Wars of words: when critics throw the book at authors

The first Hatchet Job of the Year prize hails the fine art of the most fearless literary reviews

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The Independent Culture

"A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia," author Iris Murdoch once declared of her books' critics.

Yet scathing book reviews, often far more entertaining than their unfortunate subjects, are now being celebrated with an award of their own.

The Hatchet Job of the Year prize is being launched to reward the "angriest, funniest, most trenchant" reviews in an attempt to preserve the professional critic.

In what it calls a "crusade against dullness, deference and lazy thinking," the reviews aggregation website The Omnivore has selected eight reviews for the inaugural prize.

"We need professional book reviewers," editor Anna Baddeley writes in its manifesto, describing their work as "that most underpaid and undervalued form of journalism" in an age where readers increasingly rely on the assessments of online amateurs when buying their novels.

"We need people who know what they're talking about, whose voices we recognise and trust, even though we might not always agree with them.

"With more books being published than ever, you could argue that the hunger for authoritative advice has never been greater."

Among the shortlisted nominees is The Independent's Lachlan Mackinnon, for his evisceration of Geoffrey Hill's poetry collection Clavics – which he sums up as "really the sheerest twaddle". Though he notes that some people may be fans of Hill's work, Mackinnon makes clear he is the camp who believe he is "unnecessarily obscure, over-sensitive about criticism and excessively self-regarding in making too much in public of his conscience".

Another poet who suffers is Carol Ann Duffy, impaled by the quill of the Evening Standard's David Sexton for her collection The Bees.

The finale, the climax of the withering article, concludes that "there's too much verbal prancing, too little that's original being said, particularly when the poems are not personal. You end the book thinking that if this is poetry, it's a trivial art. But it is not."

Even Julian Barnes' Man Booker prize-winning The Sense of an Ending does not escape, thanks to Geoff Dyer's put-down in The New York Times. "I didn't get the book when I first read it," confesses Dyer. "I still didn't get it when I reread it after Barnes won this year's Man Booker Prize, and Stella Rimington, chairwoman of the judging panel (and former head of MI5), said there was more to get each time you read it.

"To me, there seemed less to get second time around. If such a thing is possible, I didn't get it even more than I hadn't got it first time around."

The other reviewers contending for the prize are Jenni Russell for her cutting thoughts on Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital by Catherine Hakim; Adam Mars-Jones on Michael Cunningham's By Nightfall; Camilla Long lashing out at With the Kisses of His Mouth by Monique Roffey; and finally Mary Beard giving her unhappy critique of Rome by Robert Hughes.

Let the battle of the diatribes commence.

Ouch! Highlights from the shortlist

Geoff Dyer, 'New York Times', on The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

"Plot-wise, not a lot happens... Any extreme expression of opinion about The Sense of an Ending feels inappropriate. It isn't terrible, it is just so ... average. It is averagely compelling (I finished it), involves an average amount of concentration and, if such a thing makes sense, is averagely well written: excellent in its averageness!"

David Sexton, 'London Evening Standard', on The Bees by Carol Ann Duffy

"Her poems are not just well worked, they are nonstop workouts. Each and every one of them is like a creative exercise taken to the limit. They nearly all take up the kind of challenge that could be set to a whole class, and then go for it absolutely. It all feels very GCSE, in the end...

"With Carol Ann Duffy, there's too much verbal prancing, too little that's original being said, particularly when the poems are not personal. You end the book thinking if this is poetry, it's a trivial art. But it is not."

Lachlan Mackinnon, 'The Independent', on Clavics by Geoffrey Hill

"Geoffrey Hill's detractors assert that he is unnecessarily obscure, over-sensitive about criticism and excessively self-regarding...

This book... is really the sheerest twaddle... The archly modified cliché feels stilted and invites our accord. Writing this bad cannot earn the kind of attention Hill demands; he is wasting his time and trying to waste ours."

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