In 2012, review aggregator website The Omnivore launched the Hatchet Job of the Year award, given to the “the writer of the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review” of the last year in Britain. The prize was a year’s worth of potted shrimp donated by The Fish Society. By now defunct, the award was only given out 3 years. DJ Taylor, in a recent column for the New Statesman, asked a question relevant to its death: “Book reviewing used to be a blood sport. How has it become so benign and polite?” It seems, he concluded, that the “hatchet job” simply has little place in the modern literary milieu.
Reading literary criticism of the past, it is clear men of letters were fairly frequently occupied with assaulting each other in print. Yet for a long time this side of literati, usually only visible in little read, anonymous columns and private letters, often only surfaced after considerable time. Thomas Babington Macaulay asserted, in his famous essay on John Milton, that Milton was “sedate and majestic” in temper. The image of Milton as a fine, pious, noble Christian man of “sedate and majestic” temper was very appealing for Mr. Macaulay and the Victorians who read him, but cannot, in all fairness be deemed accurate. “How should he,” asks Milton in his polemical mood, “a serving man both by nature and function, an idiot by breeding, and a solicitor by presumption, ever come to know or feel within himself what the meaning is of gentle?” He continues: “At last, and in good hour, we come to his farewell, which is to be a concluding taste of his jabberment in law, the flashiest and the fustiest that ever corrupted in such an unswilled hogshead.” “How ‘sedate and majestic’!”, Matthew Arnold noted drily. But the pamphlets in which Milton wrote so vindictively were rarely read and reprinted, while the solemn majesty of his poetry was known to everyone.
This rhetoric of Milton, found throughout his pamphlets, was fairly characteristic of writing of that kind for the next two centuries. While the “Hatchet Job” award was intended for reviewers who penned articles as scathing as possible with grace, wit and elegance, earlier assaults in print seemed to be rooted in actual animosity. Reviewers of the 19th century did not, indeed, often possess subtlety, but they certainly loved flinging insults. Some of them go beyond comedic excesses:
“The title [of William Hazlitt & Leigh Hunt’s “The Round Table”] should have been “The Dunghill,” or something still more characteristically vile; for such an offensive heap of pestilential jargon has seldom come in our way. … When, however, the reader is told that the articles here raked together have been gathered from the common sewer of a weekly paper called The Examiner, all wonder will cease; and they who after that information can have any relish for the feculant garbage of blasphemy and scurrility, may sit down at the round and enjoy their meal with the same appetite as the negroes in the West Indies eat dirt and filth.”
So much for subtlety! This review must, to be fair, be understood in context: William Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt and other related figures such as Keats were despised by the writers of Blackwood’s Magazine, the miscellany that the review was printed in. Blackwood’s was the Tory rival to the Whig Edinburgh Review, and Leigh Hunt, the 19th century radical who was later imprisoned for his defamation of the Prince Regent George IV, stood for everything Blackwood’s editors were against. This was no mere exchange of wits and humor: it was deep-rooted hatred.
Vindictive writing continued into the Victorian era, but an additional target was added: the world at large. In the changing, fast industrializing society, the public attitude and moral decrepitude of the “captains of industry” were most likely to be under fire. Again the rhetoric was most often inspired by actual outrage. Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present, John Ruskin’s Unto This Last and Marx and Engels’ writings spawned heated arguments revolving around the formation of society. The editor of the journal Ruskin’s Unto This Last was originally printed in refused to finish publishing It – the reaction to it was so vehement they feared a massive loss of readership. Indeed, the prose writers of the Victorian era were under fire most. But eminent Victorians were also especially liable to ridicule the masses of English men, as when John Ruskin declared his distaste for
“the daily more bestial English mob, – railroad born and bred, which drags itself about the black world it has withered under its breath, in one eternal grind and shriek, – gobbling, – staring, – chattering, – giggling, – trampling out every vestige of national honour and domestic peace, wherever it sets the staggering hoof of it; incapable of reading, of hearing, of thinking, of looking, – capable only of greed for money, lust for food, pride of dress, and the prurient itch of momentary curiosity for the politics last announced by the newsmonger, and the religion last rolled by the chemist into electuary for the dead.”
Slight exaggeration appears to be present. Yet for the British Victorians these sweeping invectives were as true as their hope for change. Of course some more superficial sneers were also present, such as the nobleman who decried a satirical novel as a “tissue of filthy nonsense, which none but an ape of the first magnitude could have vomited” – here certain class relations are painfully observed. But in general literary and artistic criticism remained in the moral sphere and tied up with political and social issues.
Only during the 20th century did the “hatchet job” style of literary writing start to flourish – writers appeared to find a sadistic pleasure in taking down enemies in print by purposely doubling down on them with great exaggeration. Certain eminent Americans were especially good at this. When hedonistic young Manhattanite George Jean Nathan and the “sage of Baltimore” H.L. Mencken took over the editorial duty of the Smart Set, a minor magazine, they massively increased its readership through a practice at the time termed “slinging ink”. H.L. Mencken was not fond of “the naïve pishposh of suburban Methodists, notoriety-seeking college professors, almost illiterate editorial writers, and other such numskulls”, and often wrote about them viciously. His famous essays, defined by an elegant prose style mixing satirical list-making, reduction ad absurdum, American vernacular and borrowed foreign phrases, are still anthologized, as is his famous takedown of Dr. Harding:
“I rise to pay my small tribute to Dr. Harding. Setting aside a college professor or two and half a dozen dipsomaniacal newspaper reporters, he takes the first place in my Valhalla of literati. That is to say, he writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean-soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm (I was about to write abscess!) of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”
The contrast with the writings of Mencken and Nathan’s mentor, James Gibbons Huneker, is illustrative of a shift in the literary climate. While Huneker wrote invectives, they were still characterized by moralizing. He dismissed Nordau (who wrote a takedown of “decadent” writers, deeming them immoral) for having “a petty, provincial, even parochial mind; his soul lives up an alley, he is utterly without imagination. It is his priggish insolence, his filthy insults, leveled at men, living men, whose shoestrings he is not worthy to unlatch that I resent. … Nordau reminds me of those wicked little boys who scribble words on walls. … Nordau is a poser. … His pose is not the pose for beauty, but the pose for rottenness. He is a literary slop jar.” There is anger here – actual anger. Mencken and Nathan wrote with a jocular elegance – they were poking fun, upsetting everyone while doing it, and did not feel the least moral responsibility in the whole affair. The times had changed. It is this practice the Hatchet Job of the year award has tried to honour – but they became defunct, and the once bloody literary climate has changed once more. What happened?
A major change is the advent of the Internet, and with it the permanency of published writing. While the 19th century reviewers penned anonymous articles, and Mencken’s reviews soon disappeared among heaps of “smart magazines”, today any strident literary remark will be easily found with a quick Google search. The novelist Tibor Fischer is an infamous example of his: while a novelist himself, it is impossible to escape his review of Martin Amis’ Yellow Dog, in which he wrote: “I was reading my copy on the Tube and I was terrified someone would look over my shoulder (not only because of the embargo, but because someone might think I was enjoying what was on the page). It’s like your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating.” This remark has permanently tainted his literary career. While no more than a funny quip at the time, it is still variously characterized as a jealous sneer, a sign of immorality, “going too far”, and so forth. The article is still online, and will be for many years to come – and that while it is merely a book review of some 1000 words, wholly irrelevant to his career, even to his actual relation with Martin Amis.
Yet there is a more important, and tragic, element that has resulted in the death of the hatchet job: the changing and diminishing literary culture. While in the early 20th century every educated person read the “smart magazines”, documents of jocular bloodshed, today most reading done is the newspaper. Thus the remarks of reviewers are no longer a display of virtuosity for a wide audience – really, they only upset others in the literary establishment: their friends, colleagues, rivals. Public invectives towards the audience have become rather ineffective then, too. And so D.H. Lawrence jotted privately: “Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserable sodding rotters, the flaming sods, the snivelling, dribbling, dithering palsied pulse-less lot that make up England today.” Rhetoric of that kind you will find publicly no more.