“The book review is a form that is capable of being used to address nearly any kind of issue, and any kind of question … The most intense issues are addressed in books. And book reviewing can be a way of bringing critical perspectives to bear on the most intense political issues.”
Robert Silvers, in an interview, speaking of the early years of the New York Review of Books.
“In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be ‘This book is worthless’, while the truth about the reviewer’s own reaction would probably be ‘This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to.’ But the public will not pay to read that kind of thing. Why should they? They want some kind of guide to the books they are asked to read, and they want some kind of evaluation. But as soon as values are mentioned, standards collapse. For if one says — and nearly every reviewer says this kind of thing at least once a week — that King Lear is a good play and The Four Just Men is a good thriller, what meaning is there in the word ‘good’?”
George Orwell, Confessions of a Book Reviewer
If you had to locate the book review as an art form, it would be found somewhere between these two extreme, though equally accurate, perspectives.
When I began in the trade, stumbling into reviewing over ten years ago, Silvers’ view of the book review may not have always prevailed, but it was the one we all aspired to: we wanted to start the really big conversations, we wanted to read the best writers on the most searing ideas of our time.
The books pages in Indian newspapers of that time—roughly 10 to 15 years ago—were not perfect, but they did not exist, as they do today, in a moral and critical vacuum. This seems an old-fashioned, quaint idea now. Then, it was taken for granted that a decent newspaper had to have a respectable set of pages on literature and the arts. In the major papers, the book review section occupied the space between the editorial pages, and the arts supplement; it was the connective tissue between the two.
The great flaws of that age were stylistic: many reviewers adopted a self-conscious, verbose, slightly pompous voice, as though High Literature could only be approached with a matching, and tedious, High Seriousness. But it was assumed that books, and the ideas they spread like viruses, were important; crucially, it was assumed that the average newspaper reader wanted this conversation, this engagement, and that it was the job of the newspaper to provide this.
In the introduction to a compilation of reviews from the New York Times, Charles McGrath writes, “In the beginning, the Times offered unsigned, often stuffy, “notices” and “appreciations”; gradually, bylines… began to appear and so, eventually, did true criticism, informed and reliable and aimed at a discerning general audience. In a way, the Book Review grew up, and became more sophisticated, just as the American readership did.”
In 1959, when Elizabeth Hardwick wrote an influential essay on ‘The Decline of Book Reviewing’ for Harper’s Magazine, the NYTBR was one of several newspapers that suffered from the sins she described so scathingly: “In America, now…a genius may indeed go to his grave unread, but he will hardly have gone to it unpraised. Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns. Everyone is found to have ‘filled a need,’ and is to be ‘thanked’ for something and to be excused for ‘minor faults in an otherwise excellent work.’” (I wince as I read this, recognizing so many of my own and my colleagues’ faults today.)
By the end of the 1960s, though, the NYTBR section had matured—as had book reviewing itself. The New York Review of Books set the tone for criticism, demanding a passionate engagement from authors, insisting that writers had a special view of the world and that their opinions were of importance if we ever wanted to understand our times.
Of course, no book review section of any longevity has been exempt from criticism. Harry Levin wrote of the redoubtable Times Literary Supplement , “During the 1920s, the TLS took a dim view of much that was brilliantly going on.” Over the next two decades, the TLS came to a better understanding of the new modernism that had taken literature by the scruff of its neck and shaken it up.
These literary magazines and book review sections had three things in common: talented, often brilliant editors, space and the time to mature and change over a period of decades. They have their troubles; the NYT and the NYRB have both been flayed in recent years for ignoring fiction in favour of non-fiction, Salon sounded an alarm call in 2001 about the ‘Incredible Shrinking Book Review’ section, and authors like Jonathan Franzen speak of the disappointment they feel at the intellectual poverty of the contemporary book review. He was depressed, after the literary “success” of his novel The Twentieth City , at the failure of his “culturally engaged novel to engage with the culture. I’d intended to provoke; what I got instead was sixty reviews in a vacuum.”
In India, the decline of the book review is especially frustrating because it’s happened just as the publishing industry has started providing more—more books, selling in more numbers, covering more subjects, more professional translations, more new writers. I can only assume that the bright boys who run newspaper marketing departments read nothing these days, not even publishing industry reports.
But ten years ago, the physical space for the book review began to shrink, and it continues to suffer from anorexia. The intellectual space for any sort of engaged discussion on the living culture around us shrank in tandem, as the review went down from 1,500 words— such profligate largesse , I think now—to 1,000, then 600, then 400.
Last week, I found myself finishing a blurb for a friend’s book—a resigned, workmanlike chore—and turning, almost immediately, to the resigned, workmanlike writing of the review of an “important” book. The blurb was 300 words; the review exactly 200 words.
To write a “review” at this length or even at 500 words is an exercise in parody; you can barely summarise the plot, let alone say anything of any significance about the book, the author, the genre. This is obvious; what is less obvious is that the emphasis on brevity and speed has lost us many of our best reviewers. There was a time when you could turn to the book review sections and read Rajmohan Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha, Mukul Kesavan, Shashi Deshpande and a score of others. Today, even the ghetto of the book review has no room for our best writers. There are exceptions; The Calcutta Telegraph will serialize 3,000-word exercises in literary criticism on the edit page, the Hindu Literary Review still survives, a few books page editors struggle to encourage quality on their pages. But by and large, we’re told to be thankful that we have space, any space at all—we have not vanished, like the arts pages, the music pages, the sections on design, or dance, or theatre.
Why does the Indian book review survive at all? It has no room for translation, poetry or non-political non-fiction—three areas of substantial excitement in the last few years. It offers no space for the writers, scores of them, who have found their voices and their feet, who are in the process of exploring brave new worlds. It offers only the palest feuds, incestuous, gossip-ridden affairs, in lieu of genuine literary controversy—invective and accusations, usually true, of nepotism replacing the clash of argument against argument.
Amit Chaudhuri had a partial answer in a piece he wrote for The New Statesman: “The Indian writer in English must be co-opted into this narrative of success and record growth; anything else, during this watershed, is looked upon with anxiety. The writer mustn’t cause anxiety; in our family romance, he’s the son-in-law – someone we can be proud of, can depend on, who is, above all, a safe investment.” The book pages have become extensions of Page 3, and as with the luxury goods in the fungal growth of shopping malls, the writer’s worth is measured by his or her brand name, his or her bhaav in the international literary stockmarket. Today’s book reviewers are called upon to chart that success, to make the simplest of all calculations: is this book worth buying, at a price tag of Rs 495, or can I make a better investment?
It doesn’t have to be this way. We have the reviewers, especially among the younger generation of writers. We are beginning to have the books, as the publishing industry grows up; if you include translations, we already do have more than enough to review. We have the writers, emerging from the small towns, returning from the world’s capitals; we have the conversations, the ideas, the passion, the will to look beyond the success story of India shining and mine the real narratives underneath. We have the editors who would, given half a chance, make the books pages more than a report card, more than a record of the private and necessarily furtive pleasures of reading.
We have all of this. And we choose to keep it corralled safely offstage, leaving the reader uncontaminated by ideas, untouched by the alternative reality that writing can offer to the official stories of India. Perhaps in the next decade we’ll get around to asking why; perhaps we might even change; and perhaps that’s too much to ask.