If you don't believe me, ask Professor Amitava Kumar. And Lionel Shriver. But more on that later.
Writers should be thankful to book reviewers for the mere hard work that they put in, whatever the outcome: The poor sods (at least the honest ones) have to trawl through the entire book, fiction or non-fiction, interesting or boring, and come out with an opinion. It's another matter that their opinion might be influenced by the persistent reminders from the commissiong editor or the hurry to catch the next flight to wherever.
Remember, even erudite sounding book reviewers are human beings but when a book review has to be written, they are put to an exacting test.
Ok, let us look at novelist Lionel Shriver's experience:
I am an idiot. Given that publishing honest and thus sometimes unfavourable assessments of the work of colleagues is violently at odds with a writer's self-interest, it's surprising that literary editors can cajole any author into reviewing. But then, plenty of writers like me don't know what's good for them, and some writers plain need the money.
Why is writing criticism self-destructive? Because reviews are deeply personal. The average book represents years of hard work. Most novelists will have invested heart and soul into their text, imbuing characters with a measure of themselves. Although a necessary conceit, the line between the writer and his book is a smudge. The experience of having your book rubbished is of having your character rubbished - for all the world to read. The adversaries you bring into being by writing negative appraisals are like diamonds: forever.
Obviously, the same writers you pillory may end up getting a crack at you. Literary editors are busy people. However dedicated to integrity in theory, they don't have time to verify who might bear whom a grudge.
Now, a practical example: Recently, when Prof Amitava Kumar reviewed (in fact, ripped apart) a Bollyood history non-fiction work (Bollywood—a History) by Mihir Bose, it made the author see an unfounded personal vendetta in the whole exercise. Instead of not taking it to his heart, he's let it all out. I guess Prof Kumar was just expressing his opinion (was the bad morning coffee the culprit behind the negative slant of the review?) but the scorned author has now shot back with his own defence (so what, you'd scream: these days even bad publicity is good publicity, no?):
But in 30 years as a writer I’ve never come across such a malicious review. Why Kumar decided to have a rant about the book I do not know. I’ve never met him and have done him no personal harm. He says: "History should have a point, no?" History with a point is called propaganda. And people who write such histories are known as pamphleteers. Kumar also says that Hindi films don’t lend themselves easily to generalisation. But as Satyajit Ray said: "The ingredients of the average Hindi film are well known; colour (Eastman preferred); songs (six or seven) in voices one knows and trusts, dance—solo and ensemble—the more frenzied the better; bad girl, good girl, bad guy, good guy, romance (but no kisses); tears, guffaws, fights, chases, melodrama; characters who exist in a social vacuum; dwellings which do not exist outside the studio floor; exotic locations... See any three Hindi films, and two will have the ingredients listed above." Whose view would you accept? Kumar further alleges: "You’d be hard pressed to find a single coherent or cogent argument about Hindi cinema in Bose’s book." The book has 19 chapters and almost every one discusses various themes.
Like it? More of it is here.
While we won't meddle (and both the writer and reviewer are entitled to their opinions), there's a lesson to be learnt here. Good coffee or bad coffee, and notwithstanding the editor's reminders, we shouldn't shy away from expressing our opinion. What do you think?