The shortlist for the prize which celebrates the year's most savage book reviews is surprisingly conservativeby David Wolf / January 14, 2014 / Leave a comment
It is time, once again, for the Hatchet Job of the Year award. Now in its third year, this celebration of the most savage book reviews of the past 12 months, has, alongside the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Award, become one of the most entertaining events in the literary calendar. The award, in the words of its creators, is a “crusade against dullness, deference and lazy thinking.” It is as necessary as ever.
This year’s shortlist is less exciting than its 2012 and 2013 counterparts. The judges’ selections are solid, with a few standouts, but the general quality seems to have dipped a little. Reliable hatcheteers like AA Gill and Craig Brown earn their place, but it’s hard to see why competent but unremarkable reviews by Rachel Cooke and Peter Kemp, for instance, made the cut.
When a critic decides to condemn a book, the stakes are raised. No one wants to read bad writing about bad writing. Slack sentences and limp jokes will only reduce the reviewer’s credibility as a judge of literary merit. It’s a shame, then, that the shortlist contains some weaker moments. The final line of Kemp’s review—what should be the killing blow—is rather predictable: “The Goldfinch is a turkey.” Cooke’s references to Strictly in her review of Anne Widdecombe’s memoir are equally leaden. “Her memoirs bear a strong resemblance to her Paso Doble,” writes Cooke. Then a few hundred words later: “there are, it seems, aspects of her character more ugly and confused even than her Paso Doble.”
What about the reviews that should have made the list instead? For sustained brutality, no one matched Philip Hensher’s assault on Craig Raine (“I bring this book to your attention not because it is any good, or because it deserves to be read, but simply because it won’t be around for very long”). Geoff Dyer’s hilarious review of The Metaphysics of Ping-Pong by Mina di Sospiro was a small masterpiece (“His prose is so lacking in spin and bounce the half-awake reader can see where a sentence is headed before it’s left the author’s pen”). And Nikil Saval’s calmly devastating essay on Mo Yan made most of the literary discussion about the 2012 Nobel Prize Winner look shallow by comparison (“His China is indeed a terrifying place: a land of mango-breasted women with hedgehog-mouthed nipples, surrounded by gluttonous admiring men with little peckers standing at constant attention.”)
As for which of the shortlisted entries should walk away with the winner’s prize—a year’s supply of potted shrimp—it’s surely a duel between Craig Brown’s take on Joseph Epstein & Frederic Raphael’s Distant Intimacy and Raphael’s own review of A Delicate Truth by John le Carré. (Raphael has the dubious honour of being the first writer to make the shortlist both as a reviewer and as reviewee.) My vote goes to Brown, whose review is both stinging and good-natured. Here’s the conclusion:
“What is the point of it all? Frederic Raphael, who likes to sprinkle his prose with schoolboy French—quand meme, chez les femmes, tout a toi—stops short of describing it a folie a deux.
In fact, he seems very confident about it all, predicting in one letter that “my guess is our double act will go down better with the punters than nervous persons believe”.
Well, not with this punter. But, for the time being, it’s two against one. “Are we somewhat pleased with ourselves?” Raphael asks in his final letter, before adding: “Someone has to be.”
Read the shortlisted entries here: http://www.theomnivore.com/hatchetjoboftheyear/