A thorough, deliberate hatchet job is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. It is for this reason no one could remove their eyes from Pete Well's review of Guy's American Kitchen & Bar last month; it is for this reason that Adam Mars-Jones was given an award by newly-minted Hatchet Job of the Year for dismantling Michael Cunningham's (of "The Hours? They should call this thing The Weeks!" fame) new book, By Nightfall, earlier this year.
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. Most of all, it is a public celebration of that most underpaid and undervalued form of journalism: the book review.
A fairly debatable sentiment, that bit about courage, but if you can resist a good old-fashioned brawl between book nerds you are perhaps more composed and empathetic than you have any right to be. Studies have shown that everyone is either overly or insufficiently gentle these days, but no matter where you fall along the continuum of the new niceness, there is a side for you to take here. Defend the vulnerable author if you feel a vicious review is no more than a cruel attempt to boost one's own literary profile; support the critic if you embrace Nature red in tooth and claw.
The hatchet job has long been with us - as Wilfrid Sheen wrote for Commonweal Magazine in 1964:
It may be merely a natural response to an insipid cultural scene, or it may be that we of the bland, cool, silent generation have been taunted beyond endurance by our rough, hot, noisy elders. But whatever the reason, there seems to have been a definite increase in critical ferocity lately-especially as measured by that howl from the depths known as the hatchet job.
By the hatchet job is meant here, not just a few surly growls about a particular book, but a calculated attempt to demolish the author, to blow him out of the water, to plant his career with salt. A good hatchet job leaves its subject looking stunted, emotionally malformed, altogether pathetic-and yet overweening and pretentious too, so that even sympathy is denied him.
Zoë Heller's review yesterday of Salman Rushdie's third-person memoir Joseph Anton is a carefully-reasoned, brutal takedown, a hatchet job among hatchet jobs. One of the choicer bits:
At various points, Rushdie seems to grow tired of defending the special rights of fiction and moves on to advocating for the extra-special rights of serious, or important, fiction. "He hoped for, he often felt he needed, a more particular defense like the quality defense made in the case of other assaulted books, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Ulysses, Lolita…."
One is struck here, not just by the implied disregard for the free speech of other writers who might not qualify for "the quality defense," but also by the lordly nonchalance with which Rushdie places himself alongside Lawrence, Joyce, and Nabokov in the ranks of literary merit.
Is there a sharper weapon in the critic's arsenal than the lordly, withering phrase "seems to"? I cannot guess at what drives you, cipher, it seems to say. Your motivations are opaque, your justifications paltry and I cannot understand you, only hazard guesses. On one side she has him on free speech, on the other she has him on Nabokov; escape is impossible. But Heller is not unreasonable - she will make concessions, given Rushdie's circumstances:
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.
What makes reading a piece like this more satisfying than, say, a review on Amazon ("I didnt like this book. Who is Joseph Anton anyhow. Thought this was a book about Salman rushdie. Also the book got here late, I ordered it four weeks ago and its still not here. haven't read it yet. 1 star."), is the sense that the two participants are at least somewhat equally yoked (Heller is a successful journalist and novelist who once told the Times she "[didn't] write books for people to be friends with the characters") and that the target is fair game. Rushdie is a respected and successful literary author; a similar takedown of Danielle Steele or John Grisham might not be quite so easy to stomach. We want a tiger to take down a tiger, not a sleeping housecat, especially not a housecat that's generally friendly and harmless and writes books that your great-aunt likes to bring on airplanes to calm her nerves.
Also, it is very exciting to watch important British people insult each other (see the House of Lords for further evidence). They are, generally speaking, much better at it than Americans, partly because reading is a blood sport there, but also because they've had centuries of practice on us - give us time. The crown jewel of Heller's review, when she really begins to unbelt, arrives toward the end and concerns Rushdie's treatment of his ex-wives (and what aging male literary titan is not most vulnerable in the matter of his ex-wives).
Some of his most egregiously uncharitable moments occur when writing about his four marriages. Rushdie has a habit of excusing his own fairly frequent infidelities and betrayals with reference to the imperative nature of his own desires. ("His own needs were like commands," he recalls when explaining why he had to leave his third wife, Elizabeth West, and young son to go gallivanting in America.) The various failings of the wives-their money-grubbing and nagging, their jealousy of his talent, and so on-are not so readily excused.
In a close-run contest between Marianne Wiggins (number two) and Padma Lakshmi (number four), it is the latter who emerges as the worst of the spousal bunch. Rushdie presents her as the Marion Davies to his William Randolph Hearst-an erotically beguiling but fundamentally vapid gold digger, whose selfish ambitions as a model, actress, and TV host have, in the end, "nothing to do with the fulfillment of his deepest needs." The final revelation of her shallowness comes in the wake of September 11 when Rushdie, grieving and shaken and feeling the need to connect with loved ones, calls her in Los Angeles and finds her "doing a lingerie shoot."
Rushdie's shuddering hauteur at this moment may strike the reader as a bit rich, coming from a man who spends much of his memoir recalling encounters with pop stars, Playboy bunnies, and "hot" pop-star girlfriends in the breathless style of a young Austen character writing up her first visit to the pump rooms at Bath.
There are still 30 days remaining in 2012; you could conceivably, if you hustled, publish a contender likely to beat out Heller for next year's Hatchet Job award but frankly I don't like your chances. Of course, if you can think of another reviewer more deserving of a year's supply of potted shrimp, don't keep it to yourself - share it in the comments.
[Image via AP]