Nasty literary prize awarded

As I reported a couple of weeks ago, The Omnivore, a book review website, was instituting a new award for the nastiest book review of the year.

The competition for the inaugural Hatchet Job of the Year was fierce and last night the winner was announced. It is novelist Adam Mars-Jones for his sledgehammering of Michael Cunningham's "By Nightfall" in the Observer newspaper

Cunningham is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Hours" a modern take on Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. It became a film with Nicole Kidman winning an Oscar for her performance as Virginia Woolf.

"By Nightfall" is also full of references to other author's works – it sounds as if Cunningham has taken intertextuality to infinity and beyond – and that's what got under Mars-Jones skin.

"In a 20-page section…there are explicit references to: The Magic Mountain, John Cheever, Death in Venice, Donald Barthelme, Raymond Carver, Hawthorne and Death of a Salesman." For good measure, Mars-Jones says Cunningham throws literary allusions to The Great Gatsby around like "tin cans tied to a tricycle."

That is rough, but it gets worse:

"At the very least, shouldn't a writer try to shield the kettle of language from further cracks by knowing the meanings of the words he uses?"

You won't see rough stuff like that in the few American outlets for heavyweight reviewing.  This is what British novelist Jeanette Winterson wrote about "By Nightfall" for the New York Times Sunday Book Review, "His (Cunningham's) dialogue is deft and fast. The pace of the writing is skilled — stretched or contracted at just the right time. And if some of the interventions on art are too long — well, too long for whom?"

Clearly, too long for Mars-Jones.

One of the judges, Sam Leith, said: "The best hatchets, in criticism, are wielded with precision as much as they are with force. Adam Mars-Jones's review of Michael Cunningham had everything a reader could hope for in a hostile review. It was at once erudite, attentive, killingly fair-minded and viciously funny." 

To those of my readers who post reviews at Amazon – remember those words.

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