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??


  1. I checked out this page and looked at the review of the Robert Hughes book on the history of Rome, because he's the only one of whom I have heard. Personally, I thought the review was very fair. Firstly, the newspaper gave the job to an expert in the area; Mary Beard is a professor of classics. That's more than can be said of the woman who reviewed my children's book on crime, Crime Time, who admitted she didn't know anything about children's books and said she supposed it might be okay for helping with homework! Homework! - the only thing it was NOT meant for. Thank goodness it also got reviews from people who did know what they were reading (including Adele Walsh, who used to be a teacher).

    Secondly, the author of this review spent about half the article saying what was terrific about the book. And when she does get to the criticism, it's not about, "I hated this, it was badly written" but ""he got his historical detail wrong and here are the mistakes he made." Not minor glitches, such as a book I read in which Carl Williams was said to have left school at 11 rather than in Year 11! That could have been a typo. These were pretty big mistakes which you wouldn't expect from a well-known writer of classic books about art and history. If you didn't know, you'd assume he had got it right.

    She had every right to warn readers what to expect and didn't say, "Don't bother" but "start at Chapter 6".

    If she'd been reviewing something of mine, i would have cringed at the errors, but not been angry with the reviewer.

    Look, I'm a writer too, Rhiannon, not just a reviewer. I know how it feels when someone calls your baby ugly, which happens whoever you are and no matter how many fabulous reviews you get (and Wolfborn got plenty of those too).

    But the purpose of a review is not to help the author write a better book next time - it's the editor's job to make THIS book the best it can be. It may just be a matter of opinion and as a reader I take that into account too. But it's not for the author's benefit, it's for the reader's, to know what they're getting for their money.

  2. I agree with you, Rhiannon - except I would probably go further. The British journalist as a breed does not as a rule require encouragement in the sharpening of knives department, I fear, and when I read a bad review I mourn the lost column inches that could have been given over to celebrating another book, that deserved praise, so that I might buy it.

  3. I must admit, I don't like writing bad reviews. Most of the time I make myself write the bad review immediately, while I'm still angry at the book. Otherwise I chicken out.

    But I must say, I'm all for awarding bad reviews. Writing bad reviews is hard because we're raised not to say things that aren't nice about stuff people worked hard on. But you know what? Saying someone uses the word "beautiful" too much or didn't research 1970 well isn't mean. It's true. Some flaws are objective. As for subjective flaws, well, the reviewer should say their truth because it might be their reader's truth too.

    A reviewers duty is to be as true as possible to the people who might read the book their reviewing. Awards like this keep reviewers from developing a Cult of Niceness. (There are plenty of places where I go that require Niceness. I enjoy those spaces. I don't think criticism should be one of them.) I'm fine with this award as long as it truly recognizes well-written criticism, not just vitriol-for-the-sake-of-it.

    As for giving the column over to a book that deserved praise, generally the actual reviewers get assigned a book by their editor and don't get to ask for another because they didn't like the one they got.

  4. @ Sue --- You're right about the reviews being for the readers not the writers.

    @ Anon -- Ha! British journos. I'll take your word for it.

    @ Livinia -- Right as well. I agree that rationally there are things that are good about this award. It still makes me cringe though.