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The Omnivore’s Hatchet Job of the Year: Winner Announced

By Periscope @periscopepost
The Omnivore’s Hatchet Job of the Year: Winner Announced

Adam Mars Jones: Winner of the Hatchet Job. Photocredit:

The review aggregating website The Omnivore inaugurated its first Hatchet Job of the Year Award last night. The prize is for the “angriest, funniest and most trenchant review of the past 12 months,” and, according to the magazine’s website, serves as part of its “crusade against dullness, deference and lazy-thinking.” The judges are Suzi Feay, Sam Leith, Rachel Johnson and D J Taylor. The prize has put the literary world into a tizzy – should malice be celebrated? Are reviewers too kind? Whatever the answer, the prize certainly brings some fun into the world.

The prize, intended to raise the profile of the humble book reviewer, was given to critic and novelist Adam Mars-Jones, for his demolition of Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall. Cunningham won the Pulitzer for his novel The Hours. Also short-listed were Geoff Dyer on Julian Barne’s The Sense of an Ending, which contained the killer line: “It isn’t terrible, it is just so … average”, classics don Mary Beard’s deconstruction of Robert Hughes’s Rome, and Camilla Long’s assault on Monique Roffey’s With the Kisses of My Mouth, amongst others. Young critic Leo Robson was also commended for his attack on a biography of Martin Amis by Richard Bradford, which contained the classic barb “Bradford seems to get things slightly wrong almost as a matter of principle.”

The winner of the Hatchet Job gets a year’s supply of potted shrimp. Mars-Jones’ review was labelled “killingly fair-minded and viciously funny” by the award’s judges. By Nightfall concerns a middle-aged man’s love for his much younger brother in law. Mars-Jones ridiculed Cunningham’s allusions to other books, and his pretensions about art; amongst many of his best lines was “that’s not an epiphany, that’s a postcard.” Responses to the prize have been a mixture of jubilation and anger. David Sexton on The Evening Standard said “so what if reviewers really amount to little more than canaries sent down the mines to be asphyxiated first? All the more reason to reward such bravery and self-sacrifice with a little snack.” Boyd Tonkin of The Independent, however, had “mixed feelings.” So should we be celebrating the critics’ worthy efforts in the face of awful writing? Or should everyone just get along?

“Book reviewing is the last bastion of journalism that hasn’t been overcome by PR and commercialism. I’m as much to blame as anyone: telling readers to watch films that are not worth watching,” said Lynn Barber, who presented the awards.

Export it across the pond? The New York Daily News said that it might seem “curious” to celebrate “one person’s ability to lambast, ridicule and destroy at the expense of another’s earnest attempt at creating something meaningful and enduring,” but Mars-Jones’ tone in the piece is “not outright hateful, rather more like a smoldering dislike.” Perhaps it’s time for the Americans to get their own?

“This is an award designed not to punish bad writing, but to reward good and brave and funny and learned reviewing, a profession that receives precious other pecuniary recognition,” said Rachel Johnson, one of the judges, quoted on The Independent.

Bring it on! David Blackburn on his Spectator blog was ecstatic: “There’s more hatcheting to be done before self-satisfaction and deference have been entirely purged from the literary world. Roll on next year.”

Oh dear. Monique Roffey, one of the authors whose books was laid into, was not very happy, writing on Facebook after the award was given that “This is a dreadful award and I will be writing to Omnivore to share my views on it. Truly appalling to encourage and celebrate such spite.” She also told Boyd Tonkin on The Independent that when she read Camilla Long’s review “I was shocked. I also wept. I read it aloud to my best friend on a bench in our garden; my best friend is a painter and she has also had reviews. She was as stunned as I was… It was the worst thing I’d ever seen written about anyone – let alone about me.”

In defence. Ann Baddeley of The Omnivore defended the prize: “I wouldn’t want this award to be seen as encouraging cruel reviewing. We’ve been careful not to include reviews we felt were personal attacks. But I also think there aren’t enough negative reviews – reviewers are too deferential a lot of the time, and it leads to a problem of trust, because the reader gets forgotten. It’s unclear who newspaper reviews are written for.”  Suzi Feay, one of the judges, on her blog agreed: “It’s not about ‘book-bashing’, as one commentator put it. On the contrary, nothing shows the strength and value of literature so much as a robust culture of criticism.”

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