John Walsh: A hatchet job is not the real thing unless it's done with wit and learning

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The Independent Online

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 their 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.

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, which has announced the shortlist for its 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.

You guys! The new international double act that's no laughing matter

Hugo and Mahmoud, what a pair of scamps, eh? Messrs Chavez and Ahmadinejad put on a fine show of solidarity when the latter visited Caracas this week, but it went way beyond diplomacy.

The Opec allies made speeches about how much America disapproves of them, dislikes their friendship and suspects Iran's nuclear programme. They started out sounding mutinous, but ended up positively gleeful. "When we meet, the devils go crazy," said Chavez, meaning Obama and Clinton. "They accuse us of being warmongers, but they're the threat."

You can imagine Ahmadinejad (school runt, easily led) practically wetting his shorts at his friend's badness ("Hugo! What are you like??"). I know the Venezuelan dictator was saying nothing more sophisticated than, "One day, Obama, I'll come to the White House and do a big poo on your head" – but the words still wrap chilly fingers around your heart, don't they?

j.walsh@independent.co.uk

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