Is That a Hatchet Job I See Before Me?

The winner of a new literary prize will be announced tomorrow: the Hatchet Job of the Year. Established by The Omnivore, a website that curates reviews for readers, the prize will be awarded to the best bad review of a book.

The topic of the prize is slightly tongue-in-cheek, but the aim is serious. Professional critics seem to be an endangered species these days, partly because their natural habitat, newspaper book pages, is dwindling.

The Hatchet Job of the Year hopes ‘to raise the profile of professional critics and to promote honesty and wit in literary journalism’. Anna Baddeely, founder of the prize, says, ‘We thought Hatchet Job of the Year would get a lot of attention and be a fun way to highlight professional book reviewing.’

Bad versus best

But is it in poor taste? Novelist and literary journalist Jane Sullivan recently wondered if the prize is ‘the best way to earn respect’ for literary critics. ‘The schaudenfraude in all of us responds in glee to a bad review, especially if it’s cutting down a particularly tall poppy in an elegant and witty way. But there’s more to the art of reviewing than flourishing a hatchet.’

Geoff Dyer is shortlisted for his review of Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-winning Sense of an Ending (which he damned for being ‘just so … average’). In a fascinating Guardian article last week, he asked Baddeley, ‘Were you not tempted to set up a prize for excellence in reviewing, whereby the final verdict of the review wasn’t a precondition for being eligible?’

‘It seems to me that now there could be a real incentive to write negatively,’ he said. ‘I would be wary if this were to serve as any sort of inducement to write witty and damning phrases. The key thing is the sensitivity of the response and the accuracy of the judgment.’

Peter Rose, editor of Australian Book Review, is similarly equivocal. ‘I think we’d all like to see more assertive, more biting reviews,’ he told the Wheeler Centre, ‘but I feel ambiguous about an award of this kind, mainly because it seems to cheapen the review or trivialise the reviewer’s motives.’

‘Honest to the point of brutality’

Critic Peter Craven

Critic Peter Craven

That said, Rose doesn’t shy away from bad reviews – or even what could be termed hatchet jobs. In his time as ABR editor, he published what is probably the most infamous take-down of an Australian book by an Australian critic: Peter Craven’s review of Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish. Craven called the novel ‘a monstrosity’, concluding, ‘I cannot believe that a novel like this has been put before the public with such a mishmash of verbal collisions, such lapses of judgment and such evasions of pace.’ (For the record, the New York Times’ Michiko Kukatani disagreed, calling Gould ‘astonishing’ and Flanagan ‘an indefatigable artist.)

‘Criticism should be honest to the point of brutality in the interests of truth,’ said Craven in 2010, continuing a discussion sparked by the Wheeler Centre’s Critical Failure, where he was a panellist.

Rebecca Starford, editor of Kill Your Darlings and regular book reviewer for the Age and the Australian, was a co-panellist. ‘Ultimately, anything that raises the profile of professional critics is a good thing at the moment,’ she says now. ‘However, I think The Hatchet Job Prize needs to be promoted in its context – these are not the best reviews published that year, they are the reviews that are the most acerbic, cruellest and most controversial.’

Anna Baddeley says that the reviews she’s selected are ‘not just entertaining, they’re learned and persuasive’. And indeed, Dyer’s excellent – quite measured – review of Sense of an Ending is hardly the harshest review of 2011. It’s only scathing in comparison to the general praise the book received; it’s brave to go out on a limb and judge a Booker prize-winning novel by a literary giant ‘average’.

‘I wouldn’t want the award to been as encouraging cruel reviewing,’ says Baddeley. ‘We’ve been careful not to include reviews we felt were personal attacks. But I also think there aren’t enough negative reviews – reviewers are too deferential a lot of the time, and it leads to a problem of trust, because the reader gets forgotten.’

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