characters "roll their eyes" dozens of times (twice, in the whole novel- I went back and checked).She also, while revealing the whole plot, made some mistakes, referring to character’s wives as their mothers, using the wrong names for them…you get the drift. At the end of the review she justified this by saying that she "skip-read" the book. (?!)
    I don’t mind bad reviews, but inaccurate ones make me climb the walls.

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  16. Erin

    I agree with Michelle on both points. Online reviewers/bloggers aren’t all created equal…just like reviewers in print. And as for the "skip-reader," well, that’s all her review deserved!

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  17. Tena

    I think that a book can be reviewed even in a scathing way, if that is how a reviewer feels the need to make a point~~~about the book. I think that crossing the line over into including the author is just that~~~crossing over the line.

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  18. Linda

    Is it only bothersome in negative reviews? What about snarky comments in a positive or a B+ review? I think snarky reviews might do authors (and publishers) a favor because they are memorable and make consumers of culture actually read reviews. Seriously, my friends call me a literary snob and even I can’t devour every word of the New York Times Book Review- it’s just kind of dull! I am pro-snark, which is why I adore EW in the first place.

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  19. Bruce DeSilva

    I review books for The Associated Press, and my first crime novel, "Rogue Island," will be published by Tor/Forge next year. I find myself generally uncomfortable with the state of book reviewing, and I’ve felt that way for some time. That’s because many reviews have more to do with advancing the career of the reviewer than with writing something useful for the reader. I think snarky comments are part of that — a way for the reviewer to demonstrate how clever he or she is. I suppose that if you scoured my reviews over the past dozen years you might find a snarky comment or two, I’m sorry to say. Occasionally a book does try my patience. But even when that happens, I try not to be mean. Mostly, I write positive reviews and there is a good reason for that. If I find myself disliking a book, I’m likely to toss it aside and pick up something else to read. The way I see it, life is too short to waste time on a book I’m not enjoying. And if I don’t finish the book I don’t think it’s fair to review it. Besides, I think positive reviews are much more valuable to the reader than negative reviews. It’s more important to tell people what they should be reading than what they shouldn’t be reading.

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  20. Alafair

    Linda, The reason why I wasn’t condemning the snark is my own attraction toward it. As I mentioned, EW is my bible. They gave my book, Dead Connection, an A- and even included it on the "must list" but my favorite part of the review was probably the first line: "Don’t let the dopey title turn you off of this otherwise satisfying mystery." How great is that?

    Speaking of reviews and reviewers, I had the pleasure of reading Bruce DeSilva’s debut pre-publication. Y’all should look for it. It’s terrific.

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  21. Wendy Brown

    Hi Alafair!
    I am neither a writer nor reviewer, though I read books and reviews. I must say the snarkiness of book reviews (from D- books to A+ books) has gotten worse in the last couple of years. However, I think it reflects a general societal/political/media trend to be snarky. You cannot watch the news are read political blogs or even have conversations on the street anymore without someone calling someone names that would shock my grandmother. It is one thing to give an opinion about the work, another entirely to call down the person doing that work. It is a sad state of affairs, and I am considering giving up on reading reviews, since reading books is ever so much more satisfying. I just finished Judgement Calls and enjoyed it very much (likewise Dead Connection!). Keep writing and only take from the reviews what feels authentic to you.

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  22. Jen Forbus

    Well, I’m not a pro in this business, but I find that I have more fun – and therefore look forward to getting up in the morning – when I can review a book I passionately love. But for me it’s more about sharing what I love than about dissing what I don’t. If I don’t like something, I say so and I say why; it just usually lacks the passion of explaining why I LOVE something.

    Excuse me while I go work on my snarky…

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  23. Gar Haywood

    The excruciating public humiliation upon which most, if not all, reality TV is based should be evidence enough that we live in an increasingly mean-spirited world, so it only follows that book reviews are following this trend. That being said, however, I must confess to enjoying a well-written "snarky" review as much as anyone. I love book reviews, period, and the only ones I really object to are those that offer no opinion on the literary merits of a book whatsoever. What is that? A book review should function as a conversation starter, not as an extended jacket blurb. Passion and smarts, and the capacity to articulate why a book works or doesn’t work—these are the things I demand in a book reviewer—not a gentle soul nor a cold, black heart.

    I’ve only written one published book review in my life (Larry Block’s OUT ON THE CUTTING EDGE for the NY Times, many, many moons ago), but I’ve posted my unvarnished opinion of a great number of books on various online message boards over the years, and I’d be lying if I said I was always kind to the author involved. In fact, I suspect quite the opposite is true, since nothing motivates me to write a good, long online post more than a god-awful book praised to high heaven.

    Not to make excuses for all book reviewers who write hateful things about books and the people who write them, but I think what’s generally behind a really ugly review is not boredom but a sense of outrage: Why the hell was this tripe published instead of something more worthy? Such reviews are not so much intended to be "Reader Beware" warnings as they are admonishments to publishers, public floggings designed to expose the folly of editors and houses that continue to pay good money for dogs that won’t hunt.

    Publishers have always placed a high value on the inherent marketability of a manuscript—all those things that could help to sell a book aside from the actual writing itself—but this has never been more true than it is today. Alafair, it’s not fair to you, but some people who have never read your work—reviewers included—are always going to assume that your name is the primary reason you’re in print, and they’re going to dog your writing accordingly. My advice? Screw ’em and go on writing for the benefit of the people who know better.

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  24. Jessica Scott

    I’m learning all about the writing world, including some of the not so pleasant things. Just like someone writing on the latrine wall for everyone to see, a snarky review is out there and can’t be taken back. I try to remind myself that reviewers are not these author’s critique partners and they are not paid to offer this could have been better advice. But I agree with SB Sarah in that reviews should be left at the end of the page. When they carry over to a personal attack, I’m going to stop reading.
    Very thought provoking post and one that I think needs further discussion as we continue to develop our norms for online interactions.

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  25. Gayle Carline

    I don’t mind snarky reviews that are intelligent, but the examples you gave are just plain whiny. They aren’t giving potential readers specifics about why the reviewer didn’t like the book. Words like "lame", "insipid", "dull as ditchwater" aren’t exactly quantifiable, are they? Define it. Tell me why you didn’t like it – specifically. Entertaining me, with or without the snark, should be your secondary goal, not your primary.

    Gayle
    http://gaylecarline.blogspot.com

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  26. Book Reviews

    I don’t know if book reviews are getting meaner, but they do have a tinge of sharpness to the negativity delivered. It is becoming a contest of who is able to out write another reviewer in hopes of grabbing public attention.

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  27. David J. Montgomery

    I won’t say that I’ve never written a snarky review — I’ve reviewed hundreds of books over the past several years — but I haven’t written very many of them. I think that the true nasty criticism should be reserved only for those books that are especially vile in some way. For the ordinary, run-of-the-mill bad book, I just don’t see the point.

    Too many reviewers, both amateur and professional, forget that a book review should be primarily about the BOOK — not the reviewer, not the author’s personal life, not the publishing house, not the state of politics in the world today, not the critic’s own inability to get published. A book review is not the place to grind an axe, unless that axe is ground on the book itself.

    As for publications wanting snarky reviews…. I have never had a publication ask me for a snarky review or ask me to up the snark quotient. If anything, it’s been the opposite. So that definitely hasn’t been true in my experience.

    I think part of this my be a trend fueled by the un-edited, un-supervised world of internet reviews. (Although the examples above, obviously, appeared in publications that should know better.)

    What’s the proper response to such a review? Probably to ignore it. If you call attention to it, that’s simply publicizing the review and the reviewer — which very well might have been what s/he intended in the first place.

    That all being said, I’ll allow that there might be a place for a good snarky review, IF the book merits it and IF the review is entertaining/funny/etc. in and of itself. But I have read very, very few that would qualify on those grounds.

    In fact, I find very few reviews that I have any interest at all in reading. I generally find the state of reviewing today to be rather deplorable.

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  28. Susan Shea

    I reviewed books for a local paper for several years. The most disappointing moments came when a famous author’s newest book was a dud. When that happened, I tried to be specific about what disappointed me (without spoilers) but, as someone above also said, remembering that a real fan of that author might be prepared to overlook the problem. Snark was looked on as a cheap trick at my paper, but honest reaction was a requirement. The high points of my job were sharing the delight and value of wonderful books that might not grab a reader’s immediate attention on a bookstore shelf.

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