The book critic’s lot

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on January 31, 2020 Published on January 30, 2020

The review occupies a curious space in the literary establishment, the reviewer less so

Where does the book reviewer stand on the ladder of literature? Which rung does she occupy? Is she a mere hobbyist, slaving away purely for the love of books? Is it a job meant for juvenile pen-pushers? As someone once told me: “Oh, book reviews! I used to do them in college.”

The book review is a curious literary artefact. It is what creates the first context for a work of art. And yet, it has been deemed unnecessary by newspaper owners. Years ago, an Indian broadsheet famously dropped its books pages. The owner defended the axing: A book review gives free publicity to authors and publishers. We are not in the business of charity. In recent times, the paid online book review has become a business unto itself. The author pays a certain amount and is guaranteed a fixed number of favourable phoney readers’ reviews on websites such as Amazon and Goodreads. Ask any author who has a book out, no matter what her stature, and they will tell you they spend their post-publication days googling the title and looking for reviews. I often get the feeling that only three people read reviews: The author, the review writer and the editor of the books page. And yet, while authors will dig out reviews and share them on social media with a schoolboy’s earnestness, the same authors consider reviewing a lowly art form and will never review a book themselves. A lot, it seems, is expected from those at the bottom of the food chain.

Authors tend to be prickly about bad reviews. Writers whose books I gave bad reviews to 20 years ago still hold a grudge. In India, reviews tend to follow the herd line. The first two or three reviews set the trend, good or bad. The reviews that come later follow the initial trajectory, at times repeating the same observations about the same chapters, which have been made in earlier reviews. Which makes one wonder: Do Indian reviewers have the ability to stand apart and alone, on their two shaky legs, and make up their own minds?

On the other hand, there are reviewers who have made careers of writing consistently harsh reviews. American novelist and critic Dale Peck’s Hatchet Jobs collects some of his finest vitriolic attacks. He’s been called ‘a takedown artist’. In India, Peck would have been dismissed as ‘jealous and frustrated’ and cold-shouldered out of a career. No wonder no Dale Peck has ever taken root here.

Money-wise, too, in most publications the book reviewer is the bottom of the food chain. That’s why reviews take a long time coming. While the author of the book waits impatiently for reviews, the reviewer has put it as her last priority on the to-do list. There is a direct link between incentive and speed here; the reviewer, who might be a freelancer, will of necessity do other news-y pieces first, simply because they will pay far more. Procrastination is organic to the book-reviewing process.

Even in this lowly profession, there is a pecking order. For instance, I have been waiting for a William Dalrymple book to review for two decades but they don’t come my way. I’m always stuck with a volume like Kanwal Sibal’s light verse. More often than not, the back-of-the-books editor, a non-playing captain otherwise, hits the tennis court himself when a ‘big book’ arrives.

It’s also true that authors in America and England are least interested in what Indian reviews have to say about their work. I’m not sure if this is a reflection of the meaninglessness of the system we have created, or how inconsequential this market is in commercial terms.

In his review of George Orwell’s Collected Works (edited by Peter Davidson), Ian Hamilton draws our attention to one of Orwell’s essays, The Confessions of a Book Reviewer. Here we meet a ‘sorry creature’, Orwell himself: “In paragraph three, Orwell’s wretch-reviewer opens his latest parcel of new books. There are five of them. One is a novel; the others range from Science and Dairy Farming to A Short History of European Democracy (which, says Orwell, is ‘680 pages long and weighs four pounds’). The reviewer has to write about all five of them by first thing tomorrow morning: 800 words on the whole batch.”

Orwell goes on to paint a depressing picture of the book reviewer (and his study) afflicted with varicose veins, malnutrition, hair loss and hangovers: “He is repeatedly distracted —— by ‘baby yells’, by ‘electric drills’ out in the street, and by ‘the heavy boots of his creditors clumping up and down the stairs’. There are also visits from the postman, who has lately delivered ‘two circulars and an income tax demand printed in red’.”

It seems that the lot of the book reviewer hasn’t changed much in the last hundred years. We read, we write and so it goes. No one can take away the fact that book-reviewing, if nothing else, is one of the most honourable professions. The reviewer will die with a clean conscience.

Palash Krishna Mehrotra   -  BLink


Palash Krishna Mehrotra is the author of Eunuch Park & the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India

Published on January 30, 2020
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