Few things are worse for books than reviewers who pull their punches and ask readers to wade through the lukewarm sludge of a bland, boring, fair-to-a-fault review when, reading between the lines, you just KNOW the reviewer wanted to carve up the book in question.
Good news, then, to see -- via the New York Times -- this short list up for a new distinction, the Hatchet Job of the Year. The bad news, though, is that the negative reviews in question are from the British press, with one exception.
What about U.S. reviews? If you love books, you should love them enough to enjoy seeing a critic go off on a book that leaves him or her cold, so long as certain criteria are met (starting with having read the book in question). Here's hoping to be able to read more reviews that are openly positive or openly negative, passionately arguing a point of view one way or the other.
My own favorite critic, when it comes to coming down hard when a book deserves it, is Dwight Garner of the New York Times, formerly of Salon, who has a knack for being far more honest -- often in an almost nice way -- than almost anyone else around writing on books. Take these two paragraphs, for example, from a review last August of the Evan Hughes book Literary Brooklyn:
Mr. Hughes's book is smart and populated without ever exactly feeling ambitious; it reads like a set of genial biographical sketches. A knottier problem is its author's reliance on clichés. In this book roosts are ruled, towns are painted red, people move in droves, ruckuses are raised, stripes are earned.
I hate to sound like a stuffed boar, but these things -- like missed notes in a piano recital or bones in the monkfish at Le Bernardin -- matter. It was the job of Mr. Hughes's editor, or his friends, to help him weed out these hobbling bits. They're close to a deal killer.
Garner, unlike many in New York literary circles, could not quite go along with the rush of back-slapping huzzahs that greeted the publication last year of a book called The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt by someone named Jon-Jon Goulian. Garner freely admitted to enjoying the book, but also wrote:
Explaining what Jon-Jon Goulian is -- to himself, to his parents, to us -- is the animating force behind The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt. Do we care? That's the hard call. Mr. Goulian has written a talky book with a terrier yap, one that reads like a skittish celebrity memoir with no celebrity attached. It's a shallow, callow thing. If you dropped a penny into its well, you'd hear it click and rattle at the bottom.
There's little probing analysis. Assistant editors at The New York Review of Books tend to be well-read people, but if Mr. Goulian has consumed more than a handful of books in his life, there's no sign of it here.
Read any good negative reviews lately? Blistering or merely bracing? And what should be the commonly agreed upon standards one must meet before letting fly with a hard-hitting review, other than the obvious one of simply reading the entire book in question?
Follow Steve Kettmann on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@SteveKettmann