Monday, October 18, 2004

On reviewing

A friend of four years and a colleague twice over (we were together in Encyclopaedia Britannica before fate threw us together again) saw me surreptitiously posting a blog on office time the other day. "Joy Orjon," he said through his droopy moustache, using the Bengalicised form of my name (I wear my honorary Bong status with a brave smile), "what makes you think anyone in cyberspace is interested in your scattered thoughts and self-important musings?"

The question wasn’t really a serious one – provocative, meaningless repartee has been a motif of my association with YB (whose very initials hint at an existential dilemma) since the Britannica days. But it got me thinking, an event that usually precipitates a new blog. Scattered thoughts and self-important musings, I mused, aren’t restricted to blogging; they apply equally, though in a more structured form, to reviewing, which is something I do at a professional level.

I’ve always had an ambivalent attitude to reviewing. On the one hand, from a purely personal vantage point, I love doing it. Writing film and book reviews have given me the opportunity to structure and articulate my thoughts to myself. But on the other hand, I’m not sure I’d be able to convincingly argue with someone who opined that reviews were of no real worth to anyone. That’s because I believe any good, honest review is, by its very nature, an exercise in self-indulgence, one that will tell you more about the person who’s written it than about the thing being written about. People who don’t understand this are those who deal in absolutes, who believe that there is one all-encompassing truth about a certain book or movie. But if I write an honest review (as opposed to the hack jobs written to cater to PR companies), it will necessarily convey the way a book or movie has affected me personally, and that in turn will be influenced by a myriad factors: defining moments in my life, some of which I might only sub-consciously be aware of; the issues and concerns that are of special relevance to me.

All this seems obvious when I set it down. But to some people it isn’t. It’s one of the curses of Indian journalism, for instance, that an editor will call you into his cabin, tut-tut at a review you’ve written that is at odds with his opinion/the general opinion, and ask you to "be objective" in your reviewing. (What he’s really asking you to do, of course, is to write an objective review that endorses his own [subjective] view of the thing.)

But HOW can a review possibly be objective? It’s written by a human being; it is, after all, only his opinion. At best one person might, by dint of experience, be more qualified to be a professional reviewer than others. But no one is so qualified that his opinion can be set in stone and held up as the final, definitive word.

Did I say reviews were of no real worth to anyone? Well, actually they are – but only if you’re open-minded enough to read and assimilate well-argued, well-written reviews that express a viewpoint opposed to your own. I like to think I am. Some of my favourite reviews (Pauline Kael’s trashing of Scorsese’s Raging Bull, for instance) are written from a perspective completely different from my own; but if the arguments they supply adequately support that perspective, I appreciate the insights I get into someone else’s way of thinking. It’s a humbling process.

Of course, I do compromise to an extent when I’m reviewing professionally. Whenever I sense that I’m getting carried away, I stop for a reality check, and then try consciously to make a few general statements about the film/book. If you’re the sort of person who likes dash dash dash you should enjoy this blah blah blah. It’s not a completely happy compromise but I kind of understand the need for it.

But if it’s complete "objectivity" you’re looking for, read synopses/summaries that give you merely the bones of the story, with no personal opinion attached.

P.S. The attempts by editors to "standardise" reviews into assembly-line productions remind me somehow of this vitriolic comment by Ray Bradbury on the editing of stories for school textbooks:

"How do you cram 400 short stories by Twain, Irving, Poe, Maupassant and Bierce into one book? Simplicity itself. Skin, debone, demarrow, scarify, melt, render down and destroy. Every adjective that counted, every verb that moved, every metaphor that weighed more than a mosquito - out! Every simile that would have made a sub-moron’s mouth twitch - gone! Any aside that explained the two-bit philosophy of a first-rate writer - lost!
Every story, slenderized, starved, bluepencilled, leeched and bled white, resembled every other story. Twain read like Poe read like Shakespeare read like Dostoevsky read like - in the finale - Edgar Guest. Every word of more than three syllables had been razored. Every image that demanded so much as one instant’s attention - shot dead.
The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running around with lit matches."

(P.P.S: Rumman, hope you finally get around to reading this, now that I’ve typed out half the thing!)


  1. I do agree that condensed and abridged version of great books and short stories take away most of its essence is retelling, but what you've got to remember is that these are mostly written for children. How would Dickens really read to a kid of 10, Jabberwock? She would be lost in the crowd of words and quickly lose interest in the story. Whereas, if you get that kid interested in Dickens' writing as such, one day she will grow up and read it in the original. I am not ashamed to admit that I read Pride and Prejudice in an abridged format (though, thankfully, not as an illustrated Moby classic or something) for the first time when I was about 12 and simply loved it. Loved it enough to devour everything by Austen at a later age when I was able to appreciate her elegancies of language. Maybe I was an exceptionally slow kid, but I'm sure I wouldn't have got beyond 'It is a truth universally acknowledged...' if I had started with the original.

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