by Alison Flood)
AA Gill's comprehensive dismissal of Morrissey's autobiography as "utterly devoid of insight, warmth, wisdom or likeability" has won the Sunday Times reviewer a place on the shortlist for the most scathing review of 2013.
Eight cutting write-ups are in the running for the Hatchet Job of the Year award, run by the Omnivore website, from Gill's take-down of Morrissey in the Sunday Times ("Putting it in Penguin Classics doesn't diminish Aristotle or Homer or Tolstoy; it just roundly mocks Morrissey, and this is a humiliation constructed by the self-regard of its victim"), to David Sexton's dismissal of Eleanor Catton's Booker prize-winning tome The Luminaries. The prize is intended "to promote integrity and wit in literary journalism", with the winner, to be announced on 11 February, taking home a year's supply of potted shrimp.
"'Let's concede that The Luminaries is a stunning feat of construction," wrote Sexton in his review. "The Booker judges knew, whatever else its merits, they were giving the prize to a tremendously technically accomplished piece of work. I suspect some exhausted reviewers praised it for the same reason. It doesn't necessarily make it any good, of course. A ship made of matchsticks in a bottle is a feat of construction but not necessarily a great work of art."
The shortlist was selected by Rosie Boycott, former editor of the Independent, author and critic Brian Sewell and UCL professor John Sutherland. Sutherland had nominated a New York Review of Books take on his latest book, The Lives of Novelists, for the shortlist – "The self-congratulatory nod to Samuel Johnson's magnificent Lives of the English Poets is as embarrassing as it is presumptuous" – but it was judged to be not sufficiently excoriating.
Instead, Frederic Raphael has the dubious honour of being the first writer to make the list as both hatcheteer and hatchetee: his book of correspondence Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet, written with Joseph Epstein, was the victim of a vicious review in the Mail on Sunday by Craig Brown. "The first thing to be said about their exchanges is how extraordinarily unpleasant they are, almost as though they were trying to make it into the Guinness Book Of Records under a section called Authors, Most Bilious," wrote Brown. "Anyone unfamiliar with the literary world will, I think, be astonished at the ease with which these grand old men of letters turn into queeny old hairdressers, furiously bitching about their younger, prettier or more highly regarded rivals."
But Raphael can cheer himself with the fact he was also selected by judges for his own review of John le Carré's A Delicate Truth, in which he found for the TLS that le Carré "stretches his thrills with mixed clichés, idiosyncratic phrases (can people 'go faint at the knees'?) and witless dialogue whaleboned with 'he retorted stiffly' and the like."
Rachel Cooke, writing in the Observer, makes the cut for her write-up of Ann Widdecombe's autobiography, in which after damning the book with faint praise ("her grammar is fine – Ann is a stickler for grammar – and her anecdotes make sense in that they have a beginning, a middle and an end") she found that "in every other respect her memoirs bear a strong resemblance to her paso doble: no rhythm, no beauty, no humour and, above all, no feeling".
The shortlist is completed with Peter Kemp's review of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch (it's " a turkey", wrote Kemp), Hedley Twidle's attack on Paul Theroux's "offensive and plain bizarre" rhetoric in The Last Train to Zona Verde, and Lucy Ellmann's critique of Douglas Coupland's novel Worst. Person. Ever. in the Guardian. It "can only appeal to people who like to hear women belittled, and everything trashed – and it's hard to see the necessity for it when we've already got plenty of trash and belittled women," found Ellman.
Omnivore editor Fleur Macdonald said the selection "shows embattled critics still have enough fight left in them to puncture publishing hype", while fellow editor Anna Baddeley added that "the recent high-profile sackings of book reviewers and literary editors makes the Hatchet Job of the Year award – which celebrates the books pages and gets people reading reviews – more crucial than ever".
Previous winners of the prize are Adam Mars-Jones for his Observer review of By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham, and Camilla Long for her Sunday Times take down of Rachel Cusk's memoir Aftermath.