Over the last ten years, I have discovered a strange and growing phenomenon. While film reviews mostly tend to junk the film, with books, it is the opposite.

As a result, I have ended up buying many bad books and not seeing many good films. More fool I.

Top secret

Few people know my little secret, but I started my journalism career as a film critic for the Free Press Bulletin of Mumbai. Thrice a week, I had to watch English films from 10.30 a.m. and then write 200 word reviews about them for the afternoon paper. Bliss it was to be alive for those 12 short weeks of February-April 1980. I must have broken the tender heart of many a distributor.

Then, in July, I joined The Eastern Economist . Having worked in publishing for five years before I joined the Free Press , I first tried my hand at book reviews.

Swaminathan Aiyar was the editor and, after some months, told me this was the first he was hearing that book reviews sold journals.

I was suitably crushed.

My next editor, the venerable Mr N. S. Jagannathan of the Financial Express , read books like others drink water. But he read only the good books; The bad ones he gave me to review.

The first book I reviewed was, by natural affinity, published by my boss at the publishing house where I had worked. I forget what I wrote, but he phoned to say that, like pilots, I should stay off alcohol for 12 hours before I wrote. Out of respect for his advice and a genuine affection for alcohol, I have seldom written a bad review since then. In part, this has also been on the principle, if the book is bad, why review it? If you are honest, you hurt the author and if you are dishonest you hurt the reader.

View as review?

One question no one has been able to answer is why a view is called a review. Since a review is an evaluation, it is assumed that the reviewer/evaluator is an expert.

But, except in academic journals, this is not the case in 99 out of a 100 times. Reason: Real experts behave like elephants in love: Much mulling and grunting, and the review comes after 20 months. But neither newspapers nor publishers want to wait that long. So, in a cruel perversion, books (and maybe also films) are mostly reviewed by those least equipped to do so.

In that sense, there is often an inverse relationship between the reviewer's expertise and his or her writing abilities, and the lack of expertise, as I have repeatedly demonstrated, need not be an hindrance to writing a review.

And this is where the problem arises because a good writer can, if he or she puts his or her mind to it, write a superb review (praising or condemning) by merely reading the jacket flap and the introduction. The more diligent read the conclusions also.

So beware of the good review. It could well be an excellent camouflage for the writers' ignorance and or laziness.