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!]