A Guide to Hatchet Jobs

It may be merely a natural response to an insipid cultural scene, or it may be that we of the bland, cool, silent generation have been taunted beyond endurance by our rough, hot, noisy elders. But whatever the reason, there seems to have been a definite increase in critical ferocity lately—especially as measured by that howl from the depths known as the hatchet job.

By the hatchet job is meant here, not just a few surly growls about a particular book, but a calculated attempt to demolish the author, to blow him out of the water, to plant his career with salt. A good hatchet job leaves its subject looking stunted, emotionally malformed, altogether pathetic—and yet overweening and pretentious too, so that even sympathy is denied him.

The executioner starts out each time with at least one formidable advantage. People have a superstitious reverence for print, so that opinion registers almost automatically as fact. If you say that so and so writes badly and is emotionally starved, nobody will stop to ask how your emotions are, that you should be making such statements. They will just take your word for the whole thing.

In view of this very good start, it is surprising how many sloppy hatchet jobs seem to be going around these days. Again and again, the critic dissipates his natural advantages, and sometimes winds up stabbing himself as well. No hatchet job is ever a complete failure of course; however inexpertly performed, the victim never completely recovers. The reader will always feel vaguely that he has heard something discreditable about him.

But smoother, more satisfying demolitions could surely be guaranteed, if certain simple rules were observed. These, for instance:

1) Hatchet jobs should never run an inch longer than the victim merits. Three sentences are always better than twelve—the length being in itself a form of comment.

The critic who goes on swinging after the tree is down draws attention to himself; he becomes overexposed. After all, perhaps he isn’t such a hot writer either. Once the reader’s own sadism has been slaked, the executioner is likely to make him a bit uneasy anyway: “Supposing that was me out there,” he thinks. Prodigious amounts of reader-flattery and I-thou are needed after that to keep him from turning on the critic with an under-dog snarl of his own.

2) The complete opposite of Rule 1. It is a mistake to depend too much on short aphoristic dismissals unless your taste in them is absolutely infallible. Length gives at least an impression of lumbering documentation. A bad joke, a heavy-handed insult, give you nothing. The contradictoriness of these first two rules may serve as a warning. Hatcheting is not as easy as it looks.

3) Almost any quoted matter, encapsulated in sneers will do—provided you deploy it with a little caution. The reader will assume at first that if you say a quotation is silly, it is silly. But this trust can be abused. Four or five quotations in a row which really have nothing wrong with them at all will break the spell.

Recently I came across an attempt to prove that Truman Capote writes bad prose. This was daring (see Rule 5), but it might have worked with slightly shrewder quoting. Unfortunately it so happened that, while the passages chosen were certainly far from distinguished, they were not really horrifying either. As an average catty reader, I felt that they were written in slightly better prose than the review itself.

It is worth remembering in this connection that when dreadful examples are offered, they will be assumed to be the worst that can be found. A nimble but overworked counter-device is to claim that you plucked your samples at random, on a five-minute thumb-through. But even then, they should either be pretty bad, or so inconclusive that the author’s good qualities have no chance of coming through.

4) On the other hand, two or three short quotes, however well chosen, are barely enough. A make-believe massacre requires an appearance, at least, of massive forces.

Perhaps the best way to achieve this is to quote two or three bits for clumsiness, two or three for inconsistency, etc. This will give you a thoughtful looking page with stacks of indented matter: and there is no author living or dead who has not made enough genuine blunders to fill it for you. (Besides, the constant changing of subject will keep the reader from noticing any innocuousness in the quotes.)

5) Don’t over-reach yourself. Readers will swallow almost anything in the way of exposé, but there are limits. I remember reading in a copy of Scrutiny a gallant attempt to demonstrate that Cyril Connolly had a bad prose style. This is akin to Vince Lombardi’s football strategy of going straight for the other man’s strength—but Lombardi has a very good football team to do it with. Since this demonstration had to be made in prose, it would have been wiser not to spot Mr. Cormolly so glaring an advantage. (Rules 1 through 6: those who take the sword will perish by the sword.)

The dedicated hatchetman, intoxicated as he is by the prospect of annihilating some wretched author once and for all, and of sending him reeling into permanent oblivion, will begrudge every merit he is obliged to concede on the way; and yet if he concedes none at all, a certain mean-spiritedness and hysteria may show in his own work. Calling Mary McCarthy stupid, or Salinger a bad craftsman (or even Henry James immature), is exhilarating for reader and writer alike. But when sanity returns, it is the writer who has to pay. (The counter to this one is obvious: amused tolerance. “Miss McCarthy is, of course, clever. Perhaps that's the whole trouble.” That kind of thing.)

6) There is such a thing as being too cruel. Authors may seem from a distance as unreal as circus clowns, who can flail each other all day without anyone getting hurt. But even clowns must draw the line somewhere, and too much realism will sicken the toughest audience.

This line is a fine one. People are delighted by the sight of literary blood and a good hatchet job draws as much excited attention as a good book any day. But if there is any slaughterhouse stench about it, they are likely to get squeamish and the whole effect is spoiled. Last year's Leavis-Snow rumble was a case in point. After a while, in these affairs, you begin to sympathize with the victim; and by the end you are sympathizing with the executioner too.

Since the last thing a hatchetman wants is sympathy, the thing to aim at is a hair-line cut, almost invisible until the victim moves and his head topples off. An angry letter from him is equivalent (change metaphors there) to the death lunge of the brave bull. Three or four lines in riposte will sever his aorta for good.

If all this sounds bloodthirsty, it is not by inadvertence. The arts are, and should be, a rough game (“What was a man with a paper skull doing in Garrity’s saloon in the first place?” to quote a quote from William Shannon’s The American Irish); pugnacity and a thick skin are a part of every artist’s stock-in-trade, and are also essential to the survival of standards in general.

But one has also seen criticism of such wanton and gratuitous brutality that it transcends all usefulness and can only be compared with something on the lines of bear-baiting or pulling the wings off flies. The victim is helpless; the executioner appears to function in an exalted, fanatic trance, where feelings no longer exist; the crowd loves it—up to a point.

For in one respect the old hatchetman is like the old gunfighter in the movies; there are always plenty of young hatchetmen waiting to chop him down in his turn. The reviews of Dwight MacDonald’s latest book should be a warning to them; the end of the old hatchetman (Mr. MacDonald is far from his end of course, but a perfect analogy is hard to find these days) is unwept and unmourned. The crowd, which has indulged itself in his performance for so long, likes nothing better than to see the bully get his lumps in the end.

About the Author

The late Wilfrid Sheed, formerly a Commonweal columnist, drama critic, and literary editor (1964–69), was a novelist and a critic. His last book was The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty (Random House).

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