Columns > Published on September 9th, 2020

Reviewing Chuck Palahniuk's Reviewers

Laura Miller’s dirty, hit-job review of Chuck Palahniuk's Diary started all this.

In 2003 Miller reviewed Diary for Salon. And the review was so foul that in a rare, unprecedented, and unrepeated, move, Chuck Palahniuk himself responded to Miller’s critique: 

I have never responded to a review, perhaps because I've never gotten such a cruel and mean-spirited one.

Please send me a copy of your latest book. I'd love to read it.

Until you can create something that captivates people, I'd invite you to just shut up. It's easy to attack and destroy an act of creation. It's a lot more difficult to perform one. I'd also invite you to read the reviews Fitzgerald got for "Gatsby" from dull, sad, bitter people -- like yourself.

Chuck’s review of Miller’s review was pretty fair. Her “review” of Diary was less a review of the book itself, more of a review of the cultural phenomenon that is Chuck Palahniuk:

As with SUV commercials, the target audience seems painfully clear: It's that strangely oversize fellow you sometimes get seated next to on airplanes or in bars, the one who loudly testifies to "laughing my ass off" all the way through Palahniuk's "fucking twisted" books and then glares, as if daring you to deny that such a thing is possible or that he is one dark and edgy dude...His fans may yet grow out of his cartoonish fiction and into a better remedy for debased consumerism: art about the complexity and paradoxes of human beings and their fate.

These “strangely oversize fellows” who like Palahniuk, not Duras or Woolf, were a made-up problem for Miller. She didn’t like being seated next to them in bars? These guys, and I consider myself one of them, do not go to bars where someone “seats” you.

Trashing a book is one thing. When you put a book out there, you have to accept that some people are not going to like it, and they’ll make fun of you. But that’s not the deal people make when they READ a book. Trashing a book's audience is a total dick move.

Chuck was the gatecrasher, writing books for people who don’t typically read books. Miller set herself up as gatekeeper. And like most gatekeepers, she has a pretty specific and narrow idea of what human beings are, and what they are is evaluated by what they like.

Miller was wrong about Diary, but only in a lot of ways.

She’s not the only one to make bad critiques of Chuck’s work. He’s an oft-misunderstood writer.

Let’s jump in a time machine and look at some reviews of Chuck’s work and just how wrong they were.

Adjustment Day - Publisher’s Weekly, 2018 

The over-the-top premise is classic Palahniuk, but he stumbles in its delivery, focusing more on the farcical aspects of these societies rather than on the characters living in them, resulting in a thin story.

People who want to sound smart critique stories for lack of character development or character agency. 

Not all stories are improved through character agency or character change. Sometimes a book is about forces that overpower the individual. 

Adjustment Day applies a nonfiction perspective to a fictional story. When you read something like a World War II history, something like With The Old Breed, characters are like pieces on a game board. And that’s how non-fiction works sometimes, less focus on character, more focus on what those characters are doing. The premise is the star.

Characters having deep profiles would dilute one of the themes in Adjustment Day: identity politics. In extreme form, taken to the max level as they are in Adjustment Day, identity politics would tell us that it’s less important what an individual thinks or feels than it is to know their demographically-compiled identity. In this respect, the book treats characters, narratively, the same way their fictional world treats them.

This review type, which proposes "fixes" to a book, needs to be careful. It's one thing to patch a couple plot holes, but it's another thing to propose a book that functions differently at its core. If your fix fundamentally changes the way a book works, maybe instead of writing the review, you should just go ahead and write this other, "better" book. I look forward to it.

Buy Adjustment Day from Bookshop or Amazon

Damned - GQ, 2011

This review is titled “Fuck Chuck: The Seven Worst Sentences From the New Novel, Damned.” Wait, sorry, it's called "F*$% Chuck" because they don't have the stones to use a dirty word.

Two of the examples:

Even through the dirty lenses, fogged with dead flakes of scalp, I can see Adolf Hitler crumpled beside me.

The noxious Great Ocean of Wasted Sperm continues to spread, engulfing the hellish landscape around it.

Damned and Doomed are exactly what they were meant to be: Chuck's bizarro/teen lit/Judy Blume mashup. Bizarro readers will recognize a lot of the sorts of things that happen here and might find them a little tame. But mainstream audiences will enjoy the over-the-top-ness of a Judy Blume narrator encountering goddamn Hitler.

This review gets everything backwards. Forget the fact that pulling seven sentences from a novel is a ridiculous way to make a point. Given the choice, a magazine that shudders at the idea of typing the word "fuck," or a book with an ocean of curdled semen? Guess I'll grab my snorkel. No, not that one, the semen snorkel. 

Get Damned from Bookshop or Amazon

Beautiful You - Bookmunch, 2014

The decision to start a book with a rape scene is not one lightly made. The decision to start a book with a woman being raped in front of a courthouse full of men, none of whom help, most of whom watch, is not one many writers would be brave enough to attempt. The decision to write the scene in a jovial tone, not exactly playing for laughs but certainly with one eyebrow raised is, to be blunt, really fucking stupid unless you can back it up with the most powerful, sensitive, insightful novel ever written. You can’t, oh let’s say for example, write a parody of a Mills & Boon novel that is less self aware than the original.

Just about every reviewer claimed to understand that Beautiful You was satire. They make sure to tell you this so that you know they're intelligent, then they go on to review the book as though it’s an earnest novel, complaining about stereotypes, tropes, and yes, rape used as a plot device.

Smart Bitches, Trashy Books is an EXCELLENT romance fiction site, and they wrote a great piece (more than one, in fact) about rape in romance, why it’s had such a prominent place in the romantic past, and why there's a continued presence in the romantic present. I'll sum it up for you: Romance can get rape-y. 

Roasting the romance genre without bringing rape to the barbecue would be a total cop-out. And reviewing Beautiful You as though it’s an applauding participant in the inappropriate, posed-as-romantic rape scene is like blaming Blazing Saddles for the existence of racism in westerns.

If you’re just exploring ideas via book review, that’s cool, just let me know. If you’re like, “I don’t know if I really buy the premise I’m about to put forth, that the effects of parody and sincerity might be similar,” that can work. But slamming Beautiful You for the rape that's very much a part of romance fiction is some silly shit.

Get Beautiful You from Bookshop or Amazon

Tell-All - The Onion A.V. Club, 2010

The trivia is gone in Tell-All, but he’s found a far more obnoxious means of padding his text. In what he calls a Tourette’s syndrome of name-dropping, the book is packed with names in bold font, many of which are so obscure that modern readers won’t get the references without research.

Tell-All comes in at a brisk 192 pages, and you can skim over all the references. The point is obviously not to understand each of the specific references. It’s to understand the general tone.

This is what the narrator in Tell-All would know. It’s her area of expertise. This narrator would speak in Hollywood nonsense and name checks, and part of what works about this character is that her knowledge is essentially worthless, celebrity-based trivia.

One of Chuck’s talents is that he manages to highlight the stuff you have to pay attention to. A mildly savvy reader won’t get bogged down in the extras.

Read Tell-All the way you read a gossip rag. Don’t go word by word. Being from The Onion, you should know a lot about skimming for the good stuff without getting bogged down in beating a premise to death.

Get Tell-All from Bookshop or Amazon

Lullaby - People, 2002

Among sick puppies, Palahniuk is the top dog. After all, this is the man who commended terrorism as a cure for the blahs in Fight Club...His jabs at consumerism are as well-aimed as ever, but like some of his other books Lullaby ends by tap-dancing in its own gore. Palahniuk has said that his grandfather killed his grandmother before committing suicide, and that his father was later murdered; rage tends to snap the leash of his satire.

Let’s start with “Palahniuk has said.” That seems more than a little backhanded. A little “this allegedly happened.” Pretty goddamn disrespectful.

This whole review has it wrong from the start, confusing the art and the artist. Is Chuck the man who commended terrorism? No. He’s the man who wrote the novel that presented it. These are two totally different things.

And then bringing in the author’s personal life to suggest that this is the root of rage felt by the reader? A therapist, someone who is good at analyzing people, would know that trying to size someone up based on a novel they wrote is foolishness. It's extra foolish for a book reviewer to give it a go.

There are times when this type of critique, looking at the artist who made the art, is useful. Non-fiction, novels that are basically novel-as-memoir. But attributing the values of characters to novelists, saying Chuck is an advocate of violence, is ALMOST as boring as it is incorrect. To my knowledge, Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Super Mario, has not once smashed a turtle by jumping on it.

I take umbrage with these reviews, particularly when applied to Mr. Palahniuk. Because he is a very nice man who’s had a difficult life, and he takes it out on his fiction. A healthy, productive way to deal with this sort of thing.

Get Lullaby from Bookshop or Amazon

Stranger Than Fiction - Esquire, 2001

Still, it's too bad the book doesn't examine more completely the remarkable story of the murder of Palahniuk's father and the trial that followed. Instead, it's a passing detail. For the most part, Palahniuk seems unwilling to draw a single conclusion about his subject matter (except the emptiness of his own fame and the fact that he likes Amy Hempel, fights that will bloody few fists). Palahniuk shows but doesn't tell, and after a while it gets annoying. Are we presupposed to know what Palahniuk thinks about his subject matter? As a guy who tends to root for male writers, I'm sorry to say that we probably already do.

I’ll never understand the person who wants the conclusion drawn for them. The stories in Stranger Than Fiction are FAR more powerful without Mr. Palahniuk telling readers how to feel about them.

And c’mon, dummy, how do you think he feels about the murder of his father? Awesome? Boner-riffic? 

It’s classic amateur hour to write a beautiful piece about a deep topic and to end it with some form of “And what I learned is this…”

You don’t resolve the tension for a reader. You let the beast out of the cage, give the readers some hints, and then force them to wrestle it back into a cage.

I'd recommend a book for children as those seem to be better at outlining exactly the lesson to be learned. But, Jesus Christ, even The Giving Tree doesn't tell you how to feel. 

Get Stranger Than Fiction from Bookshop or Amazon

Pygmy - New Statesman, 2009

But the tale of Pygmy is an extended, indulgent exercise in “foreigner-people-no-speak-English-very-good” prose. Whereas novels such as Trainspotting or A Clockwork Orange create their own languageworlds in order to absorb readers in surreally affecting new environments, Palahniuk’s efforts amount to little more than a series of hollow stereotypes that mock and parody their targets. There are a few smirks to be had here and there, but the effort required to conquer Pygmy’s cloying observations on American life yields few rewards. This isn’t the side-splittingly hilarious take on world affairs it was obviously intended to be.

You're critiquing Pygmy while making up your own word, 'languageworlds"? C'mon. That's just slamming two words together. Seems like some indulgent, "book-reviewer-speak-English-SO-good-he-has-to-make-up-new-words" prose.

Oh, and linking that many words together with dashes? Hard to say if it's lazy or just dull. Y'know what? Why pick? It's both.

Get Pygmy from Bookshop or Amazon

Do you think any of these reviewers got it right? What are some other reviews that missed the mark on your favorite books?

Chuck's latest, THE INVENTION OF SOUND, is out now. Get it at Bookshop or Amazon.

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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