Hatchet jobs: Agony for the author but bliss for us to read

John Walsh describes how he and his fellow judges chose a winner for the Hatchet Job of the Year Award

Reviewing a particularly terrible musical in the 1930s, the American theatre critic Percy Hammond wrote: "I see that I have knocked everything about this production but the knees of the chorus girls – and Nature has anticipated me there." The best hatchet jobs are wholesale demolitions, performed without any judicious weighing of strengths and weaknesses, and carried off with murderous glee.

Like John Lockhart's famous review of "Endymion" in Blackwood's Magazine that almost stopped Keats from writing any more poetry: "The frenzy of the Poems was bad enough in its way; but it did not alarm us half so seriously as the calm, settled, imperturbable drivelling idiocy of 'Endymion'. Mr Keats… is only a boy of pretty abilities, which he has done everything in his power to spoil…"

It's shocking to consider that good reviews seldom make history. Expressions of delight and approbation are welcome to authors, publishers and people looking for birthday-gift ideas. Bad reviews, however, reverberate down the years. We read George Eliot's airy dismissal of Charlotte Brontë's dialogue ("I wish her characters would talk a little less like the heroes and heroines of police reports") with a sigh of century-defying pleasure. We read John Hollander in the Partisan Review losing patience with the leading Beat poet ("It is only fair to Allen Ginsberg to remark on the utter lack of decorum of any kind in his dreadful little volume. Howl is meant to be a noun, but I can't help taking it as an imperative"), and still delight in that silky, "It is only fair…"

Hatchet jobs are a joy to read, not because we love to see a writer's new baby stabbed through the heart, but because we admire the breezy wit that ideally accompanies the best ones. Hatchet jobs should make you laugh rather than recoil in horror. They should be more than a series of negative opinions. They should be about the work of an established writer rather a newcomer. They should consider the offending book from several directions in an amused manner, slowly ingesting it like a snake devouring a deer.

All credit then to Anna Baddeley and Fleur Macdonald, two Oxford graduates in their late 20s, who founded the Omnivore website to monitor newspaper reviews. Their weekly inspections led to their establishing, last year, the Hatchet Job of the Year Award "for the writer of the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review of the past 12 months". It's sponsored by the Fish Society, who offer the prize of a year's supply of potted shrimps (the connection is that shrimps are natural "omnivores"). Last year the prize was won by Adam Mars-Jones for his magisterial, but humorous, evisceration of Michael Cunningham's precious novel By Nightfall. This year I was one of the judges, alongside the journalists and authors Lynn Barber and Francis Wheen. We had to take a longlist of 30 displays of book-reviewer bile and reduce them to a shortlist. Over croissants and sparkling wine, we set to, noticing some odd circularities about authors and reviewers. Several books (Martin Amis's Lionel Asbo, Salman Rushdie's Joseph Anton, The Divine Comedy by Craig Raine, Vagina by Naomi Wolf, Aftermath by Rachel Cusk) had attracted more than one hatchet. Some reviewers appeared several times, as if writing abusive copy were meat and drink to them (Philip Hensher, Craig Brown). Some knocking reviewers were authors whose books had been savaged in turn (Lionel Shriver rubbished Lionel Asbo while her book The New Republic was hatcheted by Scarlett Thomas, A N Wilson whacked Salman Rushdie and was thumped in turn by Richard Evans). It was like looking into a snakepit, whose inhabitants were greedily eating each other.

We began to narrow down our selection. Where one book had attracted two muggings, we chose one. Where one reviewer appeared twice on the long list, we selected one of the reviews. We dropped Julie Burchill for attacking the author (Frances Osborne, wife of the Chancellor) rather than her book, about the Suffragists. We dropped others for being too academic (Peter Conrad on Stefan Collini's What Are Universities For?) or concentrating too closely on the syntax. Leo Robson's attack on Michael Frayn's literary farce Skios was too like someone taking a blunderbuss to a butterfly.

So we reached a shortlist of eight and announced it online. It was greeted with delight. Readers remarked how blissful it was to read eight disobliging reviews over a cup of tea and a HobNob. We judges met the Omnivore founders for lunch at the Cavalry and Guards Club in Piccadilly and headed into the final analysis.

The judging proceeded by a process of elimination. Craig Brown's masterful detective work had discovered that Richard Bradford's joint biography of Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin was a shameless piece of self-plagiarism, bolting together two of his earlier works. But did that make it a hatchet job or a good exposure?

Richard Evans's review of A N Wilson's biography of Hitler, which identified a series of misjudgements and inept researches, radiated academic contempt ("the stale unoriginal material… the banal and cliché-ridden historical judgements…the lame, tired narrative style; just evidence of the repellent arrogance of a man who thinks that because he's a celebrated novelist he can write a book about Hitler"). It was a demolition. But it lacked, we thought, the breezy manner that makes the perfect hatchet job.

Zoë Heller's 5,000-word review of Rushdie's memoir of life in hiding under the fatwa was, we agreed, the best-written of all the reviews we'd read, but was more a critique of the author's pronouncements, over the years, about art and its political context than a focused book review. She wrote: "Hindsight, alas, has had no sobering effect on Rushdie's magisterial amour propre. An unembarrassed sense of what he is owed as an embattled, literary immortal-in- waiting pervades his book… He wants us to appreciate his outrage at being given orders by jumped-up Scotland Yard officers."

And so a winner emerged. Camilla Long's Sunday Times review of Aftermath by Rachel Cusk, about the break-up of her marriage, sank its fangs into her subject from the first sentence and wouldn't let go. She homed in on Cusk's "whinnying detail," her "mad, flowery metaphors and hifalutin creative-writing experiments," and remarked on her presentation of herself as "a brittle little dominatrix and peerless narcissist who exploits her husband and her marriage with relish." But she also corrected the mistakes in her classical allusions. By the end, we felt, we had a clear picture of both book and author; but it was a demolition review with a difference: it made you want to go and read the book, for all its faults. And for its intelligence and wit, and its beady focus on the author's literary effects, it won the 2013 Hatchet Job of the Year last night.

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?