Sunday, April 22, 2007

How to write those good 'bad' reviews?

Most book reviews are serious stuff but very often they are not interesting reads. It applies to both fiction and non-fiction book reviews.

Recently, Prof Amitava Kumar referred to the James Wood style of book reviewing. He noted: "... Other critics appear pallid and unambitious in comparison. Just look at last Sunday’s NYTBR: nearly everything else has the texture of tissue on a rain-soaked pavement."

The Italics are mine. I loved that description.

Well, that is a standard other book reviewers can only aspire to, but for the less talented, here is a formula: It comes from FT's Gideon Rachman, and though it only provides samples of non-fiction work as examples, I'm sure it can find a larger application.

Here is Rachman's formula:

If you publish a book, you are asking to be taken seriously. A “good” bad review does precisely this. It engages with the text far more vigorously than the usual tepid praise by a reviewer who has flicked quickly through a volume. And the best savage reviews are usually very funny...

A really good bad review usually follows a couple of rules. First, the target should be a worthy one. It is no fun watching a Harvard professor squish a young academic from a minor college. That is just cruel. The reviewer needs to be taking on someone with a large reputation and a big ego.

Second, the review should mix in personal abuse with intellectual criticism. This sounds counter-intuitive. Surely, the reviewer should rise above the merely personal – otherwise the review will look like a mere settling of scores? Not at all. A really good bad review needs a certain savage energy and humour – and this really only happens, if the reviewer is personally offended not just by the book but by the person.


Rachman has provided links to reviews that target Bernard-Henri Levy – France’s most fashionable philosopher; Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International; Tom Friedman, possibly the world’s most famous newspaper columnist and George Soros, a globally-celebrated financier and philanthropist. Read them all. They are amazingly written.

I especially liked Taibbi's review of “The World is Flat”. This one really made me reassess the logical plausibility of a Friedmanian postulate.

3 comments:

monideepa said...

Well said. Gaali agar dena hi hai to dimmag istemal karke ishtyle se do. I remember a famous film reviewer with Times who used to habitually trash EVERY Hindi movie with trademark schoolby sarcasm. IMHO, that's what a review should NOT be. Let class and sophistication prevail.

Zafar Anjum said...

Thanks Moni. One has to be honest in a review. You are right. Many reviewers take a one way approach: they either trash a work or praise it to the skies.

Rama Mohan said...

Yes you are right moni. I have also observed some re-views of movies that there is focusing the ego of the re-viewer more than movie.

I feel that the re-view should consider all type of viewers or readers mentality. They should present the good and bad points. The criticism should be healthy and it should be advisable.