Monday January 24th, 2011

Rules for Hatcheting

Since his death last week, I’ve been thinking about Wilfrid Sheed even more than usual, and through some good soul or other on Twitter, I found this piece he wrote for Commonweal in 1964 about the art of an effective hatchet job. He talks about the genre in general, and lays out six rules for battering a target without generating sympathy for him or her, or looking like a fool yourself. The first two:

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 underdog 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.