The Buzz

Hatchet Job Award toasts scathing book reviews

Categories: Books

Salman RushdieBlistering book reviews, including one skewering Booker Prize-winning author Salman Rushdie, will vie for the Hatchet Job Award. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

Riding high on the notion that an impeccably written but scathing review can be a delightful, entertaining read in itself, literary website The Omnivore has unveiled a sophomore edition of its Hatchet Job of the Year Award.

Tongue firmly planted in cheek, organizers of the prize (introduced last year) set out to reward the "angriest, funniest, most trenchant" English-language book reviewers the world over. More seriously, the goal is to "promote integrity and wit in literary journalism" and champion the waning world of professional criticism.

Among the eight contenders revealed Tuesday are biting writers who cut down such heavyweights as Martin Amis (whose Lionel Asbo was described as a "ham-fisted novel"), Salmon Rushdie (skewered for his highly anticipated memoir of life under a fatwa, Joseph Anton) and Naomi Wolf ("So much of Wolf's work is utter drivel — and I say this as someone in possession of the sacred feminine 'force.'")

In the running:

  • Craig Brown (Mail on Sunday), on The Odd Couple by Richard Bradford
  • Ron Charles (The Washington Post), on Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis
  • Richard Evans (New Statesman), on Hitler: A Short Biography by A.N. Wilson
  • Claire Harman (Evening Standard), on Treasure Island by Andrew Motion
  • Zoe Heller (The New York Review of Books), on Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie
  • Camilla Long (The Sunday Times), on Aftermath by Rachel Cusk
  • Allan Massie (The Scotsman), on The Divine Comedy by Craig Raine
  • Suzanne Moore (Guardian), on Vagina by Naomi Wolf.

Readers will find out just which hatchet job triumphs (and earns its author a year's supply of potted shrimp as his or her prize) on Feb. 12.

Now, admit it: we've all dabbled in a bit of schadenfreude at some point. This time around though, the Hatchet nominations causes me some pause. I'm thinking back to the uproar last fall over the "ouch-I'm-actually-wincing-as-I-read-this" assessment of Giller-nominated Alix Ohlin's writing, which was published in the New York Times Book Review. It blew up into a book world incident, with other writers lambasting the critic for his personal, nasty tone.

Professional reviewers undoubtedly have it tough these days, with web access allowing everyone to offer their thoughts on nearly anything. Still, one has to wonder: is the fine line between negative and just plain nasty disappearing?

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