John Walsh: Hatchet jobs need witand learning

Sing a song of critics/ pockets full of lye/ four and twenty critics/ hope that you will die,/ hope that you will peter out, / hope that you will fail..." wrote a fuming Ernest Hemingway to a Mr Lee Wilson Dodd who'd given his story collection Men Without Women a bad review.

In a perfect world, of course, critics who actually criticise wouldn't exist. Books would be reviewed by writers whose only impulses would be to appreciate their finer points and stay quiet about its shortcomings. But how dull that would be.

It's a sobering reflection on human nature that we are hard-wired to enjoy – to absolutely love, in a wriggling and delicious way – a truly knocking review, especially of an established author.

It's not just a matter of being rude about someone's prose style, however. Reviewers who are rude without being insightful aren't satisfying – as we know from the online muggers who like to rubbish absolutely everything about a book, and hate the temerity of the author in getting published at all.

In my years as a literary editor, I had to develop an eye for the furiously knocking review that had no trace of wit or engagement about it. It usually turned out that the author of the book under review (Trollope: Towering Genius) had written something brief and faintly disobliging about the reviewer's life's work (Trollope: Total Charlatan) in the TLS seven years earlier.

The best reviewers of the past – the Connollys, Burgesses, Orwells – combined wit and learning with a reliable bullshit detector and an evident, if lightly worn, moral sense, so that their judgements were more than merely aesthetic assessment, and their hatchet jobs were occasions of awe.

The perfect knocking review should be more like an execution than a fist fight – simple and judicious rather than flailing and bloody, logical and terminal rather than a series of random blows with the victim only in intensive care.

It should make its points silkenly, smartly, relentlessly, like jabs to the kidney. It should quote freely, allowing the hapless victim to hang himself or herself, again and again. It should welcome metaphors, in order to expand them to absurdity. And by the end, it should leave the place looking like a battlefield, with the author's family trashed, his house on fire and his cattle dead in the field.

So several cheers for the Omnivore, an online monitor of book and film reviews, who have announced the shortlist for their first Hatchet Job of the Year. The organisers' intentions seem dead right: "to raise the profile of professional critics, and to promote integrity and wit in literary journalism."

And there's surely a clear winner in Jenni Russell's Sunday Times review of Honey Money by Catherine Hakim, which displays all the virtues I listed above – and ends by condemning not just Ms Hakim, but her publisher and the London School of Economics where she teaches. Now that's what I call a hatchet job.

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