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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
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.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas