The Worst Book Review Ever

May 9, 2014 | 1 book mentioned 22 4 min read


There are times when a scathing review is simply not sufficient to combat a book’s supreme awfulness. In such cases, a critic must stand between a reader and the work of so-called literature, channeling his inner Gandalf to exclaim, “You Shall Not Pass!” And thus, while professional duty compels me to deliver judgment on the work at hand, I cannot in good conscience reveal the title, author, or any identifying details about its plot for fear that some perverse soul might be tempted to go out and buy it.

As I will not name the actual title, I can only say that a fitter one for this protracted sin against the English language would be Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here, though equating Dante’s Hell to this rot seems unjust to the former. Let’s go with Caveat Emptor then, which conveys the same message while sparing all authors, living or dead, any possible guilt by association.

To claim that this novelist is the worst writer of his or her generation would provide a clue as to his or her age, so to be safe, I’ll merely say that he or she — henceforth referred to with the gender-neutral pronoun ou — can be justifiably classified as one of the worst writers of all time. Take it from me that the author bio and photo are exactly the sort one would expect from a person who would produce a book of this sort (or show up horribly late, and without a gift, to a junior colleague’s housewarming party).

The novel — for it may be loosely described as such — costs between $25 and $30, is set in a type similar to, but markedly different from, Bembo and boasts of handsome deckled edges. (But perhaps I’ve said too much.) The epigraph, written by a Greek who lived between 500-100 BC, is poorly chosen; the chapters are at once overlong and rushed; and though I won’t divulge whether it’s narrated in first, second or third person, I will say that the choice is precisely the wrong one to meet the demands of the plot I will soon adumbrate with specific vagueness (that is, in exactly the same style with which the author responded to a former friend’s wedding invitation).

Caveat Emptor is a kind of shaggy dog story in dialog with a well-known masterpiece from the Western Canon. It begins with a shocking thing happening to a nondescript man. After this explosive occurrence, a series of other things proceed to happen with depressing predictability. Meanwhile, other characters do things to themselves and to others before everything culminates in one big anti-climactic event that nonetheless changes things forever. A more competent author (and indeed a more considerate human being) would surely have ordered things differently and dug deeper into the various political, social and economic implications so clearly lurking in every twist and turn I’ve outlined above.

There is great narrative energy in the set-up, and indeed it is a shame that a plot with so much potential sprang from the head of an author ill-equipped to write a shopping list (let alone to savagely review the first volume of a Neoplatonist mystery series, Inspector Plotinus Materializes, penned by an aspiring novelist, junior colleague, and former friend).

As for Caveat Emptor’s characters, they are either clumsy mouthpieces or ciphers lacking any animating detail. What was that one guy’s motivation to do this or that? Beats me, and I suspect ou had no idea either. The protagonist remains especially blank, and the portrait of a talking camel named Jacques is not convincing in the least. (Now I’ve definitely said too much.)

Invective aside, I am not a petty man. Therefore, in the spirit of critical fairness, I freely grant that the author has devised a worthy MacGuffin, so worthy in fact that I wouldn’t be surprised if the memorable name of this work’s particular MacGuffin eventually supplants Hitchcock’s term in the cultural discourse. Moreover, there are, I admit, some titillating if rather outré sex scenes. (Readers interested in that kind of thing should email me for the details, which I happen to know are autobiographical in nature.)

But enough crumb throwing, which ultimately patronizes rather than placates. Should this text for some reason ever be taught in schools, teachers would well advised to issue a general trigger warning, not for the traumatic event that occurs between the first and last sections, but rather for the book’s execrable prose. The writing here displays that distinctive je ne sais quoi that has made the author an international phenomenon: a certain quiddity that, depending on one’s taste, is deemed to be either a captivatingly peculiar essence or a nauseating distillate of a heavily mannered whatness. (It reeks of ordure to me, but then again ou has long since stopped returning my phone calls, so what do I know?)

Solecisms and mixed metaphors abound, examples of which I cannot give because such lazy writing is the author’s most recognizable stylistic marker, and these lapses are nothing if not unique. However, as clichés are shared by a community of hacks, it won’t give much away to note that ou has assembled quite the collection of lovers with their heads over their heels, romantics wearing their hearts on their sleeves, and Priapics with their quivering members pointing true north.

Some might argue that I am abdicating my critical responsibility in withholding so much; others that there is something chillingly totalitarian in my suppressive efforts; still others that I am smarting from the author’s libelous portrait of me in a previous best-selling novel. Valid criticisms all, but I stand fast in my conviction that some works are so aesthetically offensive that they are almost like the videotape in The Ring, capable of transmitting a fatal curse to unsuspecting bibliophiles. Identifying this book by name thus constitutes a violation of that Hippocratic oath sacred to doctors and critics alike: First do no harm.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly included the name of the protagonist. We apologize and kindly ask readers to forget that his or her name was “John.”

Image Credit: Flickr/Sarah E Luke

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Durham, NC. Learn more about Matt at


  1. I take it upon myself to be clever, and i say there is no book. The book is a lie. Who knows how far up the government this goes.

  2. Let’s piece together the facts:

    -Writer of international renown, most likely American.
    -The novel is recently out in hardcover with deckled edges.
    -The novel features a protagonist named John.
    -The novel is in conversation with a great from the Western Canon
    -The writer seems to relish the smell of ou own farts.
    – The above two facts indicating self-absorption and grandiosity are more than likely traits of a male writer.
    – The writer’s style employs sloppy writing and mixed metaphors. See above.

    James Frey?

  3. Oh, I just thought it was a joke. You mean there is an actual book?? I thoroughly enjoyed it as a lampoon — now I’m scared!

  4. There’s no book, everyone! This is just a bit of satire about the negative review culture. For example:

    “There is great narrative energy in the set-up, and indeed it is a shame that a plot with so much potential sprang from the head of an author ill-equipped to write a shopping list (let alone to savagely review the first volume of a Neoplatonist mystery series, Inspector Plotinus Materializes, penned by an aspiring novelist, junior colleague, and former friend).”

    So this satirical review was written by an imaginary author (of the Plotinus Materializes series) who, upset that his former friend and colleague gave him a bad review, has now returned the favor by writing his own over-the-top negative review.

    Payback is a bitch in the literary world, and very often a review is motivated more by personal bias than by an aesthetic evaluation of the work’s worth. Well done.

  5. Greg,

    I almost want to agree with you. I read The Goldfinch when it came out, and struggled through it. The plot was so thin, and the litany of description just went on and on, seemingly going nowhere. I felt the book could have been cut by 300 pages without losing anything…

    Now I’m not so sure. Many books seem to leave my memory not long after reading them, but The Goldfinch, with all it’s frustrations, has remained vivid in my mind. Theo and Boris and Xandra feel like real people that I spent some time with and can’t forget.

    I may revisit it and see if I have a new appreciation for it.

  6. I’m with Greg in this one, though I don’t rememeber the farts in the Goldfinch, but then, I skimmed a lot ….

  7. Leave Donna alone… The BBC broadcast her book over 2 weeks and it made for a ripping yarn.

  8. a fun and clever satire on peer-review. There’s no real book. Thanks for the laugh Matt.

  9. Don’t tell me! Is the book the forthcoming prequel to the “Fifty Shades of Gray” masterpieces, “Fifteen Shades of Puberty?” No? Then I’m guessing it must be the latest issue from that herd of nags toiling 24/7 in James Patterson’s stable? No again? Give us a hint already! This isn’t fair! This guy “John,” could his last name be “Updike”? Don’t tell me – I’ll figure it out!

  10. My mother used to spell out loudly J-O-K-E when we didn’t get her witticisms. So I am shouting as loudly as I can from the other side of the world “J-O-K-E” .
    That said, “a shocking thing happening to a nondescript man” is a scenario that applies to many a book I read these days. Or start to read. Or the reverse, a series of nondescript things happening to a shocking man.

  11. Gert,

    That is good, I need to start using that.

    It appears people are missing the “Annals of Japery” classification. Pure mockery and I love it.

  12. Sounds like “The DaVinci Code.” Well, maybe. I only read the first chapter before I tossed it aside in contempt.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.