Hatchet job of the year
I was chuffed earlier this week to find myself (or rather my review of Robert Hughes' book on Rome) on the shortlist for the "Hatchet job of the year" prize. Actually the name of the prize is a bit misleading. OK it's a good headline grabber -- and got hundreds more column inches than if it had been called "2011 Prize for Critical Journalism". But, as its manifesto makes clear, it's not actually a prize for skewering . . . it's for honest as well as entertaining book reviewing, that isn't afraid to go beyond deference, to call a spade a spade.
As far as my Rome review goes, I think I was just doing my job. I made it pretty clear that I am quite an admirer of Hughes, and loved his The Shock of the New. But the chapters of Rome that cover the ancient world (the bit I really know about) are so riddled with dreadful errors -- howler after howler -- that I had to speak up. The point of a review, after all, is that an informed critic should give an honest, professional evaluation of the . Many other books on the Hatchet shortlist are poetry or fiction, and there the nature of that evaluation is rather different. But in the case of Rome, it was facts pure and simple... mixing up BCE and CE, wrong dates, wrong names, all tumbling out one after the other...
I have never met Hughes, but if I were to have the pleasure, I would say just what I wrote to his face. And that has always been the ethical touchstone of a review. If you couldn't say it to the author, then it's a skewering, so don't.
But what gave my review an extra edge was that so many other reviewers showered it with praise. How could that have been? One awful possibility is that they did see a lot of errors but decided to cover them up, either because they were being dishonestly nice to Hughes, or because they thought that errors dont matter too much in a popular book (if so, I think I find the latter motive even worse than the former... it's even more important to be right in a popular than a specialist book). The other equally ghastly possibility is that they didn't themselves see the errors . . . which just shows how much you need a few classicists around, otherwise any old rubbish will get spouted about the ancient world and no-one will even get warned.
If reviewing doesn't act as a gate-keeper of sorts, the success of a book will come down only to the size of its publicity budget and the enthusiasm of its publishers' tweets. Hence the prize.
Anyway, I'm not expecting to win (there's some rapier like stuff on the short list). But the prize is unusually attractive: a year's supply of potted shrimps. The whole thing, you see, is run by the reviews website Omnivore, and shrimps are omnivores.