In this age of proliferation for both literary prizes and book reviews, it was only a matter of time before a prize would be awarded to the best book reviews of the year. This prize now exists: created by the website Omnivore.com, which recycles culture reviews from newspaper and magazine websites, The Hatchet Job of the Year Award is meant to celebrate “the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review of the past twelve months”. The idea is that, with the decline of newspaper readership in favor of tweets, blogs, and reader reviews on sites like Amazon, the very important job of the true book critic must be honored in some way. The need to praise real, thought-out book reviewing is especially important since newspapers have begun to imitate the web-model themselves in recent years by publishing short, hip book reviews that are more like blurbs or ads than actual content. The truth is, newspapers and magazine should continue offering with pride what anyone with access to the internet can’t do: professional, objective reviews that evaluate books thoroughly, put them into context, and draw comparisons with others works. Because they have the resources, newspapers can provide this kind of in-depth analysis for every review they publish. Then, it’s the reviewers job to keep the standards high and offer something more than a plot summary and a bit of recycled pros and cons. Maybe this prize will help book critics achieve the recognition they deserve
I am becoming increasingly aware of the difference between run of the mill reviews and in-depth, meaty analyses. Often, really good reviews won’t even tell you if the book is bad or good. True reviews are not only there to tell if you should buy the book or not; they’re supposed to draw in material from the outside to help understand how specific books are to be appraised, and then pick at the smallest details to assess their intrinsic qualities. A good example are the amazing pieces over at the New York Review of Books. These are lengthy, in-depth reviews of books that are really essays about the books and the authors who wrote them. Recent excellent examples are the review of Joan Didion’s latest memoir Blue Nights and the phenomenal essay Julian Barnes wrote on Joyce Carol Oates’ own memoir A Widow’s Story.
It’s unfair, however, to say that you can’t get good content on social media. Sometimes, they do provide close contact with really brilliant literary thinkers. I’m thinking of people like Charles May, who, for quite some time now (by internet standards), has been producing consistently insightful work on his blog, Reading the Short Story. May is an academic who has specialized on the form of the short story; his blog is a collection of his thoughts about books, reviews of contemporary and older short stories, and responses to comments and questions about the form. It’s a very interesting project, and a trustworthy source about authors and books who are worth reading; nowhere else on the internet will you find a lengthy review of a single short story by Alice Munro.
Among the nominees for the Hatchet Job of the Year (see the shortlist here) are the wonderful classicist Mary Beard, for a Guardian review of Rome, by Robert Hughes, in which she spotted dozens of unacceptable and frustrating mistakes in the chapters about the city’s ancient history (high school level stuff, like confusing CE and BCE, apparently). Mary Beard has declared on her blog that she is not expecting to win the prize. For her, the review she wrote on Hughe’s book was simply part of her job. Reviewers, she writes, should act as “gate-keepers”, lest a book’s success depend entirely on “the size of its publicity budget and the enthusiasm of its publishers’ tweets”. In fact, Mary Beard is a little bit alarmed, because she fears that her review of the book may have been lauded above all others because these other reviewers may have either omitted to mention the erroneous material, or else failed to see it entirely—two “ghastly” prospects. Words of wisdom from a truly admirable woman (as a side note, I saw Mary Beard host the “ancient booker” event at the Cheltenham literary festival last year—she was great). If she wins, she will have gotten herself a year’s supply of potted shrimp.