A new literary prize, Hatchet Job of the Year, has just been launched by the review aggregation website The Omnivore aimed at celebrating the ‘angriest, funniest, most trenchant’ book review of the year. ‘In an age where readers increasingly rely on the assessments of online amateurs when buying their novels,’ writes The Omnivore’s Anna Baddeley in the prize’s manifesto, ‘we need people who know what they’re talking about, whose voices we recognise and trust, even though we might not always agree with them. With more books being published than ever, you could argue that the hunger for authoritative advice has never been greater.’
The Hatchet Job of the Year prize also hopes to ‘promote integrity and wit’ in literary journalism which The Omnivore sees as being at risk from the growth of book bloggers and Amazon reviews (some of the more glowing of which are known to have been posted anonymously by authors about their own work). The manifesto continues, ‘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.’
Almost no reviews of children’s titles have so far been posted on The Omnivore website and none featured on the shortlist for the first Hatchet Job of the Year prize. It seems unlikely in these Rowling/Pullman/Wilson/Ness et al days that this is to do with the patronising dismissiveness towards children’s literature that used to characterise some members of the ‘adult’ literary world. Is it then because children’s book reviewers are just too nice to wield a hatchet?
Of course most book reviewers have honourable intentions and try to be objective, fair and interesting in their criticism, whether negative or positive. They recognise (and many are themselves writers) that a great deal of hard work has gone into the creation of the book they have in their hand. But it is also the case that bad books provoke a straightforward response of irritation or hostility in the reviewer and this makes the writing of a negative review feel spontaneous and easy. If an overload of what Granta’s Ian Jack once described as ‘stormy biliousness’ is manifest in a review, it may also be that old scores or rivalries are surfacing that have little to do with the text in question. We cannot suppose the world of children’s literary criticism entirely immune from bile.
Books for Keeps does carry negative reviews (unlike other children’s book review journals) since it is my view that we cannot discuss what is good unless we are also prepared to discuss what is not. But of course a negative review can carry disproportionate mass and care should be taken not to wield the hatchet on, say, a first novel that is flawed.
In general, children’s book reviewers avoid the hatchet altogether, frequently according indifferent titles upbeat responses that are unmerited. Is this is in part to do with the relatively small world of children’s publishing where the reviewer may run the risk of encountering the recipient of their negative criticism at a literary festival, school book day or publisher’s party?
The substantive argument against carrying negative reviews used to be that since so little review space was afforded to children’s titles, it should not be ‘wasted’ on negative criticism. This hardly applies in our blogger-rich times when everyone can be accounted a ‘master storyteller’.
‘Hunger for authoritative advice’ as The Omnivore would have it, now applies equally to children’s literary journalism. Yet it seems unlikely that there will be a Hatchet Job of the Year prize for children’s book reviews any time soon.