Lucy and Todd

The Sweetness and Light Brigade

In The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on February 15, 2014 at 10:47 pm

Last Tuesday at the Coach and Horses in Soho, a party was held in honour of the Omnivore’s prize for the Hatchet Job of the Year, and Fiction Atelier was there. A A Gill won, for his excellent review of Morrissey’s autobiography. Much amusement was caused by the organisers’ depiction of the book reviewer as a dying breed, in danger of extinction. They proposed an Adopt a Critic scheme, whereby you make a small donation and keep a critic alive. Along these lines, the winner of the Hatchet prize gets a year’s worth of potted shrimp from The Fish Society. Appropriately, critics were packed into the Coach and Horses like sardines in a tin.

All innocent enough. But in the wake of this jokey occasion there have been many negative remarks made about negative reviews. Mark O’Connell at Slate knocked the Hatchet Job prize, as did Alex Clark in the Guardian. This implies alarmingly little faith in the value of criticism. Under the hypnotizing influence of the internet, a capitalist marketing tool that pretends to be critical but isn’t, optimists have taken over. The result is that newspapers have become sheepish about publishing negative reviews. Even A A Gill seemed a bit abashed as he accepted a little gold-coloured plastic hatchet with which to slice up a book-shaped cake for us hungry, reviled reviewers to wolf down.

It’s said that negative reviews are ‘easier to write’. This may or may not be true, but does that invalidate a review? Does it mean the reviewer lied, calling the book lousy when in fact it was great? That would be a fiendishly irrational and immoral thing to do. In our experience, reviewing is never easy; one doesn’t relish the chance to kill a book. But if reading something has been aggravating and unrewarding, one has a duty to say so. It’s not laziness that drives a reviewer to damn a book. It’s outrage.

Is the ‘negative’ reviewer showing off for the sake of advancing his or her career? On the contrary – a negative view bravely risks the creation of lifelong enmities, all for the public good. It’s the log-rolling, back-scratching favouritism, blackmail and sheer incomprehension found in ‘positive’ reviews that are more likely to bring an aspiring reviewer some scrap of success. In the London literary scene, where everybody knows everybody, the impulse to be polite can be overpowering. But it must be resisted.

‘Hatchet jobs’, so-called because people unjustly see them as gratuitously violent, are a noble effort to improve literature, and to open up honest debate about a book’s merits and deficiencies. Mealy-mouthed, fence-perching flattery is the more tawdry form of journalism. ‘Positive’ (mendacious) reviews cruelly abandon poor readers to their fate, leading them to waste time and money on a stinker of a book. They offer praise where it doesn’t belong, skewing reality for everyone. And what’s worse, they encourage bad writing – and that is a crime.

At least one national newspaper in the UK now has a quota for negative reviews. It’s small. This implies to readers that most of the books being published are good, which we all know to be the exact opposite of the case. A ‘hatchet job’ might offend the writer, the publisher? Boo hoo hoo. The Sweetness and Light Brigade claim that in the adverse climate now faced by literature and the other arts, we must stand firm and be positive about things. But what about the dismay and disappointment of potential readers, who after all are human beings, who’ve been told a book is fabulous, when it isn’t? Simply isn’t. How does misleading them with the equivalent of ‘Well done you’ help books? The air should ring with cries of ‘Codswallop!’, ‘Where’s the editor?’ and ‘I demand satisfaction!’

It doesn’t help, of course, that such limited space is now given to reviewers in newspapers. Apart from the London Review of Books and the Scottish Review of Books, there’s nowhere in Britain that fiction is discussed at a proper length. The whole process of reading and reacting to a book has been reduced to a thumbs-up, thumbs-down, gladiatorial sport. Glibness can result.

We thought John Crace should have won the Hatchet Job prize – though he wasn’t nominated. He should win it every year. His ‘Digested Reads’ in the Guardian provide a vital service. He nobly steers you clear of many a turkey, which he’s very good at tearing to shreds, and making a tasty sandwich of. Long may he thrive.

The unwritten law of full disclosure bids us to say that Lucy was shortlisted for the Hatchet Job prize this year, for her review of Douglas Coupland’s Worst.Person.Ever., the title of which was roundly booed at the party. But it was not a hatchet job. It was a book review – of a book that was no good. Vive la différence!

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