Bad Press: The Worst Critical Reviews Ever

by Laura Ward
256 pages,
ISBN: 0764155393

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Poison Pens
by Shane Neilson

Why kill a book with kindness when one can play with venom? The bile, the brilliance: when dyspeptic pens slay dross and deficient wits, readers thrill at the panache. Reviewing is often a hack's art¨a plodding description of character and plot¨until the sword is taken up, and a book is disemboweled in public. Reading the binary thumbs-up vs. thumbs-down verdicts of lower-order reviewers is the reader's usual lot until we're met with the malignant glee of our best literary bullies, who elevate the form to an ecstatic nastiness. Ooo, we think. That has to hurt (we imagine the assassinated author, upon reading the review, fleeing into the shower and weeping). Workmanlike writing can't ever hope to convey how good a truly superior book is, let alone how odious a bomb is. But a master offers reputation-devouring critiques of pure inventiveness, praiseworthy put-downs designed to puncture stinkerdom.
There's an art to the kill and this short volume is a textbook on the murdering arts. Pithy is always better¨witness Oscar Wilde's premier status as the unchallenged master of one-liner devastation¨and making criticism personal is always an ante-upper, a la Dorothy Parker. Alliteration, a play on play, in the appropriately evil hands increases the energy of invective, eliciting titters from an audience. And, as per a law of literature, saying something new is always met with appreciative shock (an unexpected word is often the best one).
Reviews often offer little warrant for being written. They rarely deserve their commission as pieces of writing, and often prop themselves up on the books under consideration. Without the book, there would be no review. The truly good reviews, however, justify themselves. The reviewer troubles himself less with the mendacity before him, not caring to wallow in the vast preserves of page-turning boredom. Instead, he attacks that mendacity, blasting the bad writing as an affront to his craft, and writes a review that is far more interesting than the book that instigated it. The quotes in Bad Press: The Worst Critical Reviews Ever! have this quality about them¨in some cases enjoying a lifespan exceeding that of the book examined by centuries.
A few of my favourites have an indisputable genius; they offer the kind of brilliant, excoriating truth that can't be quibbled with. Here are a few I've culled for your reading pleasure:
Dr. Johnson on an aspiring author: "Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good."
Gabriel Harvey writing of the 16th century playwright Thomas Nashe: "Óthe swish-swash of the press, the bum of impudency, the shambles of beastlinessÓ the toadstool of the realm."
Oscar the impeccable, dandified grouch: "I like Wagner's music better than any other music. It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without people hearing what one says. That is a great advantage."
Not that Oscar was ever at a loss for words. For me, as a writer, the satisfaction of reading this book is in the realization that we're self-policing professionals willing to skewer, the verbal roasting an activity we're unafraid to engage in as well as unleash on ourselves. Such activity is meant to keep us honest. Another pleasure comes from the conclusion that this book of choice review excerpts, chosen from a palette of food, theatre, film, television, literature, and music criticism, is most exemplary in the literature section. This is probably the case for two reasons: film, television, and food criticism are in their infancy; these disciplines are only as recent as the advent of television and film, and the growth of a social class economically able to dine out or attend concerts regularly. But there's something else these other areas of criticism lack that the literary one doesn't¨the jealousy one writer bears another, and that's the second reason that writers writing about other writers give the best bad press: it's personal from the first word onward, and it has been personal for the longest period of time. The darling Pauline Kael is the exception here: long was she the New Yorker's angel of gum-stuck, popcorn-strewn theatres. Her prose sets all Grinch-like hearts aquiver. Here she writes on a biopic of Edvard Grieg titled Song of Norway: "The movie is of an unbelieveable badness; it brings back clichTs you didn't know you knewÓ You can't get angry at something this stupefying; it seems to have been made by trolls."
What is paradoxical about Bad Press is that many of the quotes aren't great at all, but prolix and dull, relying on dreary categorical words like "disgust" and "awful"¨verdicts which are themselves delivered without wit. Perhaps another law of literature is the ubiquity of imperfection; this book of mots justes often isn't. The other strategic failure is the inclusion of the easy kill, the kill that's offered to the reviewer with red flags and trilling bassoons. For example, consider this remark on unremarkable Hollywood palaver (in this case, a Bruce Willis vehicle): "Can I fire you? Scott says, by now made even more incredulous by his hapless defense attorney, and anyone sitting through this picture may feel the same wayÓAs it is, enduring this move feels like doing a stretch in a P.O.W. camp." Umm¨couldn't the critic have come up with anything more original than a send-up of the movie's P.O.W. premise? There's more of this obviousness, particularly with limp puns on titles and lame lampoons of dialogue. How hard is it to roast celluloid hams, anyway? The greater failure lies with the television critics: how could such people, constantly irradiated with the lazy and lame, not memorably lay waste to the idiot box's screenwriting? Television is a medium founded upon the philosophy of the lowest common denominator! At least the occasional sitcom success should have reminded them of the benefits of trading in insults.
For a so-called survey of verbal lashing, there does seem to be an overreliance on recent times. A distressing number of dot-com sites are attributed to twenty-first century pit-bull quotesters; perhaps the understandable strain to do a book under deadline wore on Ward, for a number of her selections are taken from the pre-publication period of January and February 2002.
The subtitle is unfortunate: for a book concerned with perfection, a subtitle like The Worst Critical Reviews Ever sets off alarms. Wait¨isn't this a best-of worst-of? Or a greatest-hits compilation/indictment of shit?
It's fun subjecting an encapsulation of jolly hate to the rack: it takes one to know one, after all. Love lost between critics can hope to be included in an anthology at the least; so here's to all¨tender authors and withered critics. May we meet in hell's blender, and have things to say about it afterward.

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