Monday, April 10, 2006

God's little reviewers

Reading this post by Sonia inspires me to try and articulate (yet again!) some of my very ambivalent feelings towards book reviewing. (Previous portentous posts on the subject here and here.) My initial, kneejerk response to her post was: she’s being way too strident about what a review must or must not be. Three small thermoses of coffee later, I decided charitably that I had overreacted – perhaps because I have a chip on my shoulder about not having studied literature, or undergone any meaningful formal education in the subjects I like writing about; hence discomfort with such high-sounding phrases as “the history and context of literature”. But now that I’m sober again, I realise that the truth, as usual, must lie somewhere betwixt (high-sounding word for “between”).

(Tomorrow morning doubtless I’ll change my mind about the whole thing yet again, but I’m writing this post now. Which, incidentally, is also a point I made about the reviewing process in this earlier post.)

One of the reasons blogging has been such a fulfilling experience is that it’s allowed me to go beyond writing structured, hermetically sealed book reviews: the ones where you discuss as many aspects of the work as possible, supply clear-cut opinions on all of them; talk about strengths and weaknesses; and of course, throw in a basic plot summary. Blogging, on the other hand, gives me the option of focusing on one aspect that has caught my interest or that is of special relevance to me, and to hold forth on it – perhaps relate it to something else I’ve recently read or experienced; try and understand how it relates to my world, enriches my perspective of things.

Increasingly, it’s this type of introspective “selective review” that I’m becoming more interested in (even as I continue to write the more conventional, comprehensive types for my livelihood). Essentially, I think of a review as a very personal, subjective thing – useful more for providing a new insight, a new way of looking at a book, than to lay down the final, authoritative word on it. (It always comes as a surprise to my friends when I say this, but I don’t believe people should base their book-reading decisions on reviews. I think it’s often more productive to read a good review after you’ve read the book.) And much as I admire, even envy, the writing of many reviewers who have firm opinions and express those opinions extremely well, I’m not very comfortable with reviews that are not, at least to some extent, open-ended.

This has logically led to another change in my approach to reviewing: a growing reluctance to write about a book if I haven’t got at least something strongly positive out of it. I dunno, I’m just not that interested in writing negative reviews anymore. I’m no longer as excited by the opportunities they proffer for being clever (as I shamelessly and overindulgently was while writing this one a few years ago) and on the whole it isn’t worth my time and effort. Too much time would already have been wasted on the book (even if I abandoned it halfway through).

This is an area where I’ve faced some flak recently. When I’m not being accused outright of chickening out of writing an unfavourable review, I get the bluster: the “it’s a reviewer’s job to tell it like it is” spiel. “Like it is”? Whoa. Heavy. I’m never really sure what that phrase means (in any context). And I’m too ambivalent about the usefulness (in some Larger Context) of reviewing to believe that what I write at a certain point in time can make such a big difference to anyone. My own opinion of a book keeps changing, depending on what’s happening in my life at the time. (Is there a case, I wonder, for reviews to be constantly revised and updated?)

Returning to Sonia’s post. I don’t want to nitpick too much about the specific points she makes, but I’d like to comment on this one:

“And you certainly never ever review a book written by a friend. Ever.”

Disagree with this. My approach is the safe (cowardly?) one: if I don’t like a book written by a friend (or by an acquaintance whose good side I’d rather stay on), I steer clear of writing anything about it. But if I like it enough to be able to say mostly good things without compromising on integrity, I’m open to reviewing it. (Sure, when the review is published I’ll invariably be accused of favouritism – but then, that happens all the time anyway. In this field it’s best to accept that your motives will be second-guessed regardless of what you do.)

It’s possible for me to make this choice because happily I’m now in a position where I can, 90 per cent of the time, decide after I’ve finished reading a book whether or not I want to write about it. Many reviewers don’t have that option and my advice to them would certainly be: never commit yourself to reviewing a book written by a friend. (Unless of course your intention in the first place is to write a puff-piece!)

In any case, given how small and self-contained the literary community is, and how few dedicated lit-journos there are, it isn’t practical to think of “never ever reviewing” a book written by a friend/close acquaintance. It would certainly be impossible for this lady (the finest literary journalist in the country by some distance), who hobnobs with authors on a regular basis. But as she told me during a chat a few days ago, “if you’re socially close to 40 different authors, the effect is the same as if you didn’t know any of them. You’re back on even ground”. And it shows: I doubt anyone could read one of her reviews and think of it as dishonest. And most authors I know, friends or not, respect her integrity.

[Note: some of the impetus for this post was provided by Chandrahas’s review of the Kiran Nagarkar book. I largely disagreed with the review – but more to the point, I found it disturbingly insistent; disturbingly sure about a complex (if admittedly flawed) book. In a strange, tangential way I thought it unwittingly confirmed Nagarkar’s own views about the perils of certitude. Fundamentalism in reviewing? Sorry, Hash!]


  1. I actually liked Chandrahas's review. He gives lot of evidence to back his jusgments. Although he might have used milder analogies (comparing his review to a warning on a cigarette packet was needlessly self-aggrandizing!)

    Now coming to your comment, I totally understand your need for being sceptical of any firm idea about something as complex as a work of art, but still a consistency on the part of reviewer's worldview is important. As a reader I have a few well defined expectations from a book with which I judge and form my opinions and I expect the same from reviewers too, only more informed and better articulated. a review is after all, by its definition, an *opinion*. and what makes a review worth reading is when those opinions are backed by consistent arguments.

    also I know you wouldn't agree but I think it is not necessary to be completely sceptical of objectivity. after all if a review is just a subjective opinion why should i bother reading it, other than perhaps learning some new witty phrases and use of words. after all as a reader of a review I am interested in the book more than the feelings that the book originated in the reviewer. there is a different genre for that kind of writing (personal essays) and i think we shouldn't mix that with literary criticism. I wouldn't want to read about how the reviewer went with his girlfriend to see an antonioni film when he was a teenager and had an enlightening evening, at least not in a book of literary criticism!!

    also, I don't know how fashionable this idea is these days, perhaps the lit majors can enlighten, but there is a fallacy called "affective fallacy" which explains these things very well....

  2. Alok,
    You say "If a review is just a subjective opinion why should i bother reading it?"

    Chandrahas would be the first to tell you (I hope) that his review is after all "just a subjective opinion" too - regardless of how well-argued his reasoning is. And yes, reading his review gives me a very definite sense of "the feelings that the book originated in the reviewer".

    "I wouldn't want to read about how the reviewer went with his girlfriend to see an antonioni film when he was a teenager and had an enlightening evening"

    That's a very narrow definition of subjectivity, and certainly not the one I had in mind. Having said that though, some of the finest reviews I've ever read are in fact personal writings of exactly that nature (iconic example: Pauline Kael's great piece on De Sica's Shoeshine, written against the background of her breaking up with her boyfriend. Or even her review of DePalma's Casualties of War - set against a personal experience where she saw a helpless little child being tormented by grown-ups on the road). There isn't as much of a divide between the particular and the universal as you seem to think.

  3. There isn't as much of a divide between the particular and the universal as you seem to think.

    I agree and I think this is the key. and the whole idea of good, honest writing is to bridge this divide between particular and universal. i haven't read much of kael's writing but i think she sure managed to do it in her reviews.

    but still I find it irritating when people raise the subjectivity flag just to avoid any kind of debate or questioning of opinions. this "i'm okay, you're okay" mentality just doesn't get us anywhere. a review should rather initiate a dialogue, provoke a debate and raise questions in teader's minds, rather than letting them continue to live in their respective spheres of subjectivity.

    and having said this, I think we all share the same emotional make-up and that's why reading about someone else's break up can be illuminating too :)

  4. i concur wholeheartedly with anonymous and anonymous (even though that does sound funny). sorry, jai. this isn't personal.

  5. icecreamassassin: sorry about removing the previous two comments (and thereby the context for your comment), but I'm barring that particular Anonymous (they're the same) from this site.

  6. About reviews and reviewing: I think most readers have some definite ideas about what they expect to read in a review. I suspect that the same readers who would expect very specific things from a newspaper review would be more than happy to suspend these expectations while reading a blog. So clearly, this works well for the kind of reviewing you like to do.

    Alok: I think there's a lot of room the reviewer can occupy without writing either a personal essay or literary criticsm. I don't think any reviewer would claim to be writing a review from a lit. crit. perspective--the two things have entirely different fucntions. Even when a Meenakshi Mukherjee reviews a book for a magazine, it makes for a very different reading than an academic essay on the same subject by her would.

  7. Jai: Ah, the what is a good review chestnut. I think you should write a book about it. I promise to review it. Favourably. :-).

    My thoughts (you KNEW I was going to weigh in didn't you?):

    1) I think there's a difference between being objective (whatever that means) and having a point of view. I'm unconvinced that objectivity in criticism is even possible (the best one can hope for, I think, is that the review be a subjective response to the book in question, not to the reviewer's private feud with the author), but I think it's important to have a point of view - what I could calling 'telling it like I feel it is'. I enjoyed Chandrahas' review because he put a stake in the ground - whether or not it's a stake I want to stand by is a question I can only answer once I've read the book, but at least I know where he stands and why. I think reviewers need to have the courage of their subjectivity.

    2) I'm entirely with you on the 'good reviews being more valuable after you've read the book' bit, but I think we're talking about two very different needs that a review can satisfy - our need for opinion on what books are worth reading, and our need for expansion of what we get out of the books we do read. A really good review will meet both needs, I think, but there are trade-offs to be made (how much of the plot do you discuss, for instance - how do you communicate your great insight about the surprise ending?) and it's useful, both to the reviewer and to his / her audience if the distinction is made clear. Part of the joy of blogging about books is that it allows one to write not just book reviews, but also pieces that are closer to critical essays on a piece of writing - I just think we confuse the two too much.

  8. Falstaff, you strongly opinionated so-and-so! (he said, from the lofty heights of holding no opinion about anything at all ;-)

    If you consider all the posts I've written on the subject, it probably adds up to something book-length already - trouble is, I still have no idea exactly what I'm going on about. It's a good thing guys like you and Alok are around!

  9. Reviews,no doubt are subjective.(thought we all understood them to be that!)Those that look at specific (personally interesting)aspects of a piece or those that give a more structured comprehensive take on the thing. But why should that preclude basing one's movie viewing decisions on them? You too surely must have a friend whose tastes you know and trust and whose recommendations when you follow more often than not deliver..(I have ones who when they give the thumbs up sign for something,I make a mental note to avoid at all costs..)Yes,this assumes that the reader is familiar with a reviewer.What I'm saying is that there is some stability of tastes and sensibilities..(yeah perhaps they can evolve over a decade..) And your response to it cant be as subject to what is happening/happened to you as you seem to suggest.(Not)to simplify, perhaps you'll see and report a "pink" as a "red" but surely you wont report a "black". And that much of error all self-respecting follower of your reviews, who understands your pink and red, will allow you..
    I also think writing positive reviews offer as much scope for being clever-what reviewers should caution against is not to get seduced into these self-indulgent trips(where your writing carries you along rather than the other way round), not not having strong honestly felt opinions about a piece..

  10. Dear Jai - Before I say anything else, thanks so much for linking to my piece, pal. You have a heck of a lot more regular readers than I do, and when I checked my Sitemeter referral stats last evening hundreds upon hundreds of our countrymen, eager as anything to get to the bottom of what looked like a superbly brewing spat, were pouring in off to read or at least scan my piece for evidence of reviewer's fundamentalism. I was quite upset on Sunday when the Express carried a much shorter version of my piece than I would have liked, but your gesture has led to me forgetting all my old grievances and surly thoughts.

    As to this whole debate about what reviewing is and what it should aim to do (although I hestitate to use words hinting at definite interpretations such as "is" and "should" for fear of sounding too cocky, too certain) - as to this whole debate, so many pundits have weighed in already with their sentiments that I shall add but a twopennyworth.

    Just as you disagree with my piece, I too disagree with most of the things you have to say - including the bit where you second-guess me on reviews being "just a subjective opinion". I shall voice just one thing as an objection - in my opinion this whole objective-subjective debate is not a very helpful way of understanding the nature of reviewing or literary criticism; it can be used only to make some very basic points that are almost too obvious to spell out, and then its usefulness quickly recedes, and it becomes a dead end rather than a way forward.

    You unintentionally demonstrate this as well with your assertion that even the best reviews, regardless of how well-argued they are, are "just a subjective opinion". Yes, and where do we go from there? By those criteria your response to a film after years of watching and studying films, the response of a fourteen-year old writing an essay on the film for his school magazine, and the gurgle of a baby to the splash of colour in one frame - all these responses can be rolled up together under the rubric of "just a subjective opinion", and therefore each one is a review. (I am being a bit facetious, but you get my point.)

    "Opinion" - the meaning of that word in the dictionary is "A belief or conclusion held with confidence, but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof". I don't think that even you seriously believe that the work you and I do is only 'opinion' - but if you do, then speak for yourself; I can't agree with you.

    And "subjective opinion" - that phrase muddies the matter even further by doubling your assertion against truth value. Coming from that position it is not surprising that you find an emphatically worded piece "disturbingly insistent". I'm more than happy to hear a good counter-argument to my points, and to modify my views thereafter. But I'm not persuaded by an argument about the "perils of certitude" in the abstract - there's really no parallel between Nagarkar's talk about the perils of certitude in matters of faith on the one hand and a reviewer's argument, substantiated by plenty of evidence, about why a book is bad on the other.

    But to each his own. Again, thanks very much for all the traffic and the hits - I now owe you a few hits myself!


  11. //Increasingly, it’s this type of introspective “selective review” that I’m becoming more interested in// I, for one, do not really remember having read any review at all that presents a complete dispassionate analysis of the book in question. They(among them being Outlook, India Today, HT regular reviewers, plus the brilliant ones that they manage every now and then, like Rana Dasgupta, Khushwant Singh, Indrajit Hazra etc.) may throw in just about a line of censure or approval as the case may be and then quickly move on to what they feel about it. So much for the comprehensiveness. Every reviewer has particular tastes and his perceptions shall inherently dominate any review that he does. umm, fer eg, you either have it for say, Rana Dasgupta's brilliant imagination or you dont. If you dont, then you kill the book. But the book was brilliant in its own style, wasnt it? One cant blame the reviewer. How the hell will he like it if he has a taste for Hermann Hesse? He'll obviously ask you to steer clear of Dasgupta. Okay, lost. The basic point here being, reviewers do not really weigh in a book nowadays, they just write what they feel about it too. You just have to personally know the reviewer's personality type to know whether it matches yours and consequently decide whether you wanna buy it or not. phew. PS. You need not worry. You write the good ones, whether they are personal perceptions or heavily mulled over reviews. :)

  12. "You just have to personally know the reviewer's personality type to know whether it matches yours and consequently decide whether you wanna buy it or not."

    Aaki, interesting observation. Like I mentioned before, I usually don't make my reading/film-viewing decisions based on reviews - but the few times I do, it's because the reviewer in question is someone I've been following over a long period, and I've figured that our opinions/perspectives match quite often.

    Needless to say, however, this can't be a foolproof method - and it shouldn't be. I personally find it very satisfying to discover over a period of time the ways in which my tastes diverge from my favourite reviewers'.

  13. My two paise: On the all too rare occasions that I review a book, I make certain assumptions

    a) the hypothetical reader of the review has not read the book

    b) said reader is reading the review only because she/he=it wants to make a call on reading the book in question

    c)the review has to be primarily oriented to helping it make up its mind. I know quite a lot of people including ones employed in publishing who don't read more than 5-6 books a year for pleasure. Hence this is a key constitutency.

    d)My opinion and personality is relevant only if it helps further b)& c). Obviously I will get into rhodomantine animadversions if I am the personality type that indulges in RA. But I should hold the objective in mind and try to avoid RA purely for the sake of RA.

    e) I have a word count & I will get paid. I am not writing for undying fame nor in order to complete an academic assignment (on the even rarer occasions when I am assessing an ms for possible publication, I work considerably harder at the nuances)

    I have never personally read a review of a book after I have already read the book itself.

    Sorry Jai/ Hash - already read GLS (and didn't like it much) hence, skipped the reviews.
    Couldn't resist commenting though.

    BTW Did you have the twit that loves you, Uma and NSR babbling again - the anon comments you deleted?