Books

01.19.14

Hatchet Job of the Year 2014 Shortlist Announced

“No rhythm, no beauty, no humor.” The eight most scathing book reviews of the year.

The eight scathing book reviews that make up this year’s Hatchet Job of the Year Award shortlist have been announced

Last year was, by most people’s standards, a good year for book lovers. At 28, Eleanor Catton became the youngest ever winner of the Booker Prize with her swirling, mesmerizing epic The Luminaries. At a daunting 832 pages, it was also the longest novel ever to have won the prize. Elsewhere, there were new novels from John le Carré and Donna Tartt, her first in over a decade. And let us not forget the long-awaited memoirs of ex-Smiths frontman Morrissey. 

Cause for celebration you might think. And yet, while most of us basked in these literary offerings, less generous critics ruthlessly savaged these works. Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and Christopher Hitchens may all have sadly passed away but they would be delighted to know that the literary world still crackles with animosity.

The most unsavory of these scathing reviews make up The Omnivore’s Hatchet Job of the Year Award shortlist. The award, which is this year judged by Brian Sewell, John Sutherland and Rosie Boycott, is designed to promote integrity and wit in literary journalism. The winner will be announced on February 11.

Hatchet Job of the Year 2014 shortlist

1) Craig Brown on Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet by Frederic Raphael and Joseph Epstein, published in The Mail on Sunday

Extract: “The first thing to be said about their exchanges is how extraordinarily unpleasant they are, almost as though they were trying to make it into the Guinness Book Of Records under a section called Authors, Most Bilious. It is all a bit like watching a tennis match, but instead of the competitors bashing balls to and fro, they prefer to bash authors and artists more successful than themselves… Anyone unfamiliar with the literary world will, I think, be astonished at the ease with which these grand old men of letters turn into queeny old hairdressers, furiously bitching about their younger, prettier or more highly regarded rivals.”

“Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and Christopher Hitchens may all have sadly passed away but they would be delighted to know that the literary world still crackles with animosity.”

Best line: “At times like these, he [Frederic Raphael] reminds me of no one so much as Alan Partridge, who, whenever he loses something or trips over, tends to let out an exasperated sigh of: ‘THIS COUNTRY!’ The difference between the two men is that Alan Partridge is a comic creation, whereas Frederic Raphael is not—or, at least, not consciously.”

Read the full review

2) Rachel Cooke on Strictly Ann: The Autobiography by Ann Widdecombe, published in The Observer 

Extract: “Is Widdecombe’s writing any better than her dancing? No. About the best you can say for her prose is that it is accurate. Her grammar is fine—Ann is a stickler for grammar—and her anecdotes make sense in that they have a beginning, a middle and an end. Her attention to detail is exemplary, if you’re the kind of reader who really does long to know precisely where she stands on the matter of apostolic succession or Michael Howard’s sacking of the former director of HM Prison Service, Derek Lewis. But in every other respect her memoirs bear a strong resemblance to her paso doble: no rhythm, no beauty, no humour and, above all, no feeling.”

Best line: “Alas, there are, it seems, aspects of her character more ugly and confused even than her paso doble.”

Read the full review

3) Lucy Ellmann on Worst. Person. Ever. by Douglas Coupland, published in The Guardian 

Extract: “It’s determined to gross you out, offering a barrage of sexism, homophobia, s—-, vomit, sputum, and all the other stuff of adolescent humour. Worst. Person. Ever. can only appeal to people who like to hear women belittled, and everything trashed—and it’s hard to see the necessity for it when we’ve already got plenty of trash and belittled women.”

Best line: “The race is now on to write the Worst. Book. Ever. And this may be it.”

Read the full review

4) AA Gill on Autobiography by Morrissey, published in The Sunday Times 

Extract: “There are many pop autobiographies that shouldn’t be written. Some to protect the unwary reader, and some to protect the author. In Morrissey’s case, he has managed both. This is a book that cries out like one of his maudlin ditties to be edited. But were an editor to start, there would be no stopping. It is a heavy tome, utterly devoid of insight, warmth, wisdom or likeability. It is a potential firelighter of vanity, self-pity and logorrhoeic dullness. Putting it in Penguin Classics doesn’t diminish Aristotle or Homer or Tolstoy; it just roundly mocks Morrissey, and this is a humiliation constructed by the self-regard of its victim.” 

Best line: “What is surprising is that any publisher would want to publish the book, not because it is any worse than a lot of other pop memoirs, but because Morrissey is plainly the most ornery, cantankerous, entitled, whingeing, self-martyred human being who ever drew breath. And those are just his good qualities.”

Read the full review

5) Peter Kemp on The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, published in The Sunday Times 

Extract: “Outdoing even The Little Friend, famously a decade in the writing, The Goldfinch has taken 11 years to appear. These epic gestations are attributed by awed Tartt admirers and devotees of websites such as Donna Tartt Shrine to uncompromising perfectionism. ‘It’s because of perfectionism that man walked on the moon and painted the Sistine Chapel, OK? Perfectionism is good,’ she has stressed. But it’s hard to spot much of it in this ineptly put-together book.” 

Best line: “No amount of straining for high-flown uplift can disguise the fact that The Goldfinch is a turkey.”

Read the full review

6) Frederic Raphael on A Delicate Truth by John le Carré, published in the TLS 

Extract: “A Delicate Truth begins ‘On the second floor of a characterless hotel’ in Gibraltar, where ‘a lithe, agile man in his late fifties restlessly paced his bedroom. His very British features, though pleasant and plainly honourable, indicated a choleric nature brought to the limits of his endurance’. Hustled into identifying with a decent chap in an unpleasant spot (with a bed ‘big enough for six'), the reader has little time to wonder what “very British features” look like and how they can be deemed “honourable” on sight while being simultaneously engorged with rage.” 

Best line: “Le Carré affects, as so often, to be making daring revelations about How Things Really Work. In the clever process, he stretches his thrills with mixed clichés, idiosyncratic phrases (can people “go faint at the knees”?) and witless dialogue whaleboned with ‘he retorted stiffly' and the like.”

Read the full review

7) David Sexton on The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, published in the London Evening Standard

Extract: “I first tackled it in the summer, taking it on holiday. I was looking forward to getting into a really long book without pressure on my time. But I read about 150 pages and gave up in exasperation at its conceit and verbosity and got someone else to review it… The prose style is annoying, a pastiche of the omniscient narrator, a confident ‘we’, a device used successfully by some great 19th-century novelists but which now seems an intolerable affectation. Catton never shows, she tells, wagging on in the most officious way. She has a particularly dismaying habit of telling us what the characteristics of every personage are, before then making them conform to them, a sure-fire way of killing any curiosity.” 

Best line: “A ship made of matchsticks in a bottle is a feat of construction but not necessarily a great work of art.”

Read the full review

8) Hedley Twiddle on The Last Train to Zona Verde by Paul Theroux, published in the New Statesman 

Extract: “The rhetoric is so offensive and plain bizarre to anyone making her or his life in ‘Africa’ that I had no option but to pretend that we were in a different genre, to keep imagining the book as a comic novel with a deliberately unlikeable narrator… this is a book I would recommend only as a teaching aid or to someone interested in tracking the final sub-Conradian wreckage of a genre, rusting away like the hulks of tanks that so fascinate the narrator along the roads in Angola. It is imbued not just with the narrator’s old age but the senescence of an entire genre.” 

Best line: “A prose that might once have been described as (at best) ‘mercurial’ has crossed a line into being the disconnected notes that a grumpy old man writes up each evening in his hotel.”

Read the full review