The Edinburgh Fringe is keeping up its reputation for the hard-hitting and the avant-garde with an innovation that will strike fear into the hearts of critics. (And yes, they do have hearts, most of them.) The Ham Fist award aims to embarrass reviewers who spectacularly get the wrong end of the stick. It’s paid for by an anonymous comedian, and run by the website Fringepig, famous (among critics) for its often brutal reviews of reviewers.
It wasn’t only comedy reviewers who had a taste of their own medicine last week; reviewers of tragedy also came in for some flak, particularly the theatre critic of The Times, who suffered the slings and arrows of outraged Benedict Cumberbatch fans when she criticised his Hamlet. “A wasted opportunity,” she wrote. “Pure theatrical self-indulgence.” Specifically, she was unpopular for breaking theatre’s gentlemen’s agreement and reviewing a preview. But, she explained: “we were made aware that a rival paper had cut some kind of deal and would be producing very favourable coverage for some really rather good access …” Aha! A stitch up. There’s nothing that an honest reviewer hates more.
When it comes to star-vehicles such as a Cumberbatch Hamlet, the balance of power often lies with the publicist. Just ask any film journalist what happens to their celebrity access after they write a sniffy review of a film. The Independent on Sunday’s fashion editor, Alexander Fury, was banned by an Italian-based designer after writing a critical appraisal of his last show.
Reviewers strike a difficult balance between responsibility to their readers and fairness to the things we review. In book reviewing, most books are sent in advance by publishers, who trust us to honour embargoes, avoid spoilers, and be fair. Some critics like to show off by mauling weaker writers, which for readers is a bit like watching an American dentist shoot an elderly lion. But when a new book by a famous author is kept back until publication day, when advance sales have already hit the roof … well, does the publicist really think it’s that bad?
An embarrassing award is not the worst thing that can happen to someone who writes honest feedback under their real name. A writer for this paper once had her own books savaged in anonymous, online reviews by an author whose novel she had given a two-star write-up. And this, after the author had demanded a review. As Somerset Maugham wrote, “People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise.”
The Fringepig website carries its own, very sound “10 rules for good reviewing”. Spelling and grammar are important, it says: “This is especially true of hatchet jobs: at least butcher with clean instruments.” But the one I like best is number four: “hating isn’t clever”. I hope they remember that when they hand out the Ham Fist.