The Most Savage Book Reviews of All Time
This Week on The History of Literature Podcast with Jacke Wilson
For tens of thousands of years, human beings have been using fictional devices to shape their worlds and communicate with one another. Four thousand years ago they began writing down these stories, and a great flourishing of human achievement began. We know it today as literature, a term broad enough to encompass everything from ancient epic poetry to contemporary novels. How did literature develop? What forms has it taken? And what can we learn from engaging with these works today? Hosted by Jacke Wilson, an amateur scholar with a lifelong passion for literature, The History of Literature takes a fresh look at some of the most compelling examples of creative genius the world has ever known.
The vast majority of book reviews are informative and genteel. What books get that treatment, and why? And what happens when reviewers sharpen their tools and go nasty? On this episode, Jacke and friend of the show Mike Palindrome take a look at some of the most savage book reviews of all time.
From the episode:
Mike Palindrome: I went with Jonathan Safran Foer’s We Are the Weather. It’s kind of the rise of novelists in the last five years or so tackling social issues from the camp that almost everyone agrees with, and then writing basically a 150-page book, charging 15 dollars, that summarizes stuff everyone either knows or can learn pretty easily. It’s almost like a celebrity writing a book. Like if Kate Moss wrote a book about dogs, you know? But it’s hard to attack because their hearts are in the right place. Jonathan Safran Foer is is a vegan, and he’s an environmentalist. But I love this review because it was done by someone who published a book called A Planet to Win with Verso, which is probably one of my favorite academic publishers, Kate Aronoff. And she wrote the review in this kind of jokey way.
She wrote, “Hi, I am a popular novelist, and these are my thoughts about global warming. I grew up in a major East Coast city, or perhaps some lesser, sadder place that I’ve built a relatively successful career processing my feelings about in a semi-autobiographical manner.”
I loved it because it articulated what I feel, which I’m reluctant to do because I’m like, hey, if Jonathan Safran Foer cares about the environment, go for it. I mean, spread the message. But there is something kind of lurid and parasitical about the way he’s basically trying to pass off like an academic paper or a more well researched book as this layperson’s guide. It’s kind of like, well, do we really need this? Or should we just maybe look to Oxford University Press or Verso or Blackwell and try to get a book that actually gives us more information?