'The Hatchet Job of the Year': The nastiest book reviews of 2012

A celebration of the art of the literary takedown

Burn, baby, burn: Some critics spare no feelings when it comes to bad reviews
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The negative book review has been the subject of much discussion in the past year, prompted in part by a couple of particularly brutal hatchet jobs that appeared in the The New York Times Book Review, as well as by an online book culture, abetted by Facebook and Twitter, in which "cloying niceness and blind enthusiasm are the dominant sentiments," according to Jacob Silverman at Slate. Some critics have extolled the virtue of a little meanness, with Daniel Mendelsohn at The New Yorker writing that hatchet jobs are particularly valuable when "directed at over-hyped and unworthy objects." Others, like Laura Miller at Salon, have argued that critics should spend their energies calling "attention to books they find praiseworthy," especially at a time when literature's popularity has been eclipsed by television and film.

British site The Omnivore makes it clear where it stands on the debate. The Omnivore hosts a yearly contest for "The Hatchet Job of the Year," which is awarded to "the angriest, funniest, and most trenchant book review of the past twelve months," part of the site's efforts "to raise the profile of professional critics and to promote integrity and wit in literary journalism." For those who have a wicked literary streak, here are excerpts from the nastiest book reviews of 2012:

The winner: Camilla Long on Aftermath by Rachel Cusk

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From Aftermath's publisher: "A vivid study of divorce's complex place in our society."

She rips into her latest meat with all the poison and vigour of her earliest memoir, A Life's Work, an excoriating account of pregnancy and motherhood she wrote in 2001. She was flamed then by the critics for her self-absorption and fearlessness — and there's plenty to get the blood circulating in this book, too. Her sheer pretension, for starters. "I surrendered to the ascetic purity of that other religion, hunger," she moos. She is "frightened" by a flower shop; "hurt", she writes, by the redness of buses. Her children are painfully exposed: she describes how they "are worried they are getting fat" and rejected by friends. A cake they decorate disgusts her: "a failure", she writes. [The Sunday Times]

The runners-up:

Zoe Heller on Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie

From Joseph Anton's publisher: "A book of exceptional frankness and honesty, compelling, provocative, moving, and of vital importance."

A man living under threat of death for nine years is not to be blamed for occasionally characterizing his plight in grandiloquent terms. But one would hope that when recollecting his emotions in freedom and safety, he might bring some ironic detachment to bear on his own bombast. Hindsight, alas, has had no sobering effect on Rushdie's magisterial amour propre. An unembarrassed sense of what he is owed as an embattled, literary immortal-in-waiting pervades his book. He wants us to sympathize with the irritation he felt when the men in his protection team abbreviated his grand, Conradian-Chekhovian alias to "Joe." He wants us to appreciate his outrage at being given orders by jumped-up Scotland Yard officers. ("It was a shaming aspect of his life that policemen felt able to talk to him like this.") He wants us to understand the affront he felt when diplomatic efforts on his behalf were held up by negotiations to bring back British hostages from Iran: "Terry Waite's human rights had to be given precedence over his own." Above all, he wants us to share his aggrieved sense that he was a prophet without nearly enough honor in his own country. [New York Review of Books]

Suzanne Moore on Vagina by Naomi Wolf

From Vagina's publisher: "An astonishing work of cutting-edge science and cultural history that radically reframes how we understand the vagina."

By now we all know that Naomi Wolf has mind-blowing orgasms. I must say globally this has been a concern. Was this woman getting enough? Yes, oh yes, she has got a book's worth. I read Vagina: A New Biography in a bar while feasting on some very fine cuts of meat, so I am not just judging it by the extracts, i.e. the insane pasta party where "Alan", a supposed friend, served her "cuntini". This trauma upset her for six months. Someone give her a hotdog quick to spare us more of this existential despair. [The Guardian]

Allan Massie on The Divine Comedy by Craig Raine

From The Divine Comedy's publisher: "A voyeuristic meditation on sex and insecurity, God, and the nature of the human body."

Raine can spell. That much must be admitted. Nevertheless some of the writing is very bad. Example: "He watched Rysiek's brown lips move deliberately in his carefully trimmed beard, as if his mouth knew how handsome it was." You might be pleased for a moment to have written that sentence. Then you would read it again, and strike it out. Raine left it in. [The Scotsman]

Ron Charles on Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis

From Lionel Asbo's publisher: "A savage, funny, and mysteriously poignant saga by a renowned author at the height of his powers."

Martin Amis recently abandoned London for Brooklyn, and now he's published a satire of Britain's moral decrepitude subtitled "State of England." Just a coincidence, Amis claims, but naturally the Brits are feeling a bit stung by this one-two punch. And if "Lionel Asbo" is the sort of ham-fisted novel we get in the bargain, maybe we should send him back. [The Washington Post]

Richard Evans on Hitler: A Short Biography by A.N. Wilson

From Hitler's publisher: "In this masterful account of Hitler's life, [Wilson] pulls back the curtain to reveal the man behind the mythic figure."

It's hard to think why a publishing house that once had a respected history list agreed to produce this travesty of a biography. Perhaps the combination of a well-known author and a marketable subject was too tempting for cynical executives to resist. Novelists (notably Mann) and literary scholars (such as J P Stern) have sometimes managed to use a novel angle of approach to say something new and provocative about Hitler, the Nazis and the German people. However, there is no evidence of that here, neither in the stale, unoriginal material, nor in the banal and cliché-ridden historical judgements, nor in the lame, tired narrative style; just evidence of the repellent arrogance of a man who thinks that because he's a celebrated novelist, he can write a book about Hitler that people should read, even though he's put very little work into writing it and even less thought. [The New Statesman]

Claire Harman on Silver: A Return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion

From Silver's publisher: "Andrew Motion's sequel — rollicking, heartfelt, and utterly brilliant — would make Robert Louis Stevenson proud."

If sequels to other authors' works are tolerable at all, they are only so as homage, a sort of fan-mail, addressed primarily to other fans. Anything else smacks of hitching a free ride and the idea of "a worthy sequel," which is how the publishers describe Silver: Return to Treasure Island, is downright impertinence.

So it's hard to approach this follow-up to Robert Louis Stevenson's classic pirate yarn with a spring in one's step, even though it is written by Andrew Motion, respected poet, professor of creative writing and, presumably, a fan of Treasure Island. How could it be anything better than a bit of Yo ho ho hum? [London Evening Standard]

Craig Brown on The Odd Couple by Richard Bradford

From The Odd Couple's publisher: "Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin altered the landscape of post-war British fiction…The Odd Couple shows us these two literary giants as we have never seen them before."

[N]ow, seven years after his biography of Philip Larkin and 11 years after his biography of Kingsley Amis, Bradford has come up with a new book, The Odd Couple, about the lifelong friendship of — yes, you've guessed it — Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis.

Well, I say new, and it is being marketed as new, and it has certainly been reviewed as new by all the leading critics and pretty enthusiastically, too. It looks new, and it smells new. It has a new cover and even a new publisher.

But Bradford has taken us all — and presumably his new publishers, too — for a ride. And he might have got away with it, but for the diligence of Inspector Brown.

Come rain or shine, I have been plodding the literary beat for 35 years, but never before have I come across quite such a shameless exercise in marketing old rope.

Professor Bradford is no slouch. He gets going on his copying and pasting before the book has even begun. [The Daily Mail]

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Ryu Spaeth

Ryu Spaeth is deputy editor at TheWeek.com. Follow him on Twitter.