Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Hatchet Job: Celebrating a roasting?

The inaugural Hatchet Job of the Year award was presented today (the 7th in the UK). As its name suggests, it's a literary prize unlike the Man Booker or the Pulitzer. First of all, it's given to a reviewer, not a writer; specifically, to a reviewer who penned "the angriest, funniest, most trenchant" review published in a magazine or newspaper in 2011." The award is essentially celebrating a roasting done in a show-offy way.

That doesn't seem right, I thought to myself. That's just not cricket, as they say.

Then I read a few of the reviews on the shortlist. And they are very good. They brought to task shallow biographers, glaring errors, literary wankery. I read the rest. And I liked them.

In two minds, but erring towards the I-don't-like-its, I described the award to T over dinner last night, which I originally read about in a Wheeler Centre post. His feelings were very different to mine. (Let the record show that he's not a big reader and doesn't know his Bookers from his Brownlows; but he's got a brain between his ears and can form an opinion or two.) He thought it was essentially a positive: "If it means authors will write better books, then surely that's a good thing? And how serious is the prize, anyway?"

Not at all serious, it seems. The prize is a year's supply of potted shrimp.

While eating I remembered another similar award, similar in that it celebrates something bad: the Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Oh boy. In it's nineteenth year, the award's intention is "to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it". (Interestingly, the award has gone mostly to men. Another example of gender bias in lit awards or are we happy to let this one slide?)

Sotto voce, I read aloud passages to T from last year's winner as we ate our dumplings, David Guterson's Ed King (he of Snow Falling on Cedars fame), a modern retelling of Oedipus. There was much snorting with laughter over the spectacularly unerotic prose. (Guterson received news of the dubious honour with equanimity: "Oedipus practically invented bad sex, so I'm not in the least bit surprised".)

I can take glee in the Bad Sex award. I even enjoyed reading the shortlisted reviews for the Hatchet Job. But still something in me recoils from it. The latter celebrates the shredding of an entire book, even if it is with wit and nous.

The shortlisted books are written by award winning authors who presumably sell well. They can, it's possible, take such things in their stride. I doubt an award that took aim at reviews of midlist books would be received half as well. And can you imagine if the blogosphere set up such a thing? As much as the Twilight-bashing goes on, I just can't see it happening without howls of protests from all quarters.

I don't entirely condemn the Hatchet Job (seriously, read the reviews, they are illuminating to say the least). But as I said--*holds glass of Pims, twitches satin frock*--it's just not cricket.


I'm bound to be squeamish, being an author. But a lot of you are reviewers. What do you think about this? Will writers write better books? If you're a writer, do you think about what reviewers will think of your book as you write? Do you like dumplings??