If your only view of reality came from Internet reviews you'd be forgiven for thinking that every hotel is awful, every restaurant overpriced and unfriendly and every book a waste of time. The cruelty of online users seems to know no bounds, even for formidable favourites that stand the test of time.
"This book blows" is a common sentiment on Goodreads, a website where book enthusiasts review the literature they've read and not always in a flattering light. But, while negativity can be expected towards the latest John Grisham or Dan Brown release by the highbrow literati, it is a surprise to find that this concise assessment was actually made of Leo Tolstoy's 1877 classic Anna Karenina.
In writing for Executive Style, Genevieve Gannon noticed that nobody is safe from the relentless negativity of online book reviews, not even the classics.
She writes, "In damp corners of the internet there exists a certain type of book reviewer who loses all sense of perspective when they read a novel they don't like. Picture Grandpa Simpson sitting at his typewriter writing to the president to say there are too many states, and can he please eliminate three. Crossed with Gollum [sic]."
Here are some of the examples of the vitriol which easily finds a home in the Internet's negative corners.
Aside from "blowing", Goodreads reviews say that Tolstoy's masterpiece is "infuriatingly boring" and "extremely long, extremely slow". One user wished that they could rate the book in negative stars.
Another user explains his disdain, at least in theory, for the practice of book burning, before describing how he burned this book. "I believed that burning books was only a couple of steps down from burning people in ovens, or that it was, at least, a step towards holocaust."
But then he read Anna Karenina and acted upon his disgust. "The fire around the book blazed high for a good ten minutes, the first minute of which was colored by the inks of the cover, then it tumbled off its prop log and into the heart of the coals, disappearing forever. I cheered and danced and exorcised that book from my system. I felt better. I was cleansed of my communion with those whiny Russians. [sic]"
It seems as though this much-loved book, penned by the late, great Harper Lee, is a favourite of pretty much everyone. Goodreads reviews debunk this false impression. Despite having an average rating of 4.25 stars on the website, the 1 percent of readers who gave it one star (the minimum) out of five make up a passionate minority.
"This is possibly one of my least favourite books in the world," says one user. "One that I would happily take off of shelves and stow in dark corners where no one would ever have to read it again."
Another writes, "I don't understand the mass appeal to this novel, nor do I understand how it managed to go down in history as an amazing piece of America literature. This book has no plot, no point, and no real characters. [sic]"
Other reviews use words like "dull," "saccharine," "slow," "trite" and "over-rated." Many condemn it for replicating the racism it was written to speak out against.
One user light-heartedly condemns it for its lack of practical advice. "While the plot was very gripping and well-written, the book didn't actually instruct me on how to kill a mockingbird. I bought this book intending to do away with this obnoxious bird that's always sitting in my backyard and making distracting noises."
As with the other books, negative Goodreads reviews of The Great Gatsby focus on poor pacing, the readers' feelings of boredom, and the fact that few events actually happen. These negative reviews are far less spirited in nature though. The reviewers seem to feel genuine disappointment about the classic failing to meet their expectations. "I just don't get the hype on this one," is a common, sad refrain. More detailed versions mention the "waste of space rich loser [who] chases women, has champagne cocktails."
"I never expected this book to be as flagrantly, unforgivably bad as it was," writes one user. "Ultimately, the most damning thing is that the characters are a bunch of immature, insufferable, narcissistic assholes with very little self respect."
Another says, "I know it's a classic, but I pretty much hate every character and almost wished for bad things to happen to them."
Yet another recounts how she tried to read the book three times and has now concluded, "I obviously have no respect for myself."
Charged words like "wreck," "stupid," "detestable," "hysterical nonsense" and "pompous" colour the negative reviews. It is likened a few times to Twilight for its endorsement of horrible men as "romantic." Many spent a lot of their reading time hoping for various characters to die.
Not even the charming Mr. Darcy can avoid online hatred. One user is particularly scathing:
"This book is quite possibly the most insipid novel I have ever read in my life. Why this book is so highly treasured by society is beyond me. It is 345 pages of nothing... the plot is non-existent, as though Austen one day decided she wanted to write a novel and began without having any idea what would happen except that there would be a boy and a girl who seemingly didn’t like each other but in the end got married."
Other users echo this sentiment, calling the work "trivial", the language overly "verbose" and "unnecessarily complicated" and the entire work "pointless".
Austen's classic is also said to fail on feminist grounds. "Elizabeth has the good sense to identify Mr. Darcy as the insufferable prick he is. And so she spends the first part of the book rightly loathing this asshole," says one review. But later, Elizabeth's cred as a "feminist trailblazer" unravels for no comprehensible reason. "The moral of the story seems to be that enough money can make even the most abrasive and obnoxious jerk seem like prince charming."
It's a good thing to question social tastes and classics, partly just to test whether the Emperor is wearing clothes. Negative reviews can also bring up legitimately good points about how problematic our favourite books are and, for this reason, shouldn't be dismissed as the work of crotchety trolls who hate the mainstream just for the sake of hating the mainstream.
But the level of hate expressed towards books that are, at least mostly, triumphs of our culture, helps put online hate in perspective. Not every book is awful. Not every restaurant is gross. Not every hotel room is ugly. Not every bad review is totally deserved nor are they all enlightening. They can be pretty amusing though.
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