Reading a bad review is one of life’s smaller and meaner pleasures. But when they aren’t wholly destructive, bad reviews offer wit and critical rigour. On Tuesday, the shortlist for the Hatchet Job of the Year Award was announced. the prize aims to restore professional criticism to its central place in literary culture. The reputation of criticism has been damaged by the all-purpose insta-criticism and subjective droolings that Amazon and social networking sites have encouraged. Even professional writers may be seduced by the promise of impunity.
A bad review can goad a writer to greater things. After Byron’s first volume of poetry Hours of Idleness (1807) was trashed by the Edinburgh Review, the poet got his own back with English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. He went for the famous (Wordsworth, Scott, Moore) and those at the bottom of the pile (‘neglected genius’). Robert Southey was honoured thus:
Oh! Southey! Southey! cease thy varied song!
A bard may chant too often and too long:
As though art strong in verse, in mercy, spare!
A fourth, alas! were more than we could bear,
But if in spite of all the world can say,
Thou still wilt verseward plod thy weary way;
If still in Berkely ballads most uncivil,
Thou wilt devote old women to the devil,
The babe unborn thy dread intent may rue:
‘God help thee,’ Southey, and thy readers too. (ll. 225-34)
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