"Sacred Games": Two Reviewers Who Haven't Finished the Book

There seems to be something about Vikram Chandra's heavily-hyped, 900 page Bombay gangster novel, Sacred Games, that has led reviewers to publish evaluations before they've finished reading the book.

I can forgive Sven Birkerts for his essay in the Boston Globe. He writes about the publishing industry's hype machine, and how a million dollar advance and a $300,000 publicity campaign are actually pretty discouraging for a serious reader. The essay is well-written, and the paragraph Birkerts devotes to the novel itself redeems the thing:

I've been reading every day, not quite finished, so the one-man jury on ultimate greatness is still out, but I can say that "Sacred Games" is moving right along. It's working. Page after page it plucks me from the here and now, from the world governed by marketing mentalities, ruled by tasks and anxieties. I really am for long stretches in some phantasmagoric, confusing, reeking, corrupt, overheated, overpopulated elsewhere, a Mumbai of the mind, with characters who surprise me with their look and sound, their twists of behavior. How strange. It's as if I've needed to go through this peculiar re-immersion to get to my turnaround, to remember -- again -- why I got into this game in the first place. It was out of love. (link)

But I was bothered by the Malcolm Jones "review" in the online Newsweek/MSNBC, where he essentially says he can't be bothered because he's too lazy (and yes, he even uses the word "lazy"). He makes the rather original claim that committing so many hours to a long book can actually dampen one's objectivity:

Book reviewers, if they’re being paid and if they’re being the least bit fair, finish the books they review. But this creates a strange, maybe unnatural, situation: the very people paid to be objective about a book are also duty bound to finish it, and believe it or not, this warps a lot of peoples’ judgment. Let’s say you read a 900-page novel and you don’t absolutely hate it. You even sort of like it. Are you going to say that? Apparently not, judging by most reviews I read. Most reviewers get invested in the books they review, one way or the other. So the books are either panned outright or praised. The praise isn’t necessarily over the top, but it is praise. The reviewer has an investment now. He or she has spent a lot of time reading this book. Can’t just say, oh, it was OK. So you wind up with positive reviews that lack something—heart, maybe? (">link)

He might have a point here about the way in which your own investment of time can act as a kind of bribe -- though I find the implications of this kind of thinking rather distressing. Reading a work of literary fiction is not really like having a lobbyist pay for a golf trip to Scotland, is it? Jones then comes dangerously close to admitting he'd rather be watching TV:

My time is precious. Your time is, too. Who has enough time in the day to do all that we want? When I go home after work, it’s triage every night. I can listen to music. Or I can play music. Or I can answer letters or write. Or I can read a book. Or watch TV. Or watch a DVD on TV. Or go out to a concert or a movie. And those would be the nights that I don’t have to clean up the kitchen, do the laundry or help with homework.

When I realized that I get paid to read and that I still don’t have time to read everything I want—in fact, it’s hard to just barely keep up—that was when I realized how up against it everyone else is. Almost no one has time to read indiscriminately for pleasure these days. You have to pick and choose and then pick and choose again, and if you choose wrong, well, there are few things more aggravating than getting well into a book and discovering that you don’t like it after all. You’ve wasted your time. Your money. And unlike a bad movie, where you brush the popcorn off your lap and forget the whole thing by the time you hit the street, a bad book just sits there on the shelf, reminding you daily what a miserable experience you had. It’s a wonder that anyone reads anything any more. (link)

There are lots of problems here. For one thing, I've never finished a very long book that I didn't in some way like, and I can't imagine there are many readers out there who would do so. Secondly, reading a long novel is a qualitatively different kind of experience than watching a film, and thinking of them as interchangeable experiences doesn't speak well of Jones (I hope he soon gets assigned to an easier beat). The dangers of disappointment may still be real, but the kind of imaginative pleasures and discoveries possible make the risk worth it for most readers.