Monday, February 26, 2007

On being offline, and general notes about reviewing

It’s very relaxing to be away from the Internet for four days at a stretch, especially when the intervening period is as enjoyable as my Bombay trip was (more on that soon) – I didn’t have time to even think about the Net or worry about trolls leaving impolite comments in my absence. But as the time came for me to get online again I felt a growing terror of the hundreds of emails to be tackled (most of them spam, to be carefully sifted out and deleted, but also at least a couple of dozen to be read and replied to) as well as the innumerable news and Bloglines updates.

Thankfully, it took just a couple of hours to catch up with events. On my last day in Bombay Amit had told me about the Indibloggies results. Congratulations to the winners, especially to Falstaff, Baradwaj and Arnab – and while I’m at it, to Martin Scorsese and Helen Mirren, who apparently won Oscars around the same time I was battling evil children on the Rajdhani (more on this later).

I enjoyed this acceptance-speech post written by Baradwaj, because it clarifies some of my own thoughts about the reviewing process (which I’ve brought up at various times on this blog). Baradwaj and I have very similar attitudes to reviewing and we’ve discussed the subject over email a lot. Essentially, what we’re interested in is the review as a form of self-expression, almost as autobiography, written not to tell the reader “Watch this” or “Don’t watch this” but to provide a single perspective (though hopefully an articulate, informed one) on a film; a perspective that frankly might not chime with anyone else’s, but which will, at the very least, say: “this is how a certain sort of person might respond to this particular work – and the response is worth taking seriously even if he’s in a minority of one”.

Talking about his movie reviews, Baradwaj writes:
I’m often told that a reader doesn’t know what to do after reading a review of mine: go see the film, or not. And that’s really how it should be, for I am not in the business of giving endorsements, nor am I a mind-reader...sometimes I feel like adding a disclaimer at the bottom: Thou shalt not make your life – or at least, your movie-viewing – decisions based on the opinions of ONE writer whose thoughts merely reflect what he felt AT THAT POINT IN TIME, and the author reserves his rights to change his views upon subsequent viewings, and so on.
This approach will seem uncomfortably open-ended to many people (as I often discover while talking about reviewing with friends). It also seems like a cop-out – and maybe, on some level, it is. Speaking for myself, I’m not very good at holding strong, fixed opinions about most things – and is that necessarily bad? Is it as bad, for instance, as establishing your Worldviews at an early age and then stubbornly sticking by them all your life?

Incidentally, during an informal panel discussion at the Kitab festival on Saturday, Chandrahas made a related point about reviewing when he mentioned that good reviews (book reviews, in this case) should be seen as a sub-set of literature and held up to the same standards. Here too, the underlying assumption is that reviews need to be recognised as things written by individuals with distinct perspectives and biases of their own.

This might seem like a very obvious point to make, but it isn’t. I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has said to me “Reviews must be objective” – a sentence I can never understand (I’m not sure I understand what the word “objective” means anyway). In India, there are major misconceptions about the nature and purpose of film reviewing. People often seem to want reviewers (who supposedly are Higher Beings with some secret, cosmic insight into whether a film is Good or Bad) to tell them in clear terms whether or not they should go and see something. And if they happen to strongly disagree with the reviewer's assessment, well, that's the cue for personal abuse/imputing of ulterior motives. Everything has to be centred on Evaluation. Four stars or two-and-a-half stars or three-and-a-quarter stars?

P.S. One of the accumulated mails I had to deal with today was from a friend informing me about two conflicting reviews of a new book and asking me which one he should "believe". I was in a crabby mood and replied with a simple: "They're both lying."


  1. John Updike has a great essay on the 6 rules of book reviewing. I especially like the last rule:

    "Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author "in his place," making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end."

    The full essay is at The National Book Critics Circle blog:

  2. Thanks for the link. And yes, that's a very nice quote.

  3. Jabberwock,
    I must still say that the points you make are quite obvious. ;) (But then, I've read the kind of comments reviews of popular blogger-reviewers get!)

    One loose question, though. I've never understood why people judge (rate, or review, if you will) reviews of one individual reviewer. (Ref: comments like "very average review", "you're not quite there this time" etc. -- seriously!) Of course, I do find some reviews good, some excellent, some awesome etc., but not the contrary.

    1. I do perceive that reviewing art itself is a form of expression which can be criticized and all that, but, somehow, for me, there are only good reviews and those that I forget.
    2. And, I'm not drunk.

  4. And, I am still laughing at your post-script!

  5. Thanks.

    Of course, treating reviews as literature opens up the fascinating possibility of reviewing reviews, and then reviewing reviews of reviews. There's a whole industry waiting to happen (actually, happening already).

    I generally agree, of course, though I think that, like all art, a good review has to rise above self-expression and be interesting - has to provide fresh insight into the thing being reviewed, to expand the listener / reader / viewer's appreciation of what he's hearing / reading / watching by providing new / different perspective. Not all subjective self-expression is good criticism. I may not agree with Bloom on Eliot, but I still find reading his take on the Wasteland enriching.

    My personal test of a good review is whether I still find it engaging AFTER I've read / watched / listened to the thing being reviewed.

  6. "...or worry about trolls leaving impolite comments..."

    That's Orkut-speak man! Have you been spending time on it again? ::shudder::

  7. Aspi: no, that was blog-speak. Did you see the comment I linked to? Excellent one by someone with deep empathy for 20-year-old "journalists" with high salaries and no skills.

    Falstaff: yes, most of my favourite reviews are the ones I've read after watching the film/reading the book in question.

  8. Simplification is necessary for decision making, it is only when simplification is not made obvious that it is dangerous.

    umm, I was going to somehow relate this to what you were saying about reviewing, and I suddenly forgot. (will get back if i remember)

  9. @Jai, I did read the comment and it was curious - you don't get to see someone bashing both parties involved. Now I'm curious about these "high salaries".

  10. Zero: it's all very well for people to trash reviews on the basis of their being poorly written, or the argument being a badly expressed or uninformed one, or for factual inaccuracies. But what I find really amusing is when readers start trashing reviewers' perspectives: that is, someone's assessment of a film differs from yours, so you promptly go "you don't know anything about movies, you idiot!" (or words to that effect). Of course, the line can be a very thin one...

  11. Good Post It's true after a few days away from the computer I too come back revived and with a whole new vigor for writing . I got stuck when I was making my Yoga site and I too had to take time away and after I did I came back with a refreshed vision.