Remember the Dale Peck years? Sigh. So much outrage to write about. Well, fear not! They’re back, says this guy. I guess it’s finally tiime to crack each other’s heads open and feast on the goo inside. Next book we see, you guys hold the arms, while I work the body.
If the hatchet job ever died, it is — like Gawker — back with a vengeance. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the hatchet job is now the dominant mode of literary criticism for the internet era, tailor-made, as Larissa Pham writes in The Nation, to “make the rounds, dropped in DMs and threaded down Twitter timelines.” The market logic of the contemporary book review, like the rest of journalism today, is the logic of virality: clicks equal revenue. How do you get clicks on a book review, the most marginal of media? You write a shocking critical assassination of a revered author or, depending on your perspective, a long-awaited takedown of an overrated hack. These reviews are retweeted, en masse, with a sarcastic eye roll or a thumbs-up. Either way, engagement is up. If we take the hatchet job seriously, and examine it as a literary-critical genre, we can begin to unpack its critical strategy. This latter consists, essentially, of ad hominem elitism: the hatchet job is a personal attack on the author, and one which espouses highbrow ideals over middlebrow ones. This strategy is so effective, and the hatchet job so central a cultural force, that it has shaped a correlative form of contemporary writing: the literature of painful self-awareness.