Monday, May 28, 2007

A dangerous pursuit called book reviewing

Book reviewing can be a dangerous pursuit. Why? Because sometimes writers can be such pricky ingratiates (writers are expected to be humble souls but exceptions are allowed).

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?


rajeshsharma7777 said...

Books reviewing is different from Film review.A good writer can be a good director but a good reviewer can not always be a good director.

Obiter Dictum said...

Sometimes it is just point of view, I guess, of the reviewer.

I thought Harmony Silk Factory to be odious ans some of those whose opinion I respect thought it was great.

Every writer, of course, has the right to defend his work. :)

Zafar Anjum said...

Exactly OD. It's just a POV. Take it or leave it. I just read in a paper that Shobha De received close to 175 negative reviews for one of her novels. Imagine if she started to defend her work in each sayang!...but yeah, De is not a good example here but even then):

GM said...

Hi Zafar, this is Gargi from the writing group! Thanks for this post, I had read AMitava Kumar's review and had wondered briefly whether the book had as many negative points as he made it out to be. Looks like the author was definitely not taking this lying down!

Zafar Anjum said...

Thanks for dropping by Gargi. Yes, the author has not taken the criticism in his stride. But I guess Prof Kumar has not responded yet. I doubt if he would at all.