Scathing reviews celebrated in hatchet award

Yesterday, 2011’s angriest, wittiest, most cutting book reviews were celebrated by a special award: for Hatchet Job of the Year. Is the venom of critics good for literature?

Nervous yet excited, an author searches for the all-important article. They find the review with a thrill. It is read in seconds. Then they read it again, with less enthusiasm. Finally, they drop the paper with dread. The review is terrible. A few paragraphs of stabbing prose have destroyed years of work. It is a hatchet job.

To add insult to injury, the writer’s assassins are now being congratulated. Last night, a special prize for the Hatchet Job of the Year was awarded to Adam Mars-Jones, the author of 2011’s most witty, honest and scathing book review.

The award’s shortlist shows no writer is safe from the savage pen of the professional critic. Poet Geoffrey Hill ‘is wasting his time, and trying to waste ours.’ Booker Prize Winner The Sense of an Ending is ‘excellent in its averageness.’ Carol Ann Duffy’s The Bees makes poetry seem ‘a trivial art.’

Such artful literary brutality is dying out, according to review website The Omnivore, which organises the award. Today, bookworms are just as likely to turn to blogs, Amazon reviews or Stephen Fry’s Twitter feed for literary recommendations. That means professional critics are struggling to survive.

Their passing could mean the end of a long tradition of witty ruthlessness. Even great writers like Jane Austen have not escaped the wrath: American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson described her as ‘vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society.’

Critics can be truly crushing. Legend has it that a particularly savage review of Endymion left John Keats so broken that he contracted a deadly case of tuberculosis.

That was not the first time a hatchet wielding reviewer had been mistaken. The 18th Century critic Dr Johnson described Milton‘s great epic Paradise Lost as ‘one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again.’

Bury the hatchet?

When it can be so wrong and so destructive, should we really be celebrating harsh criticism? Often, some say, reviewers are cruel simply to show off their wit and boost their careers. In the process, they mock and belittle years of work and struggle. By celebrating their malicious ways we applaud cheap laughs, at great expense to sensitive, brilliant writers.

Quite the opposite, reviewers argue. It is a critic’s job to pass judgement, not to help writers feel good about themselves. By being honest, entertaining and difficult to please, they keep the standard of writing high. If it is to be of any value at all, criticism must live up to its name – and be critical.

You Decide

  1. Can a book review ever betoomean?
  2. Is criticism an art form in itself?

Activities

  1. Write a letter to a novelist who has been on the receiving end of a bad review. Lay out why you think they shouldn’t – or should – worry about scathing criticism.
  2. Review a book that you didn’t enjoy. Try and communicate, in an entertaining way, the reasons why the writing did not work. Is it easier to be funny whilst being critical?

Some People Say...

“No one who hasn’t produced art themselves should criticise anyone else’s.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Do reviewers always get away with writing bad things?
Usually writers take negative criticism as something to laugh about and learn from. Some don’t. When Pankaj Mishra called Niall Ferguson’s bookCivilisation a ‘white man’s history’, implying racism, Ferguson demanded an apology. Then he threatened to sue.
Why does that matter?
It’s generally taken for granted that critics can be as brutal as they like about the work of others – as long as they don’t make things up. If writers can sue someone for a bad review – for loss of earnings, perhaps, or libel – this could make critics cautious about writing what they really think. This could affect how much we trust our sources of opinion – on film, music, or events, as well as books.

Word Watch

Geoffrey Hill
An English poet and professor of literature, widely regarded as one of the greatest living poets.
Booker Prize Winner
The Booker Prize is one of the English language’s most prestigious literary prizes, awarded to a full-length novel written by a writer from a commonwealth country.
Samuel Johnson
Often referred to as Dr Johnson, this English writer and essayist had a huge influence on English literature. As well as producing one of the world’s first dictionaries, he wrote a collection of biographies of some of England’s poets.
John Keats
Widely regarded as a Romantic poet, Keats coined the phrase ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’. His work, which includes Endymion and Ode on Grecian Urn, is concerned with art, fleeting beauty and solitude.
Tuberculosis
Tuberculosis is a respiratory disease that attacks the lungs. It often affects people with weakened immunity, and is common in developing countries. In 19th Century England it was called ‘consumption’ and did for a lot of Romantic poets.
Milton
John Milton was a 17th Century poet and essayist, most famous for writing Paradise Lost, an epic poem about the fall of man from the Garden of Eden. During his life, he read and wrote so avidly that he went blind.