In Death of the Hatchet Job, D J Taylor talks about how once upon a time book reviews were not kind. They were the stuff that every writer dreaded as there were no limits to how badly a writer’s efforts could be torn to shreds.
“I should point out that this was an era in which wounding disparagement was, if not absolutely routine, then a frequent feature of newspaper books pages.”
Of late, book reviews are more sober. Dislike is never expressed per say. It’s revealed in a cat and mouse game, almost apologetically.
James Lasdun, for instance, seems almost to weep over the fact that the new Don DeLillo novel isn’t the masterpiece he so urgently desires, writing: “I have to confess, reluctantly, that I found this section (which occupies two-thirds of the book) hard to like.”
The history of book reviews reveal some highs and lows when it comes to surgical strikes on novels. Right now, may not be the best time to do the hatchet job.
“It is a bad time to be a critic; that here in the age of instant online opinion and internet trolls, what used to be called “critical authority” is much less sanctified than it used to be, and that in a world of declining print circulations and concertina-ing arts pages the best option is a modest thumbs-up.”
So if you get a sugar coated review, is it the merit of the book or the reflection of the times? Not hard to answer if you recognize book reviewing for what it truly is- a blood sport.