When Morrissey's "Autobiography" hit bookstores in the United Kingdom last year, much of the British literary press went gaga over it. At the Guardian, for example, Terry Eagleton judged the book a masterpiece and speculated the 54-year-old singer might win a Man Booker Prize. Neil McCormick at the Telegraph called it "dazzlingly brilliant" and the best musical memoir of the last decade.
But A.A. Gill was in the small minority who cried out: The crooner is no author!
Gill's 1,200-word pan of "Autobiography" for The Sunday Times concluded with this summation: "It is a heavy tome, utterly devoid of insight, warmth, wisdom or likability. It is a potential firelighter of vanity, self-pity and logorrheic dullness."
On Tuesday, Gill was rewarded for swimming against the critical tide with a golden ax. Or, as it's officially known, "The Hatchet Job of the Year Award." Said prize is awarded by the online magazine the Omnivore for the year's "angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review."
One of the great secrets of the book-critic trade, I've learned, is that it's a lot harder to write a pan than a rave. Few authors look for errors in your review, or spit at your feet if you say his or her book is brilliant. While some critics find little joy in writing a takedown, Gill's evisceration of Morrissey has a kind of music of its own.
"His most pooterishly embarrassing piece of intellectual social climbing is having this autobiography published by Penguin Classics," Gill wrote. "Not Modern Classics, you understand, where the authors can still do book signings, but the classic Classics, where they're dead and some of them only have one name. Molière, Machiavelli, Morrissey."
When "Autobiography" was released on this side of the Atlantic some months later, much of the U.S. critic community agreed with Gill. "Autobiography," they wrote, is awful. But Gill was among the first to decry the book's rampant bitterness.
"No teacher is too insignificant not to be humiliated from the heights of success, no slight is too small not to be rehashed with a final, killing esprit d'escalier," Gill wrote. "All of this takes quite a lot of time due to the amount of curlicues, falderals and bibelots he insists on dragging along as authorial decoration.... After 100 pages, he's still at the school gate kicking dead teachers."
Besides the ax (which is buried in a book), Gill will win a year's supply of potted shrimp.