A while ago — actually long before I started this blog — a book was published called The Book Of Kings, by James Thackara. I haven’t read the book. I’d never heard of it until I came across a link to a review of it. I’m not even sure how I found the review. I think it must have been in some kind of “cruelest reviews ever” roundup.
That’s not actually a joke or an insult. I think that’s genuinely where I found it. And the fact that I clicked the link is something we’ll come back to.
The Book Of Kings was not James Thackara’s first novel, though the review claims it is. Thackara published America’s Children in 1984, Ahab’s Daughter in 1989, and The Book Of Kings in 1999. He claimed to have been working on Kings for over twenty years, so I suppose that’s where the review got the idea that it’s his first. It received some critical acclaim and some just plain criticism, but the Observer review (later reprinted in the Guardian) by Philip Hensher was a standout for nastiness. Given the praise the book received in other quarters, it’s possible Hensher was making an eye-popping attempt at pointing out the Emperor has no clothes on. Certainly his review is infamous even fourteen years later; it made it into Thackara’s wikipedia page.
Reading the review, two questions arose in my mind. First, what purpose do such book reviews serve? Second, how do terrible books get published in the first place?
I wanted to talk about reviews today, and bad books next time, because when you come down to it, they’re not really related. The function of newspaper critics rarely has much attachment to publishing or how it works.
If there are analytics of the functionality of book reviews, they’re very well hidden. I looked, but I have no way of studying the numbers to see if book reviews actually cause a boost or decline in the sales of the books they critique. Surely a positive review in a nationally-circulated newspaper, the kind that is read by people who have the money and leisure to buy and read a lot of books, can’t hurt. The newspaper has never been where I go to find out what books I should be reading, and in this digital age, where there are review blogs and sites all over the place, I don’t go there, either — but I don’t know if in this case I’m an outlier. Analytics regarding the percentage of readers who source their new titles from book reviews are similarly scarce.
Mind you, I’ve done blog tours promoting my books where I had my book reviewed on various sites; I’m not knocking internet book critics, most of whom keep their review blogs out of a passionate love of reading rather than because it earns them any kind of living wage. (The book business is the business of passion and poverty.) I review books myself, as well, though I don’t have a dedicated blog for it, and I use the reviews mostly as a way of tracking what I’ve read from year to year. But the point remains that aside from a given individual site’s statistics, we still have no real way of knowing how strongly a review impacts a book’s sales.
So what is the purpose of such an angry, cruel review? Hensher is presumably not stupid enough to think his review is actually going to prevent people from buying the book. Indeed, people probably bought it to see if they agreed with him, or just to own a book so infamously panned by a prominent critic. And Hensher is by far not the only brutal critic; the club of people who revel in that form of literary criticism isn’t a select one. There are yearly contests for nasty book reviews (this year’s Hatchet Job winner was AA Gill’s “critique” of Morrisey’s Autobiography) and googling “worst book reviews” comes up with a lot of relevant hits. It’s almost a cottage industry, of a sort.
Cruel reviews are only very rarely about the books. Once in a while I’ve been angry about a book, but a book that can inspire such passion is not ordinarily a bad book. I threw The Stand across the room when my favorite character in it was killed, but I can’t deny that however tedious the rest of the book was, King’s characters were compelling enough that I kept reading for them in spite of the plot, and was viscerally hurt when my favorite died. I can’t mock the book, I can’t be nasty about the book, when it caused such a strong reaction. Even when I’ve been bored by a book that is poorly written, I can’t summon the passion to be mean about it. It’s just a bad book. I’d say perhaps it’s permissible to be mean if you’ve bought the book and feel you’ve wasted money, but highly visible literary critics don’t normally pay for their own books — and I get mine from the library.
I think cruel reviews are about critics. Jay Rayner, writing about why people love bad reviews, believes this also:
…if there is one thing my dozen years as the restaurant critic for this newspaper has taught me it is that while people may like my restaurant reviews, what they really love are the brutally negative ones. […] It is why I have been asked to compile an eBook that is solely a collection of my reviews of bad restaurants. “My Dining Hell” is not even intended as a guide to where not to go; the vast majority of the places included have closed. It’s simply because there is an appetite for take-downs.
Even for the reader of the review, it’s not about the book, or in Rayner’s case the restaurant — it’s about seeing how deftly the critic can skewer it. Rayner believes this is because reading about someone else being horrible at something makes our day better, based on Oliver James’ theory of Social-Comparison.
While there may be truth in that, I have a different theory. I think cruelty attracts us. Cruelty involves passion and drama, and a well-turned nasty phrase, if nothing else, can garner admiration. It’s the same reason we watch boxing matches or police dramas. Passion, drama, and artistry most frequently come together, for humans, in brutality. That sounds awfully cynical, but I don’t advocate it; I just have seen it enough to believe it.
After all, I read a phrase along the lines of “possibly the nastiest review ever written” and yeah, I clicked the link. If you take away the fact that Hensher is stroking his own ego and getting our attention by viciously attacking the creative work of another person — if James Thackara isn’t real to us, and if we don’t intellectually comprehend that this book is twenty years of his life — then it’s easy to enjoy watching a deft takedown.
(In theory. I think Hesher’s review isn’t all that great at being cruel; I think he was giggling to himself when he wrote it about how clever he was, which rarely makes for good writing.)
I don’t think it’s honestly incorrect to say that the publishing industry doesn’t need the brand of viciousness that Hensher employed in reviewing Kings (or that Gill, who talked a lot about Morrissey as a person rather than as a writer, employed in reviewing Autobiography). But Hensher and Gill didn’t do it for anyone else; not to inform the public of a badly-written book, not to enter into a dialogue on writing with the authors (heaven forbid authors and critics interact), and not to champion higher standards in literary gatekeeping. They did it to get attention. Well, after all, it worked.
But we don’t need self-aggrandizing critics in publishing. We need writers, we need readers, we need critics who are interested in the business of advancing literature and helping people find books they will enjoy. That brand of criticism isn’t about publishing. It’s about public spectacle.
Initially, somewhere in this essay, I was going to say the phrase I’m not suggesting we only review books we like. I’ve gone back and forth, actually, about whether I am suggesting that. Hensher’s style of negative critique is unimportant and unhelpful to anyone; if the purpose of literary criticism is to tell people where the good books are, why shouldn’t we review only the good ones? After all, word of mouth is still one of the most effective publicity techniques for fiction, so giving a bad book no word of mouth at all will only keep it out of the public eye.
But criticism, even outside of academic criticism, goes beyond publicity. Critics, the best critics, should be talking about not just what book are good but why bad books are bad, and how in their view as active, critical, constant readers, these pitfalls can be avoided.
Cruelty can entertain us. Particularly when it’s written down, it’s easier to enjoy it, because nobody’s being physically injured, and we presume no-one’s basic well-being is actively at stake. A good takedown, especially when it’s our “side” doing the taking-down, is thoroughly satisfying. But I believe it’s important to remember that cruelty and criticism are different things, and the former is rarely, if ever, about anything other than getting attention.
And, of course, punching up to get attention is okay; punching down to get attention is just bullying on paper. Always punch up, kids, if you have to punch anyone.