Mine have been 90% positive but the negative ones are memorable
The editor of our sister site Wine and Whiskey Globe asked me for advice. The maker of a rum brand had sent him a bottle for review and he found it awful. He told me privately, “It’s so odd tasting (think olives, artichokes, and limburger cheese). Bizarre is the best I can muster. Should I review or just ignore?”
I believe that the occasional blistering, negative review serves a meaningful purpose. For two reasons:
1) It keeps publications honest. A negative review shows readers, sponsors and others who want reviews that the writers are free to call it as they see it, which increases trust and in turn increases the value of our good reviews.
2) Readers love a good decapitation. One of the most popular stories the New York Observer ever ran was a blistering beatdown of junk food TV star Guy Fieri’s Times Square restaurant. “Mr. Fieri not only serves truly horrible-tasting food, an awkward origami of clashing aleatory flavors, but he serves this punishing food emulsified with a bombastic recasting of deep-fried American myth. Mr. Fieri’s most egregious transgression isn’t what he puts into his fellow citizens’ stomachs, it’s how the cynical slop interfaces with what he puts into their minds.”
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
Around 2010, publications started to devote much less space to book reviews. The LA Times, Chicago Tribune and Washington Post all killed their standalone book review sections. And even the New York Times, by far the most important venue for authors desperate for attention, cut its daily review from seven days a week to six. According to The Nation, By 2022, “only one newspaper still maintains a stand-alone book review: The New York Times. No more than a dozen staff critic positions exist to serve a nation of 330 million.”
Amid this change, some publications declared that they’d only review books they loved. Buzzfeed was one of them. It made some sense. With so many books and so little space to review, why waste it on stuff you don’t like?
But I disagree. I’ve written hundreds of book reviews in my day and 90% ish have been positive. Hey, I love books! So naturally most of the ones I read produce good vibrations. Recent reviews like my take on the Mark Lanegan memoir, the Jann Wenner autobiography and the WeWork book (itself a brutal takedown) were all five-star raves, deservedly so.
But that occasional imperative to bust someone’s balls remain some of my favorites.
My review of progressive activist David Sirota’s BACK TO OUR FUTURE: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now—Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything in the Wall Street Journal was pretty scathing. I have a dim recollection of Sirota writing somewhere “Fuck that guy, he’s a Giuliani henchman.” Those were the good old days when “he worked for Rudy” was pretty much the worst one could say about me.
Oddly, I recently had reason to try to find another brutal piece I wrote—a review of the Boy George memoir I did for Kirkus Reviews in 1995. My then fiancé (later wife, later ex-wife) reviewed a ton of books for Kirkus and I would put my hand up when something about music or business or true crime came along.
So I looked up the URL to my Boy George review and the link still works. Kirkus had a strict format back then—this was before the business model shifted to “we’ll review your self-published book for a fee” (a model that is actually quite interesting to me). The first sentence of the review was supposed to be styled as a stand-alone summation. For TAKE IT LIKE A MAN: The Autobiography of Boy George, my summation was brutal: “The meandering, over-long autobiography of a gender-bending singer whose mercurial career doesn’t warrant such an exhaustive catalog.”
I kinda feel bad re-reading these words now. Maybe Buzzfeed is right—what’s the point of trying to knock these guys down a peg. Sirota is someone I respect, despite our obvious differences in ideology. I eventually had several friendly exchanges with him, which I hope means that he forgave me. Separately, I named Sirota’s MELTDOWN the best podcast of the year for 2022.
As for Boy George, I was right about the book. But who the hell am I, whose chief goal in life was to write a Top 40 hit, to snarkily dismiss the significance of a band whose best-known confections are imprinted on my brain to this day.
One last detail. For some reason, the Kirkus reviews from that era in the mid 90s were input oddly — some of the periods became commas and vice versa. It’s funny that I hadn’t thought of this review for three decades but when I saw that, I was like “How dare they!”
I thought, “Look at what we’ve lost — my 27-year-old review of an insignificant pop band isn’t formatted correctly!!!” Ultimately, that’s kind of what it means to be a writer — you care about how your stuff presents, even if it’s years old and few people are reading it.