Book critics with acid pens vie for Hatchet Job of the Year award

According to this year's nominees Martin Amis served up 'blanched stereotypes on a platter'; Salman Rushdie got 'small'; and Noami Wolf's work is 'utter drivel'

Literary grandees Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Naomi Wolf were all gleefully cut down to size by acid-tongued reviewers last year, and  are now vying for the honour of Hatchet Job of the Year.

The shortlist for this year’s prize was revealed yesterday, with some of the most scathing book reviews of 2012 up for the coveted golden hatchet.

Among them was Ron Charles who took aim at Martin Amis in the Washington Post for his “ham fisted” novel Lionel Asbo.

The American writer accused Amis of “serving up blanched stereotypes on a silver platter” adding the work “has the grating tone of an episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies” sketched on the back of an envelope”.

Zoe Heller is in the running for her take on Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton. She hauled Rushdie over the coals saying readers should not worry if the book made the world smaller and grimmer. “The world is as large and as wide as it ever was; it’s just Rushdie who got small.

Vagina: A New Biography came in for sustained criticism upon its publication, but Suzanne Moore perhaps landed the finest blows on author Naomi Wolf. “So much of Wolf’s work,” Moore said, “is utter drivel”.

The Omnivore, a website that rounds up reviews, set up the prize last year for the “writer of the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review of the past 12 months”.

Adam Mars-Jones won the inaugural award for his scathing review of Pulitzer Prize-winning Michael Cunningham’s novel By Nightfall.

Fleur MacDonald, editor of The Omnivore, said there had been a huge response to the first award.

“While much was positive, a few people were po-faced and argued there should be a prize for positive criticism. But where would the fun be in that?”

The eight-strong shortlist also includes Craig Brown’s review of Richard Bradford’s The Odd Couple, which he called a “triumph of cut and paste” while Richard Evans called AN Wilson’s Hitler: A Short Biography a “travesty”

The nominees are rounded out by Claire Harman on Andrew Motion’s Treasure Island (“Yo ho ho hum”), Camilla Long on Aftermath by Rachel Cusk (“acres of poetic whimsy and vague literary blah”) and Allan Massie on Craig Raine’s The Divine Comedy (“The first page is actually dreadful”).

Craig Brown on The Odd Couple by Richard Bradford, Mail on Sunday

It is a triumph of ‘cut and paste’ — indeed, such a triumph that by now Bradford must be able to press the Command button and C for Copy simultaneously in his sleep ... never before have I come across quite such a shameless exercise in marketing old rope … Is self-plagiarism an offence in academia? I suppose it is better than plagiarising others, but I wonder what the professor would say if his students were to produce essays which, on closer inspection, turned out to be copied from essays they’d given in earlier?

Ron Charles on Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis, Washington Post

[A] ham-fisted novel ... He’s ambling years behind The Situation and the Kardashians, serving up blanched stereotypes on the silver platter of his prose as though it contained enough spice to entertain or even shock ... Does any other truly great writer make us wonder whether his brilliant parts are worth the wearisome whole?

Richard Evans on Hitler: A Short Biography by A.N. Wilson, New Statesman

It's hard to think why a publishing house that once had a respected history list agreed to produce this travesty of a biography. Perhaps the combination of a well-known author and a marketable subject was too tempting for cynical executives to resist. Novelists (notably Mann) and literary scholars (such as J P Stern) have sometimes managed to use a novel angle of approach to say something new and provocative about Hitler, the Nazis and the German people. However, there is no evidence of that here, neither in the stale, unoriginal material, nor in the banal and cliché-ridden historical judgements, nor in 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 that people should read, even though he's put very little work into writing it and even less thought.

Claire Harman on Silver: A Return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion, London Evening Standard

It’s not just that this plot is both boring and implausible, the characters as wooden as absent Silver’s leg and the sentiments screamingly anachronistic (the good guys are all 21st century liberals), but at every turn the former Poet Laureate clogs the works with verbiage. Every act of senseless violence Jim witnesses prompts a gem of cod philosophy or a reverie on his mental state and at every crisis a dreamlike inertia takes hold, as if the characters all sense that the author lacks the correct co-ordinates.

Zoë Heller on Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie, New York Review of Books
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 ... Some readers may find, by the end of Joseph Anton, that the world feels rather smaller and grimmer than before. But they should not be unduly alarmed. The world is as large and as wide as it ever was; it’s just Rushdie who got small.

Camilla Long on Aftermath by Rachel Cusk, Sunday Times

... quite simply, bizarre ... She never explains why she and Clarke split up, only hinting that “an important vow of obedience had been broken”, or why he comes back, later, as X. There is very little about their history, or their conversations now. Instead, we have acres of poetic whimsy and vague literary blah, a needy, neurotic mandolin solo of reflections on child sacrifice and asides about drains. She can’t remember “what drove me to destroy the life I had”, or even explain why she wrote the book. This is a pity, as confessional writing is meant to be about truth — the whole truth.

Allan Massie on The Divine Comedy by Craig Raine, Scotsman

The book is full of what I suppose is wordplay about “coming” and “going” in a sexual context, about circumcision and the pudenda, about masturbation and fellation, about farts and the various forms of sexual congress, all named – boldly? proudly? It grows wearisome, very quickly. “Don’t write naughty words on walls if you can’t spell,” sang Tom Lehrer. Raine can spell. That much must be admitted. Nevertheless some of the writing is very bad ... This is a very self-indulgent book. 

Suzanne Moore on Vagina by Naomi Wolf, Guardian

My problem with Wolf is longstanding and is not about how she looks or climaxes – but it is about how she thinks, or rather doesn't. She comes in a package that is marketed as feminism but is actually breathlessly written self-help. Her oeuvre, if I can use this word, is basically memoir, in which she struggles to tell some heroic truth that many others have already told us. The great trick is to present this material as new, and to somehow speak on behalf of all women when she is infinitely privileged and sheltered.

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