From the Atlantic Wire: Where have all the mean book reviews gone? -
Literary critics have gone soft. Despite all the snark, sass, and anger in media and online today, one area has become remarkably nicer — book reviews. A look around the latest literary criticisms leaves you feeling upbeat, even excited about coming books, much to their publicist's delight. So where have all the hatchet jobs gone?
There really is something lost in the lack of hatchet reviews nowadays. They're fun! And even for the author, they might not be so bad. The Internet feeds on anger and hatred, and this can spill over to books.
From the New Republic: This Guy Thinks We Shouldn't Have Negative Book Reviews. Two Thumbs Down! -
In a strange and unconvincing essay in The New Yorker, Lee Siegel, who made his name as a slashing and smart critic (for a time at The New Republic), writes that he is through with negative book reviews. He mentions a Clive James essay from several months back which lamented the lack of nasty reviews in American publications. But Siegel notes, correctly, that politeness has not been a permanent feature of American reviewing, and goes on to mention the harsh pieces that appeared in the inagural issue of The New York Review of Books fifty years ago.
Lee Siegel's article - Burying the Hatchet - featured on the New Yorker, which started it all:
I didn’t realize how strong my revulsion against negative reviewing had become until some months ago I read, in the New York Times, an essay by the critic Clive James titled “Whither the Hatchet Job?” James laments the inability of American critics to lay into their scrivening colleagues with the exuberance practiced by their British counterparts. “America,” James wrote, “does polite literary criticism well enough. And how: there is a new Lionel Trilling on every campus.” In contrast to the soporific American scene James sets the thriving vitality of book reviewing in Britain, where “ripping somebody’s reputation is recognized blood sport.”
And Clive James' Wither the Hatchet Job which is featured on the New York Times:
In Britain, the realm of book reviewing is still known as Grub Street though the actual Grub Street vanished long ago. But its occasionally vicious spirit lives on; one of the marks of Grub Street is that the spleen gets a voice. Ripping somebody’s reputation is recognized blood sport. Shredding a new book is a kind of fox hunting that is still legal today.
Such critical violence is far less frequent in America. Any even remotely derogatory article in an American journal is called “negative,” and hardly any American publication wants to be negative.