I love reading bad reviews, as long as they aren’t about something I’ve written. If I am buying a new book, I check the worst reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. If I am going to a particular hotel for the first time, I read what the most pissed-off guests I can find say on TripAdvisor. It’s the same way with movies, restaurants, or practically anything else that can be reviewed and disseminated to the public.
So I love the Omnivore’s Hatchet Job of the Year Award, which they give for ‘the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review’ each year. Their stated aim is to ‘raise the profile of professional critics and to promote integrity and wit in literary journalism.’
It’s rare to find a superbly-written book review, just as it is rare to find a superbly-written book. Literary journalism is a distinct art form. I haven’t done a great deal of it, but I have done enough of it to know how difficult it is. Reviewers are often given a tiny amount of time to do the work and a tiny amount of space to write the review. I was once asked to write a thirty-word review, believe it or not. Many professional reviewers can barely spend a full day on an article, so they are expected to read a book, think about it, and write a coherent review between breakfast and dinner.
I think most people would agree that superbly-written book reviews should be honoured somehow, but I think it is glorious they honour bad reviews.
There are a couple of reasons I like to read bad reviews. One is that I would like to know the worst case scenario before I get too committed. Another is that sometimes reviews are unfair, and this reminds me of what is realistic to expect. (You might be surprised at how many hotels get one-star reviews because it rained on someone’s holiday, as if the tourists expected hotel staff to pull out their weather modification machine and create sunshine or something.)
But the main reason I love bad reviews is a cynical backlash against the increasing use of positive superlatives in modern society. Every movie is the greatest creation in the history of the world. Every singer on Idol is heralded, by some drooling twit, as having the most perfect vocal skills since the dawn of time. The same goes with books.
Rubbish. If I’m reviewing something, I give out a five-star review with the same reluctance as the pre-Christmas Scrooge gave out coins to charity. Rabbit is Rich? Without a doubt it is five-star book. 2666? Ditto. Freedom? Nope. In my opinion a five-star book is a rare and wonderful thing, and publishers sure as hell don’t churn out dozens every year.
However, they do churn out dozens of clunkers. I think it is a grand endeavour to honour those book reviewers who are able to tell us what they think is crap in an insightful way. Many of these reviews are funny, so these awards have an Ig Nobel Prize feel to them.
Out of all those nominated for the Hatchet Job of the Year, my favourites were:
Ron Charles’ review of Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis in the Washington Post.
Suzanne Moore’s review of Vagina by Naomi Wolf in the Guardian.
The one I liked the most was the one which happened to win:
Camilla Long’s review of Aftermath by Rachel Cusk in the Sunday Times.