On Book Reviewing
In December 2011 journalist Mihir Sharma published a 6000-word review article about well-known PR executive Suhel Seth’s new book Get To The Top–The Ten Rules For Social Success. It was an intensely written, strong and provocative essay that caused a storm in literary circles. The opening section was the review, but the remaining two-thirds of the essay was a deprecating profile of Suhel Seth. The link to the article went viral. It resulted in some unpleasant mudslinging between the reviewer and author on twitter, with the magazine’s editor fiercely defending the reviewer. The author after a few tweets deleted the conversation string from his twitter channel and locked it from public access. But by then the tweets exchanged had been preserved and shared across all social media platforms and emailed. But my point is about the review article. Did it achieve what it meant to — sell the book? It probably did. Sure, the focus of the article was Suhel Seth and his book, but it was the quality of writing of a professional critic that created the extraordinary buzz, it did.
Book reviewing is not as easy as it looks. Today with the internet and social media platforms, it is possible for anyone to upload their point of view, opinion or comment on a book. A detailed response like Mihir Sharma’s to a book takes time, effort, knowledge and the confidence to go public with what you actually believe in, and later — to stand by your words. But 98% of the time, book reviewing– published in print or on blogs – is a regurgitation of the plot. It is more often than not opinionated (not an analysis) and tough to read. Obviously this is not a new phenomenon. In his essay, “Confessions of a book reviewer” (1946) George Orwell says, “The great majority of reviews give an inadequate or misleading account of the book that is dealt with.” More than sixty years later, this statement still holds true.
Literary Journalism spaces like the international literary review spaces (print and portals/blogs) worth reading are the New York Review of Books; London Review of Books; the Times Literary Supplement; Granta; the New Yorker; and the New York Times Books pages. In India (of the same calibre) it would be the books pages of all the main newspapers. Special mention can be made of the Hindustan Times; the Times of India; the Hindu Literary Supplement; the Book Review; Businessworld online books portal and bloggers like Jai Arjun (Jabberwock), Chandrahas Choudhary (The Middle Stage), and Nilanjana Roy (Akhond of Swat). Professional critics act as a quality filter for the readers. They help in guiding reading tastes. They also perform a valuable task for editors, publishers and even booksellers with their constructive criticism. Let me explain through a personal anecdote. Last year I reviewed a well-written narrative non-fiction, which was caught between classifying itself as a biography or a memoir; or to use David Lodge’s phrase – bio-fic. In my opinion (after much research and in-depth analysis), I felt that despite the excellent effort at garnering empirical evidence about the woman whose life (and is still alive) she was documenting, the author found it difficult acknowledge that what she had written was a bio-fic. This was even more distressing (to me) since the author admitted in her afterword she had tinkered with the data and story elements, including fudging the letters to supposedly reproduce or quote from them as is. I suspect the review did not go down too well with the author since she “delinked” from me on a social media site. But I did get a tremendous response from readers appreciating the honest and frank assessment of a book. I even heard a bookstore owner, who had till then been displaying the book prominently, wonder if he should even continue to stock copies of it.
Whatever the response a reviewer may have to a book, even if it is a knee-jerk one, it is best to be correct. Reviewers should be honest, but not nasty and vituperative, for the sake of being so. If there is nothing worth talking about in the book, then say so, but always remember that trashing a book without any valid and just reason, is not professional reviewing.
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist.
Published in Books&More, April-May 2012, pg. 58