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).