Thinking Aloud – The Hatchet Job of the Year Award

I wasn’t sure how to respond to the Hatchet Job of the Year Award when it was unveiled. I suppose my main objection is the title itself: it smacks too much of a desperate desire to annihilate something, which is the antithesis of what the award is supposed to encourage, and is indeed the antithesis of everything I believe is important about reviewing and criticism. However, I can see that it’s an attention-grabber.

The Hatchet Job’s Manifesto wasn’t particularly encouraging either (and fascinating as I find cultural manifestos, I think they should on principle be approached with caution). So, the award apparently aims to raise the profile of professional critics and to promote honesty and wit in literary journalism, which sounds very uncontroversial. But what about: We need professional book reviewers. We need people who know what they’re talking about, whose voices we recognise and trust, even though we might not always agree with them?

And if you backtrack a paragraph or two, we have: only 15% of people said they found out about new books and authors from a newspaper or magazine review, with growing numbers relying on Amazon, blogs and Twitter. A single tweet from Stephen Fry will have an infinitely greater impact on a book’s sales than a dozen broadsheet reviews. In fact, if we go back to a Guardian articleintroducing the Hatchet Job shortlist, Anna Baddeley, editor of The Omnivore, the website which created the award, says ‘We think [professional arts criticism] is at risk from the growth of book bloggers and Amazon reviews.’

So, apparently it is really all about turf wars again, and the perfidious influence of people writing about books without being paid to do it. This argument about the comparative merits of book bloggers of every stripe and ‘professional newspaper critics’ is becoming old and tired, not least because it is almost invariably brought up by people who really don’t understand the full breadth of the territory they’re dealing with. ‘Book blogger’ can encompass anything from websites filled with ridiculous bits of puff that lead one to suppose every book ever published is wonderful to sites where the quality of writing and argument wouldn’t be out of place in an academic journal. There is something to suit every taste; even Amazon shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand as some of the reviews, even if ‘popular’ in flavour, nonetheless do a good job of discussing a book’s merits. A well-written review on a blog can easily compete with a ‘professional’ review in a newspaper.

It is, of course, all about brand recognition. The Omnivore, the promoter of this award, turns out to be an aggregating website and thus, one assumes it is heavily reliant on newspapers and magazines publishing reviews which it can then fillet and serve up to its own readers. One would hesitate to suggest the award is therefore more than a little self-serving but it is difficult to avoid the sense that the website ensures its own reputation by proxy, and no wonder it’s worried about a lack of reviews in the quality papers. Indeed, I think the only reason I was cutting the award any slack by this point was that Sam Leith was one of the judges and I consider him to be a sensible and thoughtful literary type. And actually, in the end, the shortlist was a decent and sensible sort of thing that it was quite hard to have an argument with.

Of the shortlist, I’d read two of the reviews already, Mars-Jones’ review of Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall, which was funny, and Mary Beard’s notorious and truly scorching takedown of Robert Hughes’ Rome, and there is no doubt that they are bravura pieces of reviewing. Having now read Geoff Dyer’s review of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, it is pretty much what I’d expect from Dyer, whom I find to be a consistently interesting and engaging reviewer. I want to go out and read the Barnes because Dyer’s review intrigues me so much. I’ve also been reading Mars-Jones’ work for years and again I find him to be entertaining but also very clear in his thinking. Beard I know more through her other occasional writings, though I’ve read some of her reviews in the Times Literary Supplement. Of the three reviews, hers comes closest to what one might think of as a, er, classic hatchet job. Equally, what comes through in her review is the passion and the outrage of the career classicist confronted with a book riddled with errors. I’m not a classicist myself but I can understand her anger and I admire the way she channels it into a firm explanation of why Hughes’ book is so bad. I’m looking forward to reading through the rest of the shortlist.

In the end, Mars-Jones was victorious and today the Guardian carries his own reflection on winning the Award. It is a wise and thoughtful piece in which he discusses the craft of reviewing. I suppose, in its own way, it is also a manifesto, though it might be better described as useful words for the reviewer to live by. Certainly, I found a good deal in it to agree with, not least the way in which Mars-Jones gently criticises the award itself: ‘I’d be more comfortable with the phrase “scalpel job”, since a review, however unflattering, should be closer to dissection than hackwork, but I have no illusions about it catching on.’

A few examples: ‘A book review is a conversation that excludes the author of the book. It addresses the potential reader. A reviewer isn’t paid to be right, just to make the case for or against, and to give pleasure either way.’ One may have to interrogate the meaning of ‘pleasure’ at some point, but I know what I think he means by that.

And this: ‘The only “bad” review in my book is>one whose writing is soggy, its formulas of praise or blame off the same stale shelf.’

Or, and most pertinently, ‘I’d rather be an attentive amateur than an expert. Expertise so often becomes a sort of impregnable fortress, inside which the passionate subjectivity that first made the choice of specialism wastes away.’ This comment is particularly interesting, in part because of something Mars-Jones says later – ‘I take it for granted that reviewing is a secondary activity – but one that needs to be primary while you’re doing it’ – and in part because of the award’s implicit assumption that being a critic or reviewer is a full-time thing, literally a profession, in and of itself, which runs directly counter to Mars-Jones’ own perception of what he does.

There are no answers, no rules, of course. Adam Mars-Jones does what he does, I do what I do, the editors of The Omnivore will continue to flutter around in distress over the state of reviewing and things will continue pretty much as usual, except that as Mars-Jones notes, never again can the Hatchet Job Award be won in a state of innocence; it will always be there, lurking, as the reviewer settles down to flay a book.