Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A New Honor for the Hatchet Job

By JOHN WILLIAMS, New York Times

“A good hatchet job draws as much excited attention as a good book any day.” That’s the late, great critic Wilfrid Sheed, from a 1964 piece in which he laid out six rules reviewers should follow for “smoother, more satisfying demolitions.” On Feb. 7, The Omnivore, a British Web site that aggregates cultural criticism, will announce the winner of its first annual Hatchet Job of the Year Award for book reviews. Links to all eight finalists can be found here.
The Omnivore calls the new prize “a crusade against dullness, deference and lazy thinking.” This has the potential to be a crackling addition to the literary calendar, but the inaugural nominees are not a particularly vicious bunch. Some even err on the side of fair-mindedness, an unforgivable sin in this arena. Better to give in to hysteria, as Mark Twain did when he wrote to someone about Jane Austen: “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
So how do the contestants stack up by the lights of Mr. Sheed’s guidelines? His first rule: “Hatchet jobs should never run an inch longer than the victim merits. Three sentences are always better than twelve — the length being in itself a form of comment. The critic who goes on swinging after the tree is down draws attention to himself; he becomes overexposed. After all, perhaps he isn’t such a hot writer either.” Mr. Sheed acknowledged that the second rule — to avoid too many “short aphoristic dismissals unless your taste in them is absolutely infallible” — was the “complete opposite” of the first. “The contradictoriness of these first two rules may serve as a warning,” he wrote. “Hatcheting is not as easy as it looks.”
Seven of the eight nominees for The Omnivore’s honor appeared in daily newspapers, and none take up enough space to outstay their welcome. As for aphorisms, the lack of quotable punchiness is notable, with rare exceptions — like Leo Robson’s line about the author of a Martin Amis biography: “Richard Bradford considers himself the man for the job, but I doubt that anyone else will.”
In his third commandment, Mr. Sheed wrote, “Almost any quoted matter, encapsulated in sneers, will do,” but he modified that with the fourth: “On the other hand, two or three short quotes, however well chosen, are barely enough. A make-believe massacre requires an appearance, at least, of massive forces.” Lachlan Mackinnon’s review of Geoffrey Hill’s “Clavics,” a poetry collection, earned its nomination entirely in its last paragraph, by referring to the book as “the sheerest twaddle,” and by sticking its landing: “Writing this bad cannot earn the kind of attention Hill demands; he is wasting his time and trying to waste ours.” But at little more than 500 otherwise tepid words, it lacks the shock-and-awe approach of a massacre.
Full piece at the New York Times.

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