Saturday, December 17, 2011

In defence of a reviewer, reviews and reviewing

This post concerns a topic that is close to my heart, both personally and professionally, and one that I am certain will resonate with reviewers - and writers too - everywhere.

Before I say anything more, here's a link to one of my latest reviews, Salil Desai's 'The Body in the Backseat', touted as India's first 'police procedural'. Some of you may have read it earlier, as I usually post all my reviews on Facebook. At the end, you will see a response by the author. Please read that carefully too. I would like your comments - honest, critical remarks, please, I like to think of myself as someone who can take criticism, as long as it isn't directed at my person; that prerogative is limited to only a few people - on both my review, and on the author's remarks.

Right. To answer any unasked questions - yes, the book really was as dreadful as I made it out to be. It's not the first bad book I've read, and it certainly won't be the last. When BW informed me of the author's ranting, I read his response, but chose to not answer because (i) There didn't seem to be any space left for engagement, as the author clearly didn't want to talk, he wanted to accuse; (ii) The author was as certain of the superior quality of his work as he was of the complete irrelevance of my review, and that isn't a place you can begin a discussion from; and (ii) He got personal, and I do not like personal attacks, especially when they come from people who do not know me. Reviewers, whether of books or films, are routinely attacked by the people whose work they critique, and I am not the first book reviewer an author has taken umbrage at; I share that dubious distinction with people far more qualified and experienced than I. So I didn't really mind - Mr Desai is as entitled to his opinion as I am to mine. Increasingly, though, I am beginning to think that perhaps I should respond, a polite reply answering the various points he has raised, just so readers of the publication get an idea of both points of view.

Matters should have ended there - in fact, I thought they had, and I had put it out of my mind - but they didn't. Because a couple of days ago, Mr Desai's publisher, Gyaana Books, run by Ms Divya Dubey, decided to join the fray, in a thinly veiled attack in a column published in, an online platform for entrepreneurs ( So now please, all of you kind enough to read this piece, read this article too.

Once you've done that, you might see why this bothered me. Part of the reason is undoubtedly my irritation at veiled attacks, which to me are tantamount to talking behind my back - if you have a problem with something I have written, why not say it to my face? Why not vent your ire on me, why not give us both a chance to talk something through? And a veiled attack also means (i) The writer safeguards himself/herself by couching the article in general terms, naming no names, thereby disassociating herself/himself from the person/event that triggered it off; and (ii) it gives the person at the heart of the affair no chance to respond (or respond at the risk of being accused of paranoia), while ensuring that all the barbs hidden under the otherwise reasonable tone in which the article is written hit home.

Besides, the hypocrisy of a publisher writing a prescriptive piece on 'how to write a review' is one that is far greater than any hypocrisy that that said publisher has imputed to me. And let me make it clear - as a reviewer, I do not engage with publishers. I am open to discussions with authors - in fact, I welcome them, however vitriolic that response might be (and they're often not; the writer of a book I reviewed recently wanted to talk to me about the critical remarks I had made. She was happy with my review all told, and we are now Facebook friends!).

And so while I definitely do not want to engage with any publisher regarding a review of mine, I choose to respond just to make clear what my role as a reviewer is here - a role as an arbiter of writing, and one that begins where the publisher's ends. Also, the publisher has nothing to do with my review; Gyaana Books might be a small publisher, but had a bigger publishing house published this book, my review would have been exactly the same. As anyone who has read my previous reviews would know. I have given better (better-known, certainly) authors and bigger publishers bad reviews, and never got such a response.

Now, my response, which also sums up my views on reviewing, and my - responsibility, shall we say? - as a reviewer.

First, to take the one (rather perplexing) aspect that seems to have raised everyone's hackles - the issue of giving out a bit of information that added to the suspense in the book, the homosexuality angle. People, it's called a spoiler warning/alert. It's a known, much-used, and perfectly acceptable method while reviewing books and films. You might not like it, you might hate people who use it, you might never use it yourself, but you cannot deny that it's a globally accepted practice. I did the usual and placed the warning right before I began my review, as I have seen done by reviewers all over the world, in various publications. I draw the line at going all the way, which I have actually seen some others do - nowhere did I even hint at the identity of the murderer, or what the motive behind the murder was. Calling me 'unethical', or my writing in 'bad taste' because there were spoilers, which appeared after a clear spoiler warning, is ridiculous - and baffling.

Second, the rules which apparently one should follow while writing reviews, and all of which I have clearly flouted. Who makes these rules? Are there clearly laid-out guidelines issued by a reviewers' forum or a publishers guild stating the parameters within which reviews ought to be written? Or are these rules we make up every time we encounter a review that doesn't meet our expectations? I must have read countless reviews all my life, and every review was as different as the person writing it. I've read reviews that merely rattled off the story; ones that provided an honest opinion; ones that did everything but talk about the book; ones that were more about the reviewer than the work being reviewed; ones that were factually incorrect, showing how little the reviewer actually knew of the work s/he was talking about. We make our own rules, we decide where our responsibility lies, and we give readers our opinion on the work in question.

Two of my rules: I never, ever criticise the author. It would be stupid to do so, since nine times out of ten I do not know the person. My focus is just on the book I have been given to read.
And second, I give my honest opinion on the work at hand. An opinion I am fairly certain of and qualified to provide after decades of reading, writing, and one full decade of working as an editor (and no, regardless of what anyone might say, working in the non-fiction, academic world does in no way mean you do not develop an appreciation of good writing. Some of the best academics manage to combine both terrific writing and research).

It is not my job to provide 'examples and parallels', to 'gently show the hows and whys'. I am not the author's friend, confidant, or publisher. That is their job. What I have with me is a published book, one that demands to be placed alongside quality - and some not so quality - books on shelves, which forms part of the category of 'Indian writing in English', which hopes to be bought and read. It is my job to state whether the book qualifies, whether (in my opinion) readers should spend a part of their precious time on this book, of all the millions they have to choose from. No, I'm sorry, I do not have a responsibility to the author, or the publisher - I'm sure they can commission their own reviews, should they choose. I do have a responsibility to the publication entrusting me with the review, and to the reader, and I try and do my best there by presenting an honest, unbiased opinion.

So yes, if I don't like a book, I will say so. Unequivocally. I don't hold back the praise when I come across a good book, and I will not make any allowances when I encounter a book that does not meet my standards. And I don't feel the need to apologise for this. As I said, my critique is always focused on the work, NEVER on the creator of that work, and I am always open to being questioned, challenged and argued with - provided it's done openly, and with a certain degree of civility.

There is a very good, reasoned argument behind my refusal to accord 'The Body in the Backseat' the status of a police procedural, which is one of the sub-genres of crime fiction, texts within which can, to use Roland Barthes' terminology, be classified as 'writerly texts', as opposed to 'readerly texts', which this one is - a bit of which I have mentioned in my review - but that can wait for later.

To continue with Barthes' thought - is it possible to be entirely objective when reading, especially for an active reader, even when the text in question is a 'readerly' one? Perhaps not. But does that mean that one should excuse oneself from reviewing a book merely because it has moved one to extreme emotion, whether it be distaste or pleasure? I doubt that - I suspect a large number of reviews would never be written if one followed a rule that stated, 'Thou shalt not review a text that thou hast disliked - or loved.' And why, pray, does this debate never come up when the review in question is favourable? Surely good reviews are just as susceptible to biases and authorial subjectivity?

It is all too easy to dismiss a bad review as an example of 'malevolence', 'wild ranting' and 'hysteria'. It is even easier to strip the reviewer who has given the book a bad review of all independent, objective thought and agency by demonising her as 'a biased judge, a failed writer, a disgruntled non-professional, a malicious human being or simply a green-eyed one'. And sometimes that might just be true - sometimes a bad review might simply reflect an inadequate person, an envious, miserable loser.

But sometimes, all it says is that the book in question is a very flawed one indeed.