Should book reviews draw blood?
Our classics editor, Mary Beard, made the shortlist for the first Omniture Hatchet Job of the Year, a prize for the "angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review published in a newspaper or magazine in 2011"; and in the TLS this week, in the following extract from the diary column, NB, J. C. acknowledges that this kind of prize is "good fun", unless you happen to be one of the hatcheted victims.
But is it necessarily a good thing to encourage reviewers in the direction of critical savagery? As suggested below, there may be a more difficult task for a responsible critic than simply wielding the axe (for a few recent instances of the more balanced review, see Gerald Mangan's piece on Alasdair Gray, Jonathan Bate weighing up several Keats-related books, or Niki Segnit on Nigel Slater et al). . . .
By J. C.
About once a year, there is a mini-debate about the timidity of book reviewing. It’s been going on for a long time. “Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns.” That was Elizabeth Hardwick, in 1959. More recently, a writer in the online journal Slate suggested that the blogging, tweeting free-for-all that sometimes passes for criticism fosters too much “niceness”, not necessarily a nice quality.
To halt the saccharine spread, the not-so-nice sharpened their tools and carved out the Hatchet Job of the Year. The first award went to Adam Mars-Jones, for a review of Michael Cunningham’s book By Nightfall, and the shortlist for the second has been announced. There are eight nominations, including Richard Evans’s review of A. N. Wilson’s Hitler (“It’s hard to think why a publishing house that once had a respected history list agreed to produce this travesty”; New Statesman), Claire Harman on Silver: A return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion (“at every turn the former Poet Laureate clogs the works with verbiage”; Evening Standard), Allan Massie on Craig Raine’s novel The Divine Comedy (“some of the writing is very bad”; Scotsman), Camilla Long on Rachel Cusk’s story of her marriage break-up, Aftermath (“quite simply, bizarre . . . acres of poetic whimsy and vague literary blah”; Sunday Times) and Ron Charles on Martin Amis’s “ham-fisted” Lionel Asbo (Washington Post).
The favourite is likely to be the review by Zoë Heller of Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton, which appeared in the New York Review of Books last month. One commentator had already relished it as “a hatchet job among hatchet jobs”; another welcomed the “most pointedly brutal review” of 2012.
Brutality is never nice. Enjoying a healthy demolition as much as anyone, however, we reached for Ms Heller’s piece with a certain shameful anticipation – only to discover that it is thoughtful and well-written, not in the least brutal; on a par with the excellent review of Rushdie’s book in the TLS by Eric Ormsby. Hatchet-job prizes are good fun (not so much for Rushdie, Cusk and others) but it would be unfortunate if critics felt they were being urged to draw blood, to show off their “sharp” edge. The reviewer’s chief responsibility is to the potential purchaser of the book, who, unlike the reviewer himself, is asked to pay hard-earned cash for the product. The most difficult task for a reviewer is to remain true in writing to the feelings experienced while reading, to convey them in elegant, entertaining prose. It’s a lot tougher than being brutal.