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.