From The Guardian:
A new literary prize has been established – Hatchet Job of the Year – which will reward the best bad review of a book. Novelist – and nominee – Geoff Dyer meets Anna Baddeley, who runs the review aggregating website Omnivore.com, to discuss whether this is a good thing for literary reviewing. But first, asks Emine Saner, why did Anna set up the prize?
Anna Baddeley: I’ve been running the website for a few years, and one of the features we had was Hatchet Job of the Day. The aim was to boost the profile of professional arts criticism and make it more accessible and entertaining. We thought Hatchet Job of the Year would get a lot of attention and be a fun way to highlight professional book reviewing. The role of the professional critic is vital and it’s at risk as book pages [in newspapers] are getting ever shorter.
AB: I agreed with it. It was refreshing after a lot of the other reviews, which I felt were a bit too kind. I really like Julian Barnes, I think he’s a brilliant writer, but I wasn’t impressed with A Sense of an Ending and I felt a lot of the reviews were far too generous. It was nice to read someone who disagreed.
Geoff Dyer: I see the fun of this prize – the malicious enjoyment people can get from bad reviews – but were you not tempted to set up a prize for excellence in reviewing, whereby the final verdict of the review wasn’t a precondition for being eligible? It seems to me that now there could be a real incentive to write negatively. I would be wary if this were to serve as any sort of inducement to write witty and damning phrases. The key thing is the sensitivity of the response and the accuracy of the judgment.
AB: I wouldn’t want this award to be seen as encouraging cruel reviewing. We’ve been careful not to include reviews we felt were personal attacks. But I also think there aren’t enough negative reviews – reviewers are too deferential a lot of the time, and it leads to a problem of trust, because the reader gets forgotten. It’s unclear who newspaper reviews are written for. I’m speaking as a reader. I’m not a novelist and I have felt let down by reading lots of good reviews of a book, each one saying “this is a masterpiece”, then reading it and not being impressed. It happens with famous writers who people are scared to criticise.
GD: John Updike said: “Review the book, not the reputation”, but I think reputation works in two ways. On the one hand, you can be rather deferential; on the other hand, when you’ve got a certain reputation, people are eager to bring you down. To what extent is book reviewing a young person’s game?
AB: It’s not any more. I would love to see a young Martin Amis break through. I recently read a collection of his book reviews and they’re so good. There’s a shortage of new voices. Reviewers can ham up a bad review for laughs, but those who do so solely to build a reputation do it at the expense of the reader, as much as someone who is too kind.
ES: Book reviewing is the only form of arts criticism where the critic is often a contemporary, maybe a novelist themself. Is it a cliche to say reviewers can often be envious, malicious writers?
GD: I can only speak personally, and I know I am [laughs]. In the London Review of Books or the New York Review of Books, people are writing as critics, but they are also successful novelists, and there is a constant movement between the two camps.
ES: Have you noticed friends of writers review favourably, or give a good review to someone from the same publisher?
AB: That does happen, and anyone who thought we could fix that would be quite naive, because writers are always going to write about each other.
GD: I think it’s possible to get over-conspiratorial about it. It’s not a score-settling or back-slapping scene as I think you’re suggesting. Or is that unfair?
AB: It goes on. What bothers me more is the quality of the writing, and that’s the major issue here. The LRB is for a small, specific audience, whereas newspaper books pages should be for everyone, and I think the quality of the writing and the entertainment value of reviews is something we want to encourage – readers are let down by book reviews which are just precis of the novels.
GD: I hate it when a reviewer summarises the plot and adds a few things on the end about style. You are emphasising the quality of the writing, but in a way you are in danger of overlooking the quality of the judgment.
AB: I think what we’ve achieved with the reviews we’ve selected is that they’re not just entertaining, they’re learned and persuasive.
GD: We keep hearing about the extent to which the books pages are shrinking. Does this mean you’ve got to be reviewing books a lot of people want to read, or should you be creating some kind of space for books that aren’t prominently displayed in Waterstones? I don’t feel the books pages of the Sunday papers are too compromised, but it’s a real problem with the Waterstones book quarterly, where you have these things put forward as reviews, but they’re much closer to an advertorial. There’s a real argument that newspaper books pages should give more scope to university imprints and that kind of stuff. One of the problems with reviewing is that newspapers are obsessed with their review appearing first – being up to date rather than having the time to form more of a considered view.
ES: Is there still a role for the professional critic, when I can go on Amazon and read reviews, or book blogs?
GD: The good thing about print reviews is that there is some filtering. Not everyone’s view is as good as everyone else’s.
AB: There’s a place for Amazon reviews, and some are well written, but the problem is if they, and reviews by book bloggers, are the only reviews we have. Newspaper reviews are very different – you have the gatekeeper function, and the variety, and going back to the writing issue, a lot of book blogs are not particularly well written. We talk about professional reviewers being compromised, but book bloggers can also be compromised – they are given free books and courted by publishers. One of the major roles of the professional critic is to provide an authoritative voice, even if you don’t agree with everything they say.
ES: How does it feel to be on the receiving end of a scathing review?
GD: It’s a horrible feeling, but I’ve been fortunate that all the bad reviews I’ve had have been written by idiots. [laughs] Isn’t it weird how it works out like that? I’m sure I have given reviews that have been [too harsh in retrospect]. I’ve certainly had some nasty letters. There’s that old joke – if you review books by your friends, you get to the point where you’re either not a very good critic, or you end up with few friends.