Thursday, April 20, 2006

How to Review a Book? A Desi Book Blog Debate

Jai Arjun, Sonia Faleiro, and Chandrahas are having an interesting debate over the ethics and form of a good book review, here, here, and here (and I would recommend you read in that order).

Let's start with Chandrahas's takedown of Kiran Nagarkar's God's Little Soldiers, which is compelling, witty, and awfully snarky:

Here is how a cold wind blows around Zia: "It tore at him, slipped inside his trouser legs, groped at his crotch, ferreted in his armpits and careened into his lungs." This establishes only that the writer knows many verbs and body parts; as a sentence in a novel it is risible. There is nothing very significant about the wind groping at Zia's crotch; one loses faith in a writer if his powers of discrimination are so poor and his emphases so illogical. Here is the best analogy Nagarkar can find to dramatise a particular mental state of his protagonist: "Zia became a rod of uranium-238, inflammable with self-loathing and spite." Elsewhere Nagarkar provides, "There was a manhole in his soul, and he had fallen into it." Who can countenance work like this?

Oh my God, the "manhole in his soul": sounds like Trent Reznor on an off day, I might add. You'll get no argument from me -- that sounds pretty awful.

Then onto Sonia Faleiro, who gives her stamp of approval to Chandrahas and also adds her own philosophy of what qualifies one to write a review, which is in a way tied to ethics:

Because the bottom line is this: You don't review books merely because you like to read. Or because you want free books, a byline, or an outlet for your creative writing. You do it because you understand the history and context of literature, because if asked to explain even one word of praise or condemnation in your review, you can point to the specific piece of prose in the book being reviewed, to back your statement; and because it's a skill you're continuously sharpening. And you certainly never ever review a book written by a friend. Ever.


And Jai Arjun has a nuanced rebuttal, which focuses less on ethics and more on reviewing as an act of writing. He says that though he writes reviews to spec for money, he actually sort of prefers the free-form writing one can do on one's blog. And he doesn't just want to see an opinion about a book, but some evidence of a complex, personal reaction in a review:

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.

The idealistic reviewer. I agree with all of this, though I think it really probably applies more to the kind of extended reviews one might find in The New Yorker than to the kinds of reviews that work in your average daily newspaper (whether in India or the U.S.).

Jai continues:

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 . . . 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).

I like this, though I would have to say that a good snarky takedown (or even better, parody) of a spectacularly bad book can be immensely entertaining for a reader. I wouldn't countenance it for a young writer, or with a sincere book that perhaps simply goes awry in some way. But with overhyped celebrity authors and literary dinosaurs, why not let loose? I don't think, in this case, that Kiran Nagarkar qualifies as either overhyped or a dinosaur -- so as much as I think Chandrahas is compelling, I give the edge to Jai Arjun's idealism.

This whole debate echoes, in a certain way, the debate between Sven Birkerts and Dale Peck over 'hatchet jobs' that went down in 2004 (start here).

And finally, if you have no idea who Kiran Nagarkar is, try this piece by Nilanjana Roy. She introduces Nagarkar (and she likes the book that Chandrahas pans, though she only talks about it for two paragraphs at the end).

18 comments:

Jason said...

I read Chandrahas's review and was struck by a phrase he uses in the final sentence:

This preening and shabby novel exhausts all negative superlatives

The turn of phrase reminded me of something, and so I checked my copy of James Wood's 'The Irresponsible Self' and turned to his review of Salman Rushdie's Fury, and confirmed that the opening line of his piece is:

Fury, a novel that exhausts negative superlatives...

=========

At least the idea of observing the exhaustion of negative superlatives in the consideration of a novel itself has not been exhausted! I would be charitable and say it is a subliminal lift rather than plaigarism - this kind of thing happens, but it did amuse me that in his haughty dismissal he should succumb himself to a phrasing that is itself used before, given Chandrahas's fastidious tone and expectation of writers to bring the fresh things in their language - so Chandrahas - be more careful in future! ;-)

Amardeep said...

Thank you, Jason -- great catch.

I could definitely see it as an unconscious borrowing (sometimes good phrases stick in one's head). But it does nevertheless change things a bit.

(And actually, my sense is that this novel isn't necessarily bad enough to 'exhaust negative superlatives' anyway -- not like 'Fury')

Jason said...

I am sure it is an unconscious borrowing Amardeep.

But it suggests something else to me - that one of the the faults he accuses the novel of - preening - is exactly what his review itself is doing - that it was written to preen itself, and the rhetoric and insistence that the book is so bad that it 'exhausts all negative superlatives' (Really? Is it really that bad? Or is that just stretching and posturing?) even if this is only a subliminal and entirely innocent regurgitation of a phrase buried in memory, even so, that it was said to sound such vehement rhetoric, and makes you wonder about the integrity of the review itself.

Saying this, let me make clear that I believe every single review written by everybody is open to have it's integrity challenged - note, I am talking about the review itself and not Chandrahas personally or any other reviewer, whose integrity is not in question, I am speaking more abstractly about the review as a work with its own value - the critical piece's stance and integrity and internal coherence and rhetoric.

Ruchira Paul said...

I am not much of a reviewer but I love to write book reviews.

What Jason points out about the "preening and posturing" nature of the said review by Chandrahas, is precisely why I took a conscious decision to post only positive reviews on my blog. I notice that when I attempt to write negatively about a subject, unconsciously I assume a position of power and tend to get somewhat carried away by colorful adjectives and careless hyperbole. In the end, the review ends up as less than honest and I find myself wondering, "Was it really that bad?"

Amardeep said...

Yes, there is a danger in needless snark: no one wants to be a bully.

The other danger is, authors (especially less famous ones) are 100% going to find your comment through Google. Unfortunately in my own case I've run into people I've criticized on my blog later, and sometimes had some rather awkward conversations. (Nothing too bad.)

This phenomenon has declined a bit as the number of blogs out there has increased. It used to be that you'd only find one or two blogs talking about a certain author (say, Vikas Swarup). Now you'll find dozens or even hundreds.

Chandrahas said...

Dear Jason, Amardeep and Ruchira,

Suppose we were having a conversation and we got to talking about person A, and you insisted that he was an idiot. But I didn't know person A myself, and instead I interpreted your comments as an attempt to establish yourself as clever at the expense of A.

It's easy enough to project something back onto its speaker - ergo, if I say that a novel is "preening", then I must be preening myself.

If you would do me the courtesy of reading the book for yourself and then talk about my piece, that might make for a more valuable conversation.

I agree that my piece on Nagarkar's new book came across as - to use Amardeep's phrase - "snarky". But the point of my writing it was hardly to advertise my own powers of snarkiness.

Indeed, I do not believe the piece to be a typical example of my work or my style. All I was trying to do was what I attempt to do normally, which is to provide a fair assessment of the book - which, in the case of outrageously bad books, means finding the appropriate tone and the language to communicate that sense.

Why should a piece about a book not contain vehement language if the subject justifies it? You cannot use merely "the sense" you have got of a book to decide that question.

Surely, if my work really contains a hidden egotism and my judgments are really so extreme, it should be a simple piece of work to establish this with counter-evidence of your own. (Of course, it may be the case that the book isn't available in America yet.)

You are welcome to disagree with my judgment of the book, and in that case I'd be happy to hear what you have to say. But till then (and while I'm thankful to you, Amardeep, for linking to my piece), you'll forgive me for not finding the criticisms you make of my work very constructive.

Yours,

Chandrahas

Jason said...

Chandrahas

But you did lift the phrase from James Wood, didnt you? Either subconsciously or plaigaristically. I doubt you stole it, but it did slip in, and that is unfortunate, to say the least. It was the particularity of that phrase and that sentence that makes one suspect that you could be preening - using a smart and sharp phrase which comes as stock from another source to articulate something that could be better said with your own words. Surely pointing this out is constructive?

Ruchira Paul said...

Sorry Chandrahas, if you thought I was speaking about you. I was really referring to my own tendencies towards "snarkiness" when I attempt a negative review.

"Preening and posturing" is an easy trap to fall into when we are tearing something apart.You are not alone in this.

Negative reviews have great value -saving unsuspecting readers from wasting their time and money. There are a few simple reasons that I myself stay away from posting negative reviews:

1.I am not a professional reviewer. So I am not "required" to read what I don't want to or report on them.

2.Unlike Amardeep, who has the remarkable gift of speaking urbanely and in a temperate voice about things he does not like, I have a sharp tongue. I must therefore watch myself carefully when I give a thumbs down to literary efforts which deserve contempt or at least a polite dismissal.

3.I am a blogger who blogs for personal fun and I have no special wisdom to offer. So I decided not to waste my blog space or blogging energies in writing about books that I "don't" want my readers to read.

As for reading God's Little Soldiers? No thanks - not after reading your review which was quite unequivocal about its merits.

Anonymous said...

have you seen Shashi Tharoor's review of the same novel in Outlook last week? He comes down on Chandrahas' side but is kinder to Nagarkar.

shobha said...

I read God's Little Solider recently and although the book was quite a disappointment, especially after Nagarkar's brilliant and unforgettable 'Cuckold', I cannot stomach the harsh review that Chandrahas has given the book. Shashi Tharoor's and Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta's reviews were more objective, and although they did not think it was a great book either, they definitely found a better choice of words to share their criticism. Do reviews have to be as scathing as Chandrahas'?

Nagarkar is a man in his 60s who has spent nine years of his life to write this novel, and while the book lacks coherence, it is certainly not without any merit. While one can argue that a book be reviewed solely on the work it presents, and does not have to keep the author and his previous works in mind while doing so, I think the line "This preening and shabby novel exhausts all negative superlatives, and deserves to be sold with the kind of warning found on cigarette cartons and whisky bottles." was taking it a bit too far. It was rude and discourteous, and definitely unwarranted. All of 26 or maybe 27, Chandrahas attacks a writer of over 60 in a language that is ungracious. Then again, he would argue, what has age got to do with it?

I perhaps come from a different time.

Susan said...

If you are looking for good place to find online book reviews then here is a great list of sites.

bovick said...

Just thought some may be interested in a desi forum about life, sex, love, marriage, etc... it has a nice web radio and chat as well, though I think you need to make an account for those to work. Perhaps someone here could come and share some wisdom gained from books and life for others to read.. it's mostly geared towards those who are still learning the ways. Anyway, check it out at DHAMAKA @ http://www.amarandpreet.com

Frequesea said...

Good Stuff.

Frequesea said...

Great stuff. thanks

amitabh said...

Reviews are always interesting to read, whether they be of desi books or of Bollywood videos. India is churning out a great deal of creating material and its only fitting that attention be given to the process of vetting and reviewing good quality content.

Martha said...

reviews are sometimes best thing to read but they should be done with neutral point of view. I have read many reviews on portals giving dissertation help and almost all the reviews are same.

Gamil Sawiris said...

Great Stuff. It is hard to write a review everyone will like.

london forum said...

Surely everyone and anyone has the right to write a review (try saying that after a few beers). And if you are writing a review if you tried to make everyone like it you would end up with a blank piece of paper!