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.