Most trenchant critic: Adam Mars-Jones wins accolade for vicious review

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The Independent Online

It was an elegant yet acidic deflation 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. The award was created by the reviews website The Omnivore 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 his Observer review, Mars-Jones noted each quotation 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."

Mars-Jones beat seven 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."

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