January 11, 2012

The Hatchet Job of the Year award: Shrimp for snark


The Hatchet Job of the Year award will, on 10th February, reward the writer of the most ‘entertaining’ book review of the past year with—wait for it—a year’s supply of potted shrimp. The prize, say its founders at The Omnivore, is intended as a ‘crusade against blandness, deference and lazy thinking’, but let’s be honest, the clue’s in the name: this prize is about tearing your subject a new anatomy, and being funny while you do it. The nominees, and select extracts from their pieces, are as follows:

Mary Beard on Rome by Robert Hughes

If a book about the history of the 20th century had as many mistakes as this one, I am tempted to think that it would have been pulped and corrected.

Geoff Dyer on The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

This was not one of those years when the Man Booker Prize winner was laughably bad. No, any extreme expression of opinion about “The Sense of an Ending” feels inappropriate. It isn’t terrible, it is just so . . . average. It is averagely compelling (I finished it), involves an average amount of concentration and, if such a thing makes sense, is averagely well written: excellent in its averageness!

Camilla Long on With the Kisses of His Mouth by Monique Roffey

480 pages of sub-Marie Claire overshare, a pointlessly explicit, infuriatingly naive and, at times, plain offputting slither through a series of — wilfully? Maliciously? — unedited sexual slurpings.

Lachlan Mackinnon on Clavics by Geoffrey Hill

This book, all as easy on ear and mind as its opening, is really the sheerest twaddle… Writing this bad cannot earn the kind of attention Hill demands; he is wasting his time and trying to waste ours.

Adam Mars-Jones on By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

Nothing makes a novel seem more vulnerable, more naked, than an armour-plating of literary references. If you’re constantly referring to landmarks, it doesn’t make you look as if you’re striding confidently forward – it makes you look lost…

… At the very least, shouldn’t a writer try to shield the kettle of language from further cracks by knowing the meanings of the words he uses?

Leo Robson on Martin Amis: The Biography by Richard Bradford

Martin Amis – snooker player, smoker, pithy interviewee, latter-day Napoleon of Notting Hill, sledgehammer satirist, underbelly fetishist, sporadically great novelist, victim of press intrusion and dental surgery, weepy memorialist of middle-age woes – needs a biographer who can separate the myth from the truth, who can pick through the debris of aphoristic soundbite and self-mythologising anecdote and find . . . something.

Richard Bradford considers himself the man for the job, but I doubt that anyone else will. His book fulfils the main duty of a biography – it is informative – while failing to attain any of the possible virtues. It is neither exciting nor penetrating. It is neither coherent nor convincing. It is characterised by surreal laziness (testimonies are pasted straight on to the page) and surreal bossiness: “Keep walking and you will reach the British Leyland car plant”, “Pick up a novel by either of them . . . compare both with a work chosen at random by any other major postwar writer”. It is full of repetition, contradictions and small, avoidable errors: Bradford seems to get things slightly wrong almost as a matter of principle. It is also full of spectacularly bad writing – about spectacularly good writing. A passage in Money is “symphonic in the way that levels of humiliation and degradation are segued towards an apogee”.

Jenni Russell on Honey Money by Catherine Hakim

An acute disappointment. It looks like a book. It has hard covers, 372 pages, chapter headings, dozens of sources and footnotes, a fat price ticket and a press release from its publishers. But looks are deceptive. There is no structured argument being worked through in its pages. Instead, bewildered readers find themselves presented with repetitious, rambling, contradictory, ill-argued assertions, without the faintest sense from the author that she has written these sentences before. It is as if Catherine Hakim wrote drafts of her chapters, hadn’t quite worked out the essence of her thoughts, and then gave up the struggle, leaving us to figure out what she means.

David Sexton on The Bees by Carol Ann Duffy

Her poems are not just well worked, they are nonstop workouts. Each and every one of them is like a creative exercise taken to the limit. They nearly all take up the kind of challenge that could be set to a whole class, and then go for it absolutely. It all feels very GCSE, in the end…

In the interests of fairness I’ll say here that not all of these are entirely negative reviews; several are a mix of praise and pithy put-down. Would that the prize had been founded a year earlier, so that this gem—the review, that is, if not the book—could have been celebrated in proper style.


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.