Are “Angry” Book Reviews Funny? Do Such Harsh Reviews Deserve an Award?

I have been known to write an occasional negative book review, such as when a re-telling of a classic feels like a rip-off or when a novel either “cheats” on the plot or fails to have one. I stand behind my words, which I choose carefully in each review, but I derive no pleasure from being so harsh. I know that there are people behind those books — the authors who put effort into those novels. Why would I revel in potentially hurting their feelings?

I review books honestly because I feel an obligation to warn other consumers of a bad purchase. I buy almost all of the books I read, and so an awful book is not only a waste of my time, but it is also a waste of my money, and I wonder sometimes if I would have taken less offense to certain books had I accepted a free copy from the publisher. At any rate, my goal in writing reviews is to be honest and direct with the hope that both authors and readers understand that what I write is merely my opinion, and I am nothing more than a disappointed reader with a keyboard.

So, I will continue to write negative reviews as I see fit, hoping to inform other readers about what to expect from a book. I do not intend for these negative reviews to be humorous, and yet, in general, it seems quite common for readers to find humor in “angry” reviews.

For critics with “credentials,” there’s even an award for it: The Omnivore’s “Hatchet Job of the Year,” which is “for the writer of the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review of the past twelve months.” I assume this award is not facetious, as its stated goal is to “raise the profile of professional critics and to promote integrity and wit in literary journalism.” According to the BBC, “[o]rganisers insist they only pick on established writers strong enough to take the criticism,” and one of the judges for the award believes the award-winner may have even helped the book, because it was “a demolition review with a difference: it made you want to go and read the book, for all its faults.”

While I applaud efforts to encourage honest literary criticism, the “Hatchet” award’s conflation of anger and humor gives me pause. “Angry” reviews aren’t always truthful, and to me, they are rarely funny. I see nothing funny about hurting another person’s feelings, even when I am giving my honest opinion.

38 thoughts on “Are “Angry” Book Reviews Funny? Do Such Harsh Reviews Deserve an Award?

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  4. I try not to give negative reviews. For me, it just isn’t worth it. If I don’t like the book or feel that the writing is uninspired and lazy, I don’t want to spend even more time writing about it. As Joyce Carol Oates one said (in summary), most people don’t need to be encouraged not to read a book.
    And I agree that there should not be reviews that have intentionally cruel remarks. Save those thoughts for yourself. The world has enough cruel remarks coming out of people’s mouths and keyboards without adding to it.
    –JW

    1. You raise good points. I would not want my reviews to discourage people from reading in general. Rather, my goal is to discourage consumers (those already inclined to read) from wasting their money on specific books. I try to support my arguments (without including too many spoilers) so that readers can figure out whether the book is right for them. A well-reasoned, respectful negative review might encourage increased readership: I have purchased books based on negative reviews because I might like what someone else disliked about the book. It depends on how those reviews were written and what points they made.

  5. I agree completely. I reviewed books for awhile, but I have not recently. I would never finish a book I did not like for the most part. I would be expecially not happy if I spent good money on a bad book!

    1. Yeah, I hate spending money on terrible books! I don’t feel cheated if I know that the book just isn’t my “cup of tea,” but it’s a different story when the novel turns out to be illogical, poorly researched, or biased in some way.

  6. I have a review that could be nominated for that award, but then again it was blatantly obvious that the person didn’t actually read the book…honesty is fine, writing things that are judgmental on a person level doesn’t seem okay to me. As an author I deal with it, though, as people are going to do it. It’s a part of being an author.

    1. Yeah, authors need to develop thick skin. No book will please everyone who reads it. It would be terribly unfair for someone to criticize a book without having read it, unless they were limiting their comments to why they couldn’t proceed. I’m sorry you have experienced that type of review.

  7. Fab post – art is subjective. Films can get scathing reviews so why shouldn’t books? I agree with your stance; honest blog reviews make far more interesting reads. There is nothing worse than a bland review – if you don’t like a book, say so and say why. After all what may be your vintage Moët might be my sour milk!

  8. I agree with Theo. I look to book reviews to be honest without the excess emotional commentary. Being slightly dyslexic, I rely on reviews to guide my reading, since it is something I do less than most due to the extra difficulty.

    1. I’m the same way–I prefer honest reviews that point out the positives and negatives of a book without trying to upstage the author. I rely on reviews to guide my reading, too.

  9. I tend to agree with you – it’s fine to write negative reviews of books, but as long as the reasons why are explained well and there’s some sense that the criticism is constructive. Rants don’t sit well with me. And like someone else has said above, if I absolutely can’t find anything positive to say about a book I struggle to write a review at all.

    1. Yeah, rants don’t sit well with me either (though I’m probably guilty of authoring one or two!). Like you, I struggle to write reviews of books with no redeeming qualities, but it depends on what the flaws are.

  10. I actually try to stay away from book reviews in general. I follow reviews from NPR occasionally. I base my reading mostly on advice from friends (with similar reading tastes) and my own exploration of library books shelves. I hate going to Good Reads because everyone is a critic. I much prefer to read a book without any pre-conceived opinions so I can discover the story on my own.

    1. I’m the opposite- I research every book I read (relying mostly on book bloggers) unless it’s very inexpensive. I love spoilers, too, because my enjoyment from reading comes from seeing the details in the book (I try not to have too many spoilers on my blog, though). Everyone is different!

    1. I don’t know if the reviews are intended to hurt an author’s feelings (though in the law, we often see “reckless disregard” of a foreseeable consequence as a form of culpable intention), but rewarding such mean-spirited reviews encourages that type of base behavior.

  11. Great post. As a music critic, I’ve been pretty lucky that most of the shows I cover are great, with a rare total clunker. I still perform on stage too (bassist in orchestras), so I know all that goes into putting on a concert. I try to take a lot of things into consideration when reviewing, and if something wasn’t perfect, and aim to provide constructive criticism. Because really how does negative ranting and raving help anyone?

    I try to approach my little book reviews on my blog the same way. Ask myself a lot of questions about my reactions to what I just read. I’m with you—if I purchase a book and it’s not good, I do tend to feel a little ripped off. But even then, I ask myself if I didn’t like it for personal reasons (not my cup of tea) or because it was truly poorly written all around. I usually read a bunch of different reviews of a book before I commit to buying it to get different perspectives.

    1. Negative ranting rarely helps anyone, except perhaps a consumer. I look at reviews from a consumer protection standpoint, keeping in mind that everyone has different taste. Like you, there are some books that I don’t enjoy simply because they are not “my cup of tea” (most romance falls into that category), and so I usually skip reviewing them because I am not the intended audience. What I prefer to write about in negative reviews are flaws in the structure or logic of a book–issues that transcend taste.

  12. I tend to not write reviews for books that I find have no redeeming qualities. But I read outside my own personal tastes since reader’s advisory is part of my job, so I often read books that I don’t anticipate becoming personal favorites just so I can help identify the type of reader who may enjoy them. My reviews are often critical, but never angry, even if a book does make me angry. I have seen bloggers deliberately read books they don’t anticipate enjoying, and I don’t see the point in it, even if they get to use funny gifs. I don’t think angry reviews are professional…there’s a way to be critical or even negative without it being a rant.

    1. I agree with you that angry reviews aren’t professional, but isn’t it interesting that many seem to believe that such anger is the hallmark of “professional” literary criticism? It’s amazing how mean-spirited some of those reviews are. I have definitely written at least one angry review (about the worst book I read in 2012), and I went back and forth about whether to post it, but ultimately I decided that the fact that I spent $10.99 on the ebook gave me the “right” to do it. That was earlier in my blog’s history, and my negative reviews have shifted in tone over the last few months. Now I try to link to other bloggers to give my readers easy access to a second opinion.

  13. I love what you said, “I write is merely my opinion, and I am nothing more than another disappointed reader with a keyboard.”

    It does me good to remember that everyone who writes, speaks, interacts, has an opinion, and respecting one another is most important of all. You say this well.

    1. Thank you! It’s definitely an important lesson to remember. I suspect that there are many who teach their children not to hurt other people’s feelings and yet don’t follow that golden rule in their own lives.

  14. I always try to be respectful in my negative reviews. Then sometimes I will write an opinion post about a situation in general – like I find with self publishing a range in quality and on the negative end I wonder why authors go to the expense of publishing when they only have a draft and not a finished product. So in those opinion posts I will be truthful and humorous and not name specific authors. In my reviews, respectful and truthful. I rarely am angry, but occasionally I do get on my Equality Soapbox, which sits in a nearby corner, dusted off, ready to go.

    1. I try to be respectful in my negative reviews, too. There’s only one book I’ve reviewed that, in my opinion, I really couldn’t find anything positive to say and I still went ahead with the review (I paid way too much for that ebook to stay silent about its content!). But I don’t think my negative remarks about that book are funny. As for self-published books, I’ve had a lot of luck with finding good ones so far. When I find one I dislike, it doesn’t irritate me quite so much because I’ve paid very little for it (it’s often free or somewhere between 99 cents and $2.99). I don’t mind paying a small fee to read someone’s unpolished novel.

  15. I completely agree with your views. So often one reads a book review where its obvious that the reviewer is more interested in displaying their own wit and literary style rather than a serious critique of the book under review. I feel this is beyond unfortunate. As you said: what about the author who has laboured long & hard to produce the work? and deserves a constructive review.
    If a book is poor/bad/awful I will say so in my blog posts, but I don’t set out to do a hatchet job on other writers. And as for the Hatchet Job award you mention – well, shame on all those connected with such a mean-spirited event.

    1. Yeah, it does seem like the focus of literary criticism is to upstage the author of the book. Those types of reviews shouldn’t be encouraged.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  16. Since when has it been required reviewers upstage the book they’re reviewing by being sooooo witty and clever and even angry? Shouldn’t the focus of the review be on the book? If the reviewer wants to be known for their writing, maybe they should, you know, write a book. ;/ (Which will then get reviewed by someone being oh so clever, witty, and angry.)

    1. Yeah, the worst reviews are the ones that make it personal by hitting below the belt. Did you hear about film critic Rex Reed’s absurd comments about Melissa McCarthy? Her weight isn’t relevant to her performance!

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