The Hatchet Job of the Year—a prize given to “the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review of the past twelve months”—has been awarded to A.A. Gill for his Sunday Times review of Morrissey’s Autobiography.
Gill calls the Autobiography “laughably overwrought and overwritten, a litany of retrospective hurt and score-settling” with “a cacophony of jangling, misheard and misused words.” Morrissey is “utterly devoid of insight, warmth, wisdom or likeability”: “No teacher is too insignificant not to be humiliated from the heights of success, no slight is too small not to be rehashed with a final, killing esprit d’escalier.”
Sounds like Morrissey.
Last month, Slate’s Mark O’Connell complained that the award is “the worst award of its generation,” and took exception with Gill’s review in particular (and with Gill as a person, whom he calls “a demonstrably horrible guy”). O’Connell:
The Hatchet Job Award appeals, in its depressingly calculated way, to the basest and most self-serving of journalistic instincts, and seems to arise out of, and perpetuate, a misunderstanding of what criticism actually is. If I was looking for cheap vicarious thrills, I’d watch wrestlers smashing chairs over each other’s heads; at least those guys get paid reasonably well for their efforts. If these reviews were actually any fun to read, that would be something, but frankly I’d rather sit through a full Latin Mass than read any of these half-assed perfunctory takedowns again.
What’s most depressing about the whole thing is the certainty that reviews are now assigned and written with this award specifically in mind. Reviewers are going to seek out bad books precisely in order to display their dull hatchets to the utmost. Editors will seek out exactly the writers who will be most likely to hate and trash a book. And what we’ll end up with is a lot more hacky pot-shot delivery mechanisms, like this one you’ve just read. If I wind up getting nominated next year, I’ll take my mess of potted shrimp to go.
A couple of thoughts: I don’t think anyone writes a harshly negative review, especially for a major newspaper or magazine, with The Hatchet Job and a prize of potted shrimp in mind.
O’Connell makes a couple of good critiques of Gill’s review, and a couple of good points about reviews generally, but he also overstates his case. While I certainly agree with him that what matters is “interesting criticism—criticism that says something provocative or challenging or insightful,” sometimes an “insightful” review is not the right response. Sometimes a book needs to be thrashed. Moz’s certainly did (and I say that as someone who loves The Smiths).
Contemporary criticism is also relatively tame. I have read my share of heavily hedged reviews that affect an “interesting” and “insightful” pose but are neither. The Hatchet Job calls attention to pieces that spice things up a bit. What’s wrong with that?