What’s Wrong With Criticism in 2012

Thoroughly approve of this new award for adversarial literary criticism:

The Hatchet Job of the Year Award is for the writer of the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review of the past twelve months.

It aims to raise the profile of professional critics and to promote honesty and wit in literary journalism.

Newspaper book pages are on borrowed time. Readership is dwindling, review space is shrinking, reviewers are paid half what they were twenty years ago. The professional critic has yet to draw his last breath, but there’s no mistaking the death rattle.

We’ve not stopped reading – the UK book market was worth over £3bn in 2010 – but we are increasingly going elsewhere for literary recommendations. According to a survey by The Bookseller, only 15% of people said they found out about new books and authors from a newspaper or magazine review, with growing numbers relying on Amazon, blogs and Twitter. A single tweet from Stephen Fry will have an infinitely greater impact on a book’s sales than a dozen broadsheet reviews.

This means asking why many people who like books think the book pages aren’t for them. It means challenging notions that professional criticism is inward-looking and self-serving. It means making sure book reviews are not simply informative, but entertaining.

Hatchet Job of the Year is a crusade against dullness, deference and lazy thinking. It rewards critics who have the courage to overturn received opinion, and who do so with style.

This prize has been set up by Anna Baddeley and Fleur MacDonald of the Omnivore site. The shortlist consists of harsh and stylish demolition jobs of prominent titles. In a Guardian interview Baddeley expanded on the motivation behind the prize:

We do get annoyed as we read hundreds of book reviews a week. So many of them are really boring and a lot are just plot summaries with just a couple of sentences of cliched opinion tucked at the end.

Any close reader of print book reviews would find it hard to argue with Baddeley’s analysis and the Hatchet Job manifesto. It is a welcome response to the twee, anodyne and deferential consensus of broadsheet criticism. Indeed, there’s far too much backslapping and logrolling in mainstream, establishment, online and underground litscenes and anything that promotes a little more fire and spirit is to be applauded.


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