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Book reviewers face gilded hatchet for brutal prose

One night this week in London, on the creaky upper floor of The Coach and Horses, Soho's most notorious literary pub, a golden hatchet was plunged into a book. Technically, it was a cake baked into the shape of a book; and the hatchet was spray-painted. But the crowd – affably rowdy on free-flowing Cava and crab canapés – still roared its approval.

It was, after all, a party to celebrate the trashing of books. Or as one of the organizers from the literary journal Omnivore put it, "This is for all the people who respect the author and the book enough to say what they really think. It's for people who've resisted the urge to backscratch and simper in pursuit of literary glory!"

She was referring to the inaugural Hatchet Job of the Year Award – London's newest and most novel literary prize, an accolade honouring "the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review of the past 12 months." The aim, according the prize's manifesto, is to promote candour and wit in literary journalism and to raise the profile of that most beleaguered of modern-media professions: the book critic.

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The winner, the crowd soon learned, was the novelist Adam Mars-Jones, who was singled out for his merciless review of Michael Cunningham's By Nightfall in The Observer. In it, Mars-Jones takes issue with Cunningham's predilection for literary allusion, remarking that references are "all well and good – but Gatsby didn't get to be Gatsby by dangling dozens of previous books behind it, like tin cans tied to a tricycle." His last line is delivered with particularly ruthless acuity. "That's not an epiphany," he says of one of Cunningham's preciously crafted images, "that's a postcard." Ouch!

For a party celebrating negativity, the mood was surprisingly upbeat. One of the judges, columnist and author Sam Leith, read out the best lines from all of nominees. These included Geoff Dyer's New York Times review of Julian Barnes's Man Booker-winning novel The Sense of an Ending ("excellent in its averageness"); Leo Robson on Richard Bradford's new biography of Martin Amis ("spectacularly bad writing – about spectacularly good writing"); and a Sunday Times review by the columnist Camilla Long describing Monique Roffey's With the Kisses of His Mouth, a memoir of midlife sexual rebirth, as "480 pages of sub-Marie Claire overshare, a pointlessly explicit, infuriatingly naive and, at times, plain off-putting slither through a series of — wilfully? maliciously? — unedited sexual slurpings."

Another judge, the novelist and journalist Rachel Johnson (sister to London's shambolic Mayor Boris), peered out from under her sheepdog bangs and declared, "We're not here to punish bad writing but to reward really good reviews." By good of course, she meant bad, but bad in a deliciously good way, which is exactly what the Hatchet Job of the Year is all about. The sharp-tongued grammarian Lynn Barber presented Mars-Jones with his prize (a certificate for a year's supply of potted shrimp), but not before urging all writers and editors present to "fight against the tide of hype and publicity," by "reading the book, and if it's crap, saying it's crap."

Not everyone in the room, however, was thrilled by the notion that critics should be more widely encouraged to plunge the knife in and twist. One well-known London literary agent confided to me, off the record, that the real problem with our sagging critical culture on both sides of the Atlantic is the fact that book critics at serious newspapers are being given less space and compensation for their efforts. According to a survey by the trade journal The Bookseller, only 15 per cent of readers choose books based on a periodical's review, preferring instead recommendations from Amazon and social-networking sites.

Indeed, as the folks at Omnivore point out in their press release, a single tweet by Stephen Fry will have far greater impact on a book's sales than a dozen broadsheet reviews. As for the argument that nasty criticism stirs healthy debate, the agent was not so sure. "As Brits, I'm not so sure we need encouragement in that regard," she sniffed.

Proponents of the prize deny that it's driven by schadenfreude – though Gore Vidal's observation, "Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little," might well account for the lively spirits in the room – finally, a literary prize that celebrates the failings of others; now, that we can get behind! Like its spiritual precursor, the Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction Awards, Hatchet Job of the Year is essentially British in its irony: an award for something so horrible, it makes us squeal with delight.

There was, however, no irony in Mars-Jones's thrilled acceptance of his prize. Writers, generally speaking, enjoy receiving awards, even (perhaps especially) if they happen to coincide with the failures of others. With a hatchet in one hand and a hunk of decimated book cake in the other, Mars-Jones did not bother to conceal his delight at being declared literary meanie of the year. "It's especially nice because it's the first award," he told me with a laugh. "That way, no one can I say I just wrote something nasty in order to get all the potted shrimp."

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About the Author

Leah McLaren is a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. She’s published two novels, The Continuity Girl (2007) and A Better Man (2015) both with HarperCollins Canada and Hachette in the USA. The first was a Canadian bestseller, though the second is actually much better. More

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