The Blaggers Guide To...The Hatchet Job of the Year
A conservation effort for the endangered critic
Sunday 29 January 2012
*The inaugural Hatchet Job of the Year Prize has been created to reward "the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review of the last 12 months". Dreamed up by the editors of The Omnivore, a website that collates reviews, it seeks to champion professional literary criticism in a world of bloggers and online opinion-formers where "a tweet by Stephen Fry [has] greater impact on a book's sales than a dozen broadsheet reviews".
*The Omnivore's founders, Anna Baddeley and Fleur Macdonald want to promote "integrity and wit" in reviewers. However, time is running out: "The professional critic has yet to draw his last breath, but there's no mistaking the death rattle."
*On the shortlist are Mary Beard on Robert Hughes's Rome, published in The Guardian; Geoff Dyer on Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending, in The New York Times; Camilla Long on Monique Roffey's With the Kisses of his Mouth, in The Sunday Times; Lachlan Mackinnon on Geoffrey Hill's Clavics in The Independent; Adam Mars-Jones on By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham in The Observer; Leo Robson on Martin Amis: The Biography by Richard Bradford in the New Statesman; Jenni Russell on Honey Money by Catherine Hakim in The Sunday Times; and David Sexton on The Bees by Carol Ann Duffy in the London Evening Standard.
*The prizewinner will be announced on 7 February at a party in Soho boozer The Coach and Horses, formerly the domain of "Britain's rudest pub landlord", Norman Balon, subject of a long-running Private Eye cartoon strip.
*The practice of signing reviews is a relatively recent one; contributions to the Times Literary Supplement, for example, were anonymous until 1974. In Regency times anonymous or pseudonymous reviews were supposed to protect critics from duelling challenges. They also encouraged log-rolling. The poet Shelley not only rapturously reviewed his wife's novel Frankenstein, but also his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg's debut, the snappily titled Memoirs of Prince Alexy Haimatoff.
*Tibor Fischer's review of Martin Amis's Yellow Dog is often cited as one of the finest examples of a hatchet job. "Yellow Dog isn't bad as in not very good or slightly disappointing. It's not-knowing-where-to-look bad ... It's like your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating."
*But for ad hominem attacks, it would be hard to beat John Gibson Lockhart's 1818 dismissal of the young medical student and poet John Keats in the Edinburgh Magazine. This devastating piece finishes with the tremendous dismissal: "It is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr John, back to 'plasters, pills, and ointment boxes,' &c. But, for Heaven's sake, young Sangrado, be a little more sparing of extenuatives and soporifics in your practice than you have been in your poetry." Shelley believed that bad reviews led directly to the collapse of Keats's health and his death in 1821. Byron wrote to Shelley: "I am very sorry to hear what you say of Keats. Is it actually true? I did not think criticism had been so killing.' In Don Juan Byron famously quipped, "Poor fellow! His was an untoward fate: / 'Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle, / Should let itself be snuffed out by an Article."
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