Blood on the dance floor

(Published in The Indian Express, May 27, 2005. This was in response to a suggestion from the paper that an author and a reviewer might separately want to express their views on the business of book reviewing in India. The Marginalien cast an impartial eye on reviewing and authorial responses from the perspective of a seasoned writer; I did my bit as a reviewer.

Here’s Manjula Padmanabhan’s piece:

“It’s a familiar phenomenon: a new book bursts upon the market like a horde of triumphant Goths on a raiding party and a month later its author is heard ranting about the pathetic standards of literary criticism in the country. The most recent example is a first novel, which was received with cautious rather than effusive praise. In an interview some weeks after the launch, the author referred to Indian reviewers as ‘‘out-of-work journos, copy editors in publishing houses, peripheral academics, precious column writers.’’
As disgruntled creative spirits go, however, he was fairly restrained. Artists whose exhibitions have received negative reviews tend to be more physical. For instance, my sister Geeta Doctor, who reviews both art and literature, was once almost strangled by a muralist because she dared to ask him how many screws he’d used in one of his creations. Another one tried to force her to buy one of his paintings in penance for her mildly negative review. By contrast, authors generally restrict themselves to verbal responses in the form of the occasional death-threat by mail, anonymous phone calls and acid rejoinders in the letters columns of journals that have published unfavourable notices.”


And here’s mine:

“He began to look for a book at random; noted the motto, ‘Everyman, I will be thy guide’; stared, with some scepticism, at some of the books by Indian writers; ‘They not only look light, they feel lightweight as well,’ he thought, weighing one in his hand…”From ‘A New World’, by Amit Chaudhuri.

Amit Chaudhuri’s protagonist, Jayojit, could be every Indian author’s nightmare reviewer. Never mind that these days “books by Indian writers” can look as bulky as a wrestler on steroids; the fear of being weighed and found wanting is common to all authors, regardless of language or location. If it’s a little stronger in Indian writers who’re building their own kind of literature in English, that’s only to be expected.

There’s a wall-to-wall bookcase in my house that is given over to works of fiction by Indian writers. In that bookcase, I see a reflection of the publishing landscape over the last decade. Some of those books acquired classic status slowly, some were acclaimed at birth; some were pronounced dead-on-arrival, some, like G V Desani’s All About H Hatterr, are indestructible even if they spend long years in hibernation until a new generation clamours to be introduced to the book all over again. But the vast majority of the books that have found, and lost, house-room were received with lukewarm appreciation and read by less than a thousand people in the country. It’s a hard lesson. If you’ve poured two, or three, or ten years of your life into writing a book, you don’t want to be reminded that this might be your fate.

One of the arguments we often hear from authors, usually when they’re pleading to be treated with more respect, accorded a few more superlatives, offered a shade more understanding, is that Indian writing in English is a young, growing body of literature. It needs encouragement, and nurturing, and other things that reviewers in India don’t provide. The classic reaction when an author feels that he hasn’t received his due is to lash out, sharply, at the one section of his audience that can be held accountable. There’s not much point to criticizing publishers or alienating readers; reviewers, though, can always be faulted for not realizing that what lies before them is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.

The view from the reviewer’s chair looks a little different. All the reviewers and critics I spoke to for this article nailed two things that make reviewing Indian books a very strange business. The first is, as critic and editor Anita Roy put it, that everyone knows everyone else’s “co-ordinates”. Most literary circles are incestuous; but even by that standard, the Indian literary world is composed of people who share incredibly complicated, tangled histories.

This should change, once you reach a critical mass of really good writers, and it can’t change too fast for anyone of us. Knowing the co-ordinates does nothing for readers or writers except to make everyone paranoid. The writer who has the “right” co-ordinates fears that this might make him or her a target for universal envy, the writer who doesn’t complains about being left out in the cold; and it’s a rare reviewer who doesn’t resent having to navigate the deep, politically messy waters of this sort of knowledge.

The second aspect of reviewing Indian books, as a writer who shuttles between the US and India puts it, is that you cannot help but set the bar lower. If you review books regularly, you’re likely to fall into the trap of being kind, which is the worst sort of insult you could offer any writer—and any reader. Very few of the forty-odd books that come in for review each month are distressingly, painfully bad; very few rise above the mediocre. To be a reviewer in India is to know firsthand the triumph of hope over experience—but when a truly, unequivocally great book does come your way, the joy it brings in its wake is all the reward any reader could ask for.

How good does Indian writing have to be? In the last few months, we saw really brilliant work from writers as disparate as Haruki Murakami, Ian McEwan, Orhan Pamuk and Andrea Levy, to name a scant handful. In the increasingly eclectic world of Indian reviewing, these books are also up for review; if you’re a reviewer who reads in another Indian language aside from English, as many of us do, you’re looking at another 10-15 potentially great books to be read every month.

There isn’t space any more for kindness. There isn’t the room to make allowances for the Indian writer working in English. And from what I’ve seen of young Indian writers at home and elsewhere, there’ll be no need for grace marks in another few years. Until then, though, if you’re an author in search of adulation and you don’t get it, follow the advice that V S Naipaul famously offered a fellow writer: take it on the chin and move on.

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