Boyd Tonkin: Put the hatchet in the other hand
The week in books
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Friday 13 January 2012
Not only do I sometimes enjoy reading hatchet-job reviews; I have written plenty of them. First, let's try to be clear about definitions. A negative review, even a strongly adverse judgment, does not by itself count as an axe-in-the-head affair. One can, courteously and calmly, tear a book to shreds without leaving a trace of blood on the floor. The defining characteristic of the hatchet-job is not that it aims to scold errors, challenge opinions or castigate artistic flaws. It seeks to wound, to wreck, to do lasting mischief to the reputation of either a work or else a whole career.
I have, I think, become a lot more selective about the targets of this nuclear option in the critical armoury. On the whole, I believe, the primary victims should always be influential, powerful, famous; those authors acclaimed by conformists and encircled by flatterers. The last time I consciously unsheathed the hatchet was in response to the matching piles of narcissistic trash recently dumped by Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone. But rare exceptions arrive when a book, even by a total unknown, spreads not sweetness and light but poison and murk – when its effect may be seriously pernicious, in cultivating harmful lies or fomenting hatred.
Hence my mixed feelings about the new "Hatchet Job of the Year" award, run by The Omnivore website and designed to reward eloquent vituperation in the book-reviewing trade. (It turns out, by the way, that one of the judges is a certain Rachel Johnson.) Its prize will be a year's supply of potted shrimp. The shortlist does feature a piece of high-grade butchery from The Independent: Lachlan Mackinnon's disembowelling of Geoffrey Hill's latest volume, Clavics. I deeply admire Hill (though not for this book), but Oxford's much-garlanded, and now knighted, Professor of Poetry surely ranks as a legitimate target. Likewise, one may disagree with Geoff Dyer's haughty mockery of Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending (I do) or David Sexton's weary impatience with Carol Ann Duffy's The Bees (ditto), but these critics have - as critics should - trained their heaviest fire on the mighty of the literary world.
However, the Omnivore axe-merchants need to think straight about the purpose of their stunt. Another entry on their shortlist is Camilla Long's Sunday Times review of With the Kisses of his Mouth by Monique Roffey: an erotic memoir by the Trinidad-born novelist. Now, Roffey has appeared on the Orange Prize shortlist but in no sense counts as a big beast. Moreover, her book courted all the dangers of exposure and potential humiliation that such intimate memoirs will – our reviewer warmly applauded its bravery and integrity. Long, meanwhile, works as a star profile-writer for Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times and recently won the "interviewer of the year" title at the British Press Awards. So when she set about Roffey's book in one of Murdoch's musclebound organs, this was a notable case of the powerful mugging the vulnerable.
To put the hatchet in the other hand for once, I asked Roffey how she felt on the receiving end of such invective. She replies that "I was ruthlessly slut-shamed by another younger woman on the payroll for Murdoch... she then tweeted the review all over the world, proudly." She recalls that "I was shocked. I also wept. I read it aloud to my best friend on a bench in our garden; my best friend is a painter and she has also had reviews. She was as stunned as I was... It was the worst thing I'd ever seen written about anyone - let alone about me."
Roffey adds that "Should I win this prize I will distribute the potted shrimp among all the woman who have privately written to me in the last six months with tales of sexual abuse within marriage and their similar 'naïve' quest to be sexually whole... I will send to each of these poor women a taste of what it means to out yourself as a sexual creature." If the Omnivore crowd wish to strike a blow for lonely heretics who challenge the smug and the grand, more power to their shrimp-nets. If, however, they simply want to mimic the Murdoch ethos, suck up to bullies in the media elite, and pillory risk-taking authors with few friends in high places, then I hope that they choke on their rancid fruits de mer.
Following stars in the East
Sometimes criticised in the past for a perceived tilt towards the Far East, the Man Asia Literary Prize now looks much more like a representative contest for the whole of its vast continent. On this year's shortlist I'm pleased to see Jamil Ahmed, the 79-year-old debutant from Pakistan, for his novel The Wandering Falcon, along with Amitav Ghosh's historical blockbuster River of Smoke, and Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke – one of China's most fearless and talented writers. Another finalist comes from South Korea. Moving, troubling, Please Look After Mother by Kyung-sook Shin is both a rare translation from Korean and, I hope, the beginning of a trend.
The big W: it's changed its spots
The barbarians are not just at the gate. They are on the shelves and on the till. Waterstones (correct, as the conscientious copy-filer puts it) has dropped its apostrophe. Part of the chain's rebranding involves the choice of a new Baskerville serif font for its "W" logo – a face that reflects, as MD James Daunt says, "authority and confidence". However, axeing the apostrophe pulls in the other direction – away from sober tradition and into the online future where it brings, in "a digital world of URLs and email addresses, a more versatile and practical spelling". Ah, apostrophes. Without wishing to out-Truss the great Lynne, we editorial folk do care about them. How often have I removed them from Finnegans Wake and Howards End? How often have I had to check the difference between Lloyds (the ex-bank) and Lloyd's (the insurance market), and then swiftly forgotten it? But then I was perhaps fated to bother, as a pupil at Haberdashers' Aske's School (many City haberdashers; just the one founding Aske).
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