High praise – and an award – for the critic who panned a Pulitzer winner

 

It was an elegant yet acidic deconstruction of a Pulitzer Prize winning author's literary pretensions. Last night Adam Mars-Jones was rewarded with the Hatchet Job of the Year Award for the most scathing book review of 2011.

The prize, for the "the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review of the last 12 months", is a year's supply of potted shrimp, courtesy of the Fish Society.

The award was created by reviews website The Omnivore to raise the profile of professional critics and to "promote integrity and wit in literary journalism."

Mars-Jones, the novelist and critic, was last night named the winner at a booze-up held in Soho's Coach and Horses pub, for his wielding of the literary hatchet over By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham.

Cunningham, a Pulitzer winner for The Hours, made the error of filling his latest novel, the tale of an art dealer's midlife crisis, with repeated references to earlier, and possibly greater works in the literary canon.

In his Observer review, Mars-Jones noted each quote from Ulysses, The Great Gatsby, Flaubert's Madame Bovary (the same sentence on three occasions), Death Of A Salesman, Death In Venice and Raymond Carver.

The critic concluded that this "armour-plating of literary references" failed to hide an attempt to create a classic by "dangling dozens of previous books behind it, like tin cans tied to a tricycle."

Most embarrassingly, Cunningham is upbraided for misuse of the word "prone", in a situation which makes the predicament that his characters are placed in, which includes masturbation, "physically impossible, but demanding a giggle."

Sam Leith, one of the judges, said: "The best hatchets, in criticism, are wielded with precision as much as they are with force. Adam Mars-Jones's review of Michael Cunningham had everything a reader could hope for in a hostile review. It was at once erudite, attentive, killingly fair-minded and viciously funny.

"Every one of his zingers – 'like tin-cans tied to a tricycle'; 'it seems to be the prestige of the modernists he admires, rather than their stringency'; 'that's not an epiphany, that's a postcard' – is earned by the argument it arises from. By the end of it Cunningham's reputation is, well, prone."

Mars-Jones beat Lachlan Mackinnon's review of Clavics by Geoffrey Hill, published in The Independent, and six other finalists, for the prize.

The authors whose works were shredded should not feel too sore, urged Rachel Johnson, Hatchet judge and editor-in-chief of The Lady. She said: "This is an award designed not to punish bad writing, but to reward good and brave and funny and learned reviewing, a profession that receives precious other pecuniary recognition."

Poison pen: Mars-Jones's review

"Nothing makes a novel seem more vulnerable, more naked, than an armour-plating of literary references. If you're constantly referring to landmarks, it doesn't make you look as if you're striding confidently forward – it makes you look lost.

"In a 20-page section of Michael Cunningham's new novel, By Nightfall, in which the hero Peter Harris, an art dealer, visits a faithful client, there are explicit references to: The Magic Mountain, John Cheever, Death in Venice, Donald Barthelme, Raymond Carver, Hawthorne and Death of a Salesman.

"As if that was not enough (there is no shortage of allusions here to visual art, but they at least are relevant), there's a further cluster of references to The Great Gatsby, first to Dr TJ Eckleburg (who appears on an advertising hoarding in the book), then Gatsby himself, Daisy Buchanan and even Myrtle Wilsoncorrect. All well and good – but Gatsby didn't get to be Gatsby by dangling dozens of previous books behind it, like tin cans tied to a tricycle."

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