There’s a certain joy that comes with reading a great literary takedown, the kind of mean but intelligent and precise review that eviscerates the pretensions and the sloppiness of a truly awful book.
Over in Britain, they think of a good pan as a kind of public service, and they award a prize for the best pan of the year. “The Hatchet Job of the Year,” it’s called, and it’s handed out by “The Omnivore,” a review-aggregating website.
Now in its second year, the prize is awarded to “the writer of the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review of the past twelve months.” Last year’s winner was Adam Mars-Jones for his review of Michael Cunningham’s novel “By Nightfall.”
Eight talented and fearless critics are nominated for this year’s Golden Hatchet.
In his review of “Hitler: A Short Biography,” by A.N. Wilson for the New Statesman, Richard Evans goes to the trouble of listing several paragraphs worth of factual errors and concludes: “It's hard to think why a publishing house that once had a respected history list [Harper] agreed to produce this travesty of a biography.”
Camilla Long’s review of the novel “Aftermath” by Rachel Cusk is an especially brutal dissection. “Aftermath” is about the end of Cusk’s marriage, but Cusk herself, Long writes, comes off as “a brittle little dominatrix and peerless narcissist who exploits her husband and her marriage with relish. She tramples anyone close to her, especially [her husband], whom she has forced to give up his job in order to look after the kids.”
Craig Brown’s review of “The Odd Couple,” by Richard Bradford, engages in quite a bit of detective work, showing how, for his new book, Bradford had copied entire passages from his own previous biographies of two British writers. “Come rain or shine, I have been plodding the literary beat for 35 years, but never before have I come across quite such a shameless exercise in marketing old rope,” Brown writes.
Bravo, Inspector Brown!
Zoë Heller assails Salman Rushdie in the New York Review of Books for the bald pretentiousness of his memoir "Joseph Anton," in which Rushdie argues that not all works of art deserve to be protected from the kinds of attacks that befell his novel “The Satanic Verses.”
“One is struck here, not just by the implied disregard for the free speech of other writers who might not qualify for ‘the quality defense,’ but also by the lordly nonchalance with which Rushdie places himself alongside Lawrence, Joyce and Nabokov in the ranks of literary merit,” Heller writes.
To this critic’s ear, the favorite for this year's Golden Hatchet may just be Suzanne Moore, for the outraged feminine joyfulness with which she takes apart “Vagina,” by Naomi Wolf, in a review for the Guardian.
“By now, we all know that Naomi Wolf has mind-blowing orgasms,” Moore writes. “I must say globally this has been a concern.” It only gets better from there.
The other nominees pan works by Martin Amis and the poet Craig Raine, and a sequel to “Treasure Island” by Andrew Motion.
The winner gets a year’s supply of potted shrimp.
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