Religion Magazine

The Art of Writing Negative Book Reviews

By Goodacre
 A couple of years ago, I asked whether Paul Foster's review of Bartosz Adamczewski's Q or Not Q? might qualify as The most negative book review in our area?, having mentioned Peterson's review of Shedinger as another contender.  I am grateful to kolhaadam (in comments) for drawing attention to this one, just out in the Review of Biblical Literature, by Gregory Mobley, of a book by Marty Alan Michelson on Reconciling Violence and Kingship: A Study of Judges and 1 Samuel.  From the review:
I took no pleasure in reading this book, nor do I take any in cataloguing its flaws. The title itself with its initial, indecisive participle hamstrings progress toward coherence . . . . The publication history page, with its reference to the “british Library” damages the credibility before we even reach page i . . .
. . . . Who is to blame for what constitutes the most poorly written work of published “scholarship” I have ever read? . . .
. . . . Unfortunately, I cannot recommend this book to anyone. Neither its ideas nor its writing meet any standard I recognize for publishable biblical scholarship.
So he's not mincing his words, then.  I must admit that I did enjoy this turn of phrase:
Nowhere does Michelson acknowledge that it served monarchic interests writing “after” to exaggerate the evils of the time “before,” in the same way that weightloss advertisements contrast images of slouching corpulence with svelte elegance.
It's interesting to ask how far it is worthwhile to write a really, really negative book review.  My general policy has been to turn down the invitation to write reviews of books that I think very bad.  I tend to think that there comes a point where it is better for a book not to be reviewed at all than for it to be reviewed really negatively.  I suppose I worry too much about what the author's mom might think if she were to see the negative review.  Perhaps negative reviews do have a part to play, though, in alerting publishers to material that has made it through their processes, or to alerting doctoral dissertation committees of radically dissenting opinions about the worth of the project.


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