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A good, bad review: The Omnivore’s ‘Hatchet Job of the Year’ Award

In the penning of every review there are two reputations at stake – that of the artist, of course, but also that of the reviewer themselves, their insight and opinion being their own art. There is a fearlessness that goes along with good reviewing – in going against the establishment, in forgetting reputation and alliances and judging a work without favour. Few would want to be the reviewer to trash a literary luminary, but equally, none would want to write the piece that inadvertently champions a work utterly devoid of merit.

‘The critic,’ Wilde wrote, ‘is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.’ But how much more thrilling it is when the impressions are of artless or disappointing things. When the other ‘manner or new material’ is a review so scathing it makes you blush for the creator of the demolished work.

Though I must say I would never advocate writing a searing review for the work of a debut novelist  – better to simply not review it at all if you really feel it is without merit – there is something captivating about reading a really bad review, particularly of an established author. It is the audacity of it. One wants to reach for the popcorn and watch as the carnage and retributions unfold. A literary shitstorm (when merited) is a fascinating thing, because of its relative scarcity – like some sort of rare bird.

The Hatchet Job of the Year Award is a new prize awarded precisely to these rare birds: the best bad review of the year, with the winner announced on February 7th. It has been set up by review website The Omnivore to ‘raise the profile of professional book critics and to promote integrity and wit in literary journalism,’ with the prize going to ‘the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review published in a newspaper or magazine in 2011.’

It is, of course, far easier to demolish a work than it is to carefully defend its artistry, and perhaps because of this, in the eight reviews nominated for the award, many of the critics hit their stride, delivering slashing insults such as this from Leo Robson on a new Martin Amis biography:

His book fulfils the main duty of a biography — it is informative — while failing to attain any of the possible virtues. It is neither exciting nor penetrating. It is neither coherent nor convincing. It is characterised by surreal laziness…and surreal bossiness…It is full of repetition, contradictions and small, avoidable errors: Bradford seems to get things slightly wrong almost as a matter of principle. It is also full of spectacularly bad writing — about spectacularly good writing.

But as co-editor Fleur Macdonald writes: ‘the literary hatchet job has a long and bloody tradition. We want to encourage a new generation of brave and independent-minded critics.’

The eight shortlisted reviews are:

  • Mary Beard on Rome by Robert Hughes, Guardian
  • Geoff Dyer on The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, New York Times
  • Camilla Long on With the Kisses of His Mouth by Monique Roffey, Sunday Times
  • Lachlan Mackinnon on Clavics by Geoffrey Hill, Independent
  • Adam Mars-Jones on By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham, Observer
  • Leo Robson on Martin Amis: The Biography by Richard Bradford, New Statesman
  • Jenni Russell on Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital by Catherine Hakim, Sunday Times
  • David Sexton on The Bees by Carol Ann Duffy, London Evening Standard

My personal favourites are:

Camilla Long on Monique Roffey,

For a book that is meant to be about learning, sharing and sexual development, Roffey comes across as surprisingly selfish and supremely self-absorbed, slaloming from episode to episode with little thought for the reader: the literary equivalent of the worst shag in the world. [...] By the end of the book this reader felt overexposed, puzzled, violated, short-changed; a used latex glove.

Adam Mars-Jones on Michael Cunningham,

Nothing makes a novel seem more vulnerable, more naked, than an armour-plating of literary references. If you’re constantly referring to landmarks, it doesn’t make you look as if you’re striding confidently forward – it makes you look lost. [...] Gatsby didn’t get to be Gatsby by dangling dozens of previous books behind it, like tin cans tied to a tricycle. The scene never escapes from the net of its own allusions, and all the writer’s talent goes for nothing.

Jenni Russell on Catherine Hakin,

If this is what counts as intellectual discovery at the London School of Economics, or Allen Lane, who publish Hakim, I fear for the future both of universities and of serious books. Don’t bother to buy Honey Money. And if you should pass it in a bookshop, pick up a copy and drop it somewhere where nobody’s likely to take an interest in it. Military history, perhaps, or gardening. You’ll be doing the rest of us a favour.

And, of course, Geoff Dyer’s now notorious assault on Julian Barnes:

This was not one of those years when the Man Booker Prize winner was laughably bad. No, any extreme expression of opinion about The Sense of an Ending feels inappropriate. It isn’t terrible, it is just so . . . average. It is averagely compelling (I finished it), involves an average amount of concentration and, if such a thing makes sense, is averagely well written: excellent in its averageness!

Which do you think will win the prize (which is, hilariously, a year’s supply of potted shrimp)?

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  • 1
    Posted January 12, 2012 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    I have mixed feelings about this award as I don’t know whether it will encourage sharp criticism or show-offy snark. If it encourages the former, good. But I’m not sure… Maybe it will have no effect whatsoever. It’d be good if there was also a counter-award for the best positive reviews! It’s hard to write an engaging, cliche-free and insightful positive review. And then there’s everything in the middle – the critical but encouraging, the lukewarm, etc.

  • 2
    Bethanie Blanchard
    Posted January 12, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    Yes I think there needs to be more recognition for sharp, critical reviewing generally.

    I agree that if the award simply encourages snark then it will have failed in its purpose, although I don’t think the reviews selected are necessarily guilty of that. Whether or not I agree with them, the reviews taking on Julian Barnes and Michael Cunningham were fearless and I don’t think were particularly snarky or show-offy. It’s as much of a worry when reviewing descends into lukewarm politeness too, so yes a counter-award for well-written positive reviewing would be a great addition.

    But anything that encourages more engaging, cliche-free and insightful reviewing I think is a good thing – and I think that that’s what they’re trying to do. We’ll see how it turns out!

    I wish there was more attention to this in Australia too – the ‘Critical Failure’ series at the Wheeler Centre was an attempt at this – perhaps it should be an annual event?

  • 3
    Barry Carozzi
    Posted January 12, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    I taught Short Story in a TAFE Writing course for many years. At one stage I was teaching a bunch of locals in Mildura. They were conversative in their tastes, and I wanted to shake up their certainty that Lawson was the greatest short story writer the world has produced. So – I gave them stories by some of the posmodernists: Borges, Barthelme … One student wrote the most suucinct critique of Barthelme I’ve come across: “If I could write like this, I wouldn’t!”

    It’s up there with Truman Capote’s famous critique of Kerouak’s ‘On The Road’: “This isn’t writing, it’s typing.”

  • 4
    Bethanie Blanchard
    Posted January 12, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Barry – thank you, I’m laughing out loud at that! Oh dear, that must’ve been fascinating to watch!

  • 5
    Mike Jones
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Wot ? A story on hatchet jobs that fails to mention Dorothy Parker ? “This is not something to toss aside lightly; it should be thrown with great force !”

  • 6
    Bethanie Blanchard
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Ha Mike she is indeed brilliant!
    Actually, I posted this on twitter a little while ago but I should share it here too: Flavorwire’s best author-on-author insults: http://flavorwire.com/188138/the-30-harshest-author-on-author-insults-in-history

  • 7
    ggm
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed reading “ROME” but it was definitely a tarnished read. She was right to point out the howlers. Killing the same person twice, different ways, 25 years apart is pretty .. bad.

    Normally, I think I’d be of a mind to say ‘meh, it was a good read’ but the author claims authority, and emits a scent of authority, and you can’t go past the sheer unremitting LACK of authority in the first half of the book. How are you meant to take seriously the second half, when the first was so bad?

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