Even if the prize for this competition wasn’t a year’s supply of potted shrimp, I still would have loved The Omnivore’s Hatchet Job of the Year (presented to the ‘author of the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review of the past twelve months’) from the moment I laid eyes on it. And let me say there are some absolutely cracking contenders.
These awards appear all over. There’s the Moby Award for worst book trailer (recommended viewing), and the not-so-much-award as low-light list of Publisher’s Weekly, who declared that Microwave for One was the worst book of all time, a mighty claim given the strength of competition it had in How to Avoid Huge Ships and Dildo Cay.
Accolades like these serve an important purpose in our literary landscape. I’ve heard it said that reviewers have a responsibility to only write positive reviews – say something nice or don’t say anything at all – for the health of the book trade; they should be encouraging consumers to buy good books and just ignore the bad ones. But there’s something amazingly cathartic about reading a negative book review.
Let’s face it, we all take secret pleasure in watching an author get a slating in the same way as we might enjoy watching someone throw a tantrum when they lose at a board game. It’s a feeling that toes the line between Schadenfruede, and a desire for authenticity. We know from their deliberately caustic words, themselves exercises in the beauty of language, that the reviewer is free from bias or bribery, which comes as a small taste of reality in a world awash with rhetoric where authors can post positive ‘customer’ reviews of their own work under assumed names.
This is part of the reason the crew behind Hatchet Job of the Year have set up this award, saying: ‘We need people who know what they’re talking about, whose voices we recognise and trust… [and] reward critics who have the courage to overturn received opinion, and who do so with style.’
It’s difficult to trust anyone who only writes gushing praise about everything they read. As a reader, it’s important the reviewer’s tastes are reflected in what they write so you can see how both your likes and dislikes might align with theirs and make an informed decision based on the combination of their judgement and yours.
It’s the ultimate insult to the profession to assume that reviewers should censor themselves in order to promote the purchase of ‘books’ generally. If anything, they add value by pointing out that perhaps certain books should have gone unpublished – if we don’t acknowledge this fact, we run the risk of making the same mistakes twice.
If you’re a book reviewer, I say trust your voice, trust your judgment, and reach for that year’s supply of potted shrimp by turning the full weight of your sarcastic and bloated vocabulary against all books that the world might be richer for losing. I look forward to the announcement of the shortlist in January.