In Praise Of The Hatchet Job

Maybe it’s because we have all become inured to “snark” that we’ve come to look down on brutal book reviews. And some are indeed irritating. There are few hatchet-jobs in TNR’s back-of-the-book that aren’t motivated by personal malice, bitter jealousy, or preening self-righteousness. But the classic hatchet-job – written by an arch, disinterested, yet vicious critic – is still a mercy. James Wood can still do this stateside, but it does seem a very English vocation. And as journalism slowly surrenders to public relations, and as criticism cedes to reader reviews, I’m glad that in Blighty, the Omnivore maintains its “Hatchet Job Of The Year” prize:

Camilla Long took the prize last year, for her write-up of Rachel Cusk’s memoir Aftermath, in which she dismissed Cusk as “a brittle little dominatrix and peerless narcissist who exploits her husband and her marriage with relish”, and who “describes her grief in expert, whinnying detail”. Adam Mars-Jones won the inaugural Hatchet for his review of Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall, in the Observer. “The book’s pages are filled with thoughts about art, or (more ominously) Thoughts about Art,” wrote Mars-Jones.

But this year’s winner is an almost perfect match between reviewer and subject. It’s the brilliant A.A. Gill of the Sunday Times (where I write a weekly column on America) and Morrissey, whose pendulous autobiography was just published with a bulls-eye already attached – it was part of the Penguin Classics collection, up there with Aristotle and Jane Austen. Well, take it away, AA:

Morrissey’s most pooterishly embarrassing piece of intellectual social climbing is having this autobiography published by Penguin Classics. Not Modern Classics, you understand, where the authors can still do book signings, but the classic Classics, where they’re dead and some of them only have one name. Molière, Machiavelli, Morrissey. He has made up for being alive by having a photograph of himself pretending to be dead on the cover.

And the denouement:

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.

With some cupcake icing added for effect by your humble reviewer.