5 Feet of Fury

“In Praise of Negative Book Reviews”

Hey, thanks for coming out!

I wrote book reviews for years but that was a long time ago.

In the first place, they have a bad return on investment:

The time spent reading the book and then writing the review is in reverse proportion to how much they pay.

But also, I didn’t write positive reviews if they weren’t deserved.

As longtime 5FF readers know, one of the only books I keep on my desk is The Boy Looked at Johnny. I was steeped in the nasty British (pop) culture review style in my formative years, but it’s a rather “foreign” style in North America, even here in the Commonwealth. As far as I’m concerned, one of the finest sentences in the English language remains Auburon Waugh’s notorious description of one wine’s bouquet as evoking “a bunch of dead chrysanthemums on the grave of a still-born West Indian baby.”

As well, the incestuous nature of CanLit means you are pretty much guaranteed to be insulting the editor’s girlfriend, or the bigshot writer who recommended so-and-so for a grant — or who is considered “a national treasure” and therefore untouchable.


It is a pitiable present, this one that celebrates the enfeebling of literary criticism, but we were warned of it. Elizabeth Hardwick, that Cassandra of criticism, predicted it five decades ago, when she penned “The Decline of Book Reviewing” for Harper’s magazine. It is indeed some small mercy to her that she did not live to see its actual and dismal death. Hardwick would have winced at it and wept at the reincarnation of the form as an extended marketing operation coaxed out by fawning, persistent publicists. In Hardwick’s world reviewers and critics were feared as “persons of dangerous acerbity” who were “cruel to youth” and (often out of jealousy) blind to the freshness and importance of new work. Hardwick thought this an unfair estimation, but she would have found what exists now more repugnant. The reviewers at work now are rather the opposite, copywriters whose task it is to arrange the book in a bouquet of Wikipedia-blooming literary references.