Steve Hely on book reviewers

Most writers, from time to time, elect to set aside a little ink in order to get a few things off their chest. And it’s not uncommon for writers – and here I’m thinking of the likes of Charlotte Brontë, Dorothy Sayers and Kurt Vonnegut, to name just a few – to blow off a little steam about book reviewers (Brontë, for example, referred to them as ‘Astrologers, Chaldeans, and Soothsayers’). But in his very unextraordinary book, How I Became a Famous Novelist, Steve Hely takes the most sustained and pathetic shot at book reviewers that I’ve encountered:

I try not to hate anybody. ‘Hate is a four-letter word,’ like the bumper sticker says. But I hate book reviewers.

Book reviewers are the most despicable, loathsome order of swine that ever rooted about the earth. They are sniveling, revolting creatures who feed their own appetites for bile by gnawing apart other people’s work. They are human garbage. They all deserve to be struck down by awful diseases described in the most obscure dermatology journals.

Book reviewers live in tiny studios that stink of mothballs and rotting paper. Their breath reeks of stale coffee. From time to time they put on too-tight shirts and pants with buckles and shuffle out of their lairs to shove heaping mayonnaise-laden sandwiches into their faces, which are worn in to permanent snarls. Then they go back to their computers and with fat stubby fingers they hammer out ‘reviews.’ Periodically they are halted as they burst into porcine squeals, gleefully rejoicing in their cruelty.

Even when being ‘kindly,’ book reviewers reveal their true nature as condescending jerks. ‘We look forward to hearing more from the author,’ a book reviewer might say. The prissy tones sound like a second-grade piano teacher, offering you a piece of years-old strawberry hard candy and telling you to practice more.

But a bad book review is just disgusting.

Ask yourself: of all the jobs available to literate people, what monster chooses the job of ‘telling people how bad different books are’? What twisted fetishist chooses such a life? (pp. 146–47)

Certainly, it’s difficult to take this vitriol seriously. Perhaps it’s tongue in cheek, or satire. Yes, many reviewers are little more than poorly paid hookers for publishing companies or newspapers. Yes, many reviewers betray little evidence of actually having read the book under consideration, or of knowing its location in and contribution to the wider canon. Yes, many reviewers do appear to be ‘condescending jerks’. But Hely seems to have some seriously unresolved issues here, perhaps the most serious of all is that he appears to be entirely unfamiliar with John Updike who, as far as I am aware, never in all his days shoved a heaping mayonnaise-laden sandwich into his face.

2 thoughts on “Steve Hely on book reviewers

  1. Many thanks, Jason, for sharing that excerpt on reviewers. Here’s one from novelist Walker Percy’s self-interview, originally published in the December 1977 issue of Esquire magazine:

    “There are four kinds of reviews, three of which are depressing and one of which is, at best, tolerable.

    “The first is the good good review. That is, a review that not only is laudatory but is also canny and on the mark. One is exhilarated for three seconds, then one becomes furtive and frightened. One puts it away quick, before it turns into a pumpkin.

    “The second is the bad good review. That is, it is the routine ‘favorable’ review that doesn’t understand the book. The only thing to say about it is that it is better to get a bad good review than a bad bad review.

    “The third is the bad bad review. It is a hateful review in which the reviewer hates the book for reasons he is unwilling to disclose. He is offended. But he must find other reasons for attacking the book than the cause of the offense. I don’t blame this reviewer. In fact, he or she is sharper than most. He or she is on to the secret that novel writing is a serious business in which the novelist is out both to give joy and to draw blood. The hateful review usually means that one has succeeded in doing only the latter. The name of this reviewer’s game is: “Okay, you want to play rough? Very well, here comes yours.” A hateful reviewer is like a street fighter: he doesn’t let on where he’s been hit and he hits you with everything he’s got–a bad tactic. Or he lies low and waits for a chance to blind-side you. A bad bad review doesn’t really hurt. Getting hit by an offended reviewer reminds me of the old guy on Laugh-In who would make a pass at Ruth Buzzi on the park bench and get slammed across the chops by a soft purse. It’s really a love tap. I can’t speak for Ruth Buzzi, but I can speak for the old guy: all he wants to say is, ‘Come on, honey, give us a kiss.’

    “The fourth is the good bad review, a rare bird. It would be the most valuable if one were in any shape to learn, which one is not. It is the critical review that accurately assesses both what the novelist had in mind, what he was trying to do, and how and where he failed. It hurts because the failure is always great, but the hurt is salutary, like pouring iodine in an open wound. Here the transaction is between equals, a fair fight, no blind-siding. It makes me think of old-movie fistfights between John Wayne and Ward Bond. Ward lets the Duke have one, racks him up real good. The Duke shakes his head to clear it, touches the corner of his mouth, looks at the blood, grins in appreciation. Nods. All right. That’s a fair transaction, a frontal assault by an equal. But what the hateful reviewer wants to do is blind-side you, the way Chuck Bednarik blind-sided Frank Gifford and nearly killed him. Unlike Chuck Bednarik, the hateful reviewer can’t hurt you. He gives away too much of himself. The only way he can hurt you is in the pocket book–the way a playwright can be knocked off by a Times reviewer–but, in the case of a book, even that is doubtful.

    “Even so, one is still better off with hateful reviewers than with admiring reviewers. If I were a castaway on a desert island, I’d rather be marooned with six hateful reviewers than with six admiring reviewers. The hateful men would be better friends and the hateful women would be better lovers.

    “The truth is, all reviewers and all your fellow novelists are your friends and lovers. All serious writers and readers constitute less than one percent of the population. The other ninety-nine percent don’t give a damn. They watch Wonder Woman. We are a tiny shrinking shrinking minority and our worst assaults on each other are love taps compared with the massive indifference surrounding us. Gore Vidal and Bill Buckley are really two of a kind, though it will displease both to hear it. Both are serious moralists to whom I attach a high value” (Walker Percy, Signposts in a Strange Land, pp. 411-412).

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