Rant: The Death of Criticism (Yes, Again)

This post by Amitava Kumar reminded me of a debate that happened in several tents at the Jaipur Litfest, and that’s been continuing in several virtual tents for the last decade in India. It’s second only to the Whither? (Whither the Novel? Whither writing in English in India?) questions in the persistence with which it comes up, and can be summarised as Criticism in India is Dead, Let The Lamentations Begin.

I’ve always maintained, and continue to maintain, that we’re wrong to say that there are no good reviewers left in India; personally, I look forward to reviews by Manjula Padmanabhan (trenchant and always honest), Chandrahas Choudhury, Anita Roy, Jai Arjun Singh and Sanjay Sipahimalani, to name just a few, as well as the old stalwarts. (All of them are friends, which may be seen as yet another pointer to the incestuous circles of Ind.Lit–but it may also be revealing that all of us became friends through our work. The bylines came before the coffees and the lunches.)

But Amit Chaudhuri captured one glaring absence in the Indian scene when he said that we have no Indian-grown magazine that has the authority–or the readability–of a NYRB, a Paris Review or of, say, the Far Eastern Economic Review.

Biblio and The Book Review have been soldiering on for years, and offer excellent reviews; but both operate under severe budgetary constraints, which limits the kind of reviewers they have access to (neither has the budget needed to dispatch books to reviewers outside India, for instance, or can match the kind of payments an NYRB or Granta might make), and the kind of articles they can commission (chiefly book reviews–no original reporting, limited fiction, etc). Civil Lines looked as though it might fill this gap for a while, but the gaps between issues are now chasm-sized; Caravan is promising, but it’s just two issues old. The Little Magazine carries respectable book reviews, but where it scores is in offering essays and fiction in translation–it doesn’t position itself as a literary magazine so much as a magazine of ideas.

The politics of book reviewing have changed over the last five or six years. We’ve contended with not just shrinking book review pages, but shrinking space for reviews: as I’ve often said, a 400-word ‘review’ is a blurb, and the most generous magazine spaces seldom go beyond 800 words, which is adequate for a book notice–it doesn’t really allow for a serious review. The Hindu Literary Review comes out just once a month; Tehelka and The Calcutta Telegraph are unusual in that they often offer classic “editorial” space to book reviewers, but they remain rare examples. Most newspapers and magazines in India ghettoise books; it’s rare to find writers (including historians and non-fiction writers) offering opinions or commentary on the editorial and op-ed pages.

Books page editors struggle to balance the political needs of their editors: several of the more respected publications use the books pages as a kind of social gossip section. This is actually quite fascinating. It makes the books pages a great way to track who’s in and who’s out, as though it were a kind of Sensex of the social world, but it doesn’t do much for books pages as literary pages.

Many of the old conventions–a full disclosure on the part of the reviewer of biases, the practice of not assigning a book to a hostile (or an eager-to-please-the-author) reviewer, even the practice of assigning books to experts in the field–are observed only by a tiny handful of reviewers and books page editors. And as many of us know, this *is* an incestuous circle: the worlds of publishing and writing are still very small in English-speaking India. This has its benefits–it’s easier for young or emerging writers to find space in the circle, but it turns into a kind of Indian joint family system after a while, where everybody knows why Cousin x has a blood feud on with Maasi y. Many of us have also watched the disappearance of some of our best reviewers off the books pages with some alarm: as Arvind Krishna Mehrotra said, there’s no satisfaction to writing a blurb-sized book review with just a week in hand to consider the book, and you see far fewer reviews by the likes of Mukul Kesavan, Ram Guha, Sunil Khilnani and company than you might have just a few years ago.

Up to this point, what I’ve offered are the old, familiar lamentations. This often turns into a pointless, circular argument. Reviewers in India often admit that they hold Indian writers to a lower standard–or expect less of their work–than they have for the Junot Diazes and Lorrie Moores of the world. And of course, reviewers blame books page editors; editors often cite the relative pusillanimity of today’s reviewers, who won’t give a negative review to a Big Name Author, and many editors also say that there are very few reviewers with the right reading credentials. Everyone blames publishers for highlighting and pushing trivial books; publishers blame the media for concentrating on the fluff instead of on works of substance. Faintly, in the distance, a few voices lament that no one pays any attention to poetry, works in translation and children’s books, but no one pays any attention to them. And we can continue like this ad infinitum ad nauseum.

I don’t have solutions to offer, just a few questions.

1) Might it change the situation if publishing houses fill the gap between mainstream media and literary magazines by continuing to publish anthologies of new writing, and to commission anthologies of short stories etc? Several of them are experimenting with new forms: Penguin and Tranquebar have commissioned novella-length work recently, marketing them as Metro Reads and as easy, accessible reading.

For this to work, though, gatekeeping standards need to be much higher than they’ve been, and I say this as someone who’s committed my fair share of sins by letting average work through the gates, both in publishing and in journalism, because of deadline pressures and other exigencies. It would be great to have more ruthless editors; to have anthologies so good that writers would mudwrestle each other just to get their bylines in the Table of Contents.

2) Is part of what we’re lamenting part of a wider decline in the quality of our public intellectuals? Ram Guha gave an interesting talk recently about the demise of the bilingual intellectual–in passing, he mentioned that he had trouble naming the next generation of public intellectuals with all-round interests under the age of 40. This might be part of a slow degeneration in the overall quality of debate in the public sphere: I would love to see more dissent and informed response, not just in the field of books and writing, but in a wider sense.

3) And an aside to published writers: when was the last time you had fun writing a review? Do most published writers feel free to criticise a “colleague”, and would they spend as much time crafting a truly entertaining, thoughtful review as they would on turning a piece of fiction? (Damn, I miss Dom Moraes: one of the last of the grand old school of reviewers, absolutely fearless, absolutely honest and such an entertainer.)

End of rant, back to the deadlines, and thank you for listening.





27 responses to “Rant: The Death of Criticism (Yes, Again)”

  1. Rahul Siddharthan Avatar

    Older intellectuals always seem more intellectual than younger ones, simply because they are older, but I think we have as many public individuals as we ever did: Guha himself, Andre Beteille, Kaushik Basu from the academic world, R K Raghavan from the police/CBI, Harsh Mander from the IAS and NGO worlds, and many others from different walks of life write regularly and eloquently in the press. I think they are at least the equals of anyone from previous generations. What is happening, and it's not just in India, is that articles are getting shorter, people want quick soundbytes rather than lengthy reasoned arguments, and of course, a lot of the conversation is moving to the internet. But on the other hand, it is becoming more of a conversation. I think that is the problem with book reviews (and, again, it is not confined to India: in most Western newspapers, reviews are among the first things to be chopped.) The print media have no space, time or budget any more for long and considered reviews. There are not too many bloggers or online journalists of the same calibre to fill that gap in India. I'm sure there are very good reviews out there on the internet, and some of them may filter up via bloglinks or facebook or twitter, but many probably get lost; and anyway they are labours of love and there is little remuneration in it.It is, I think, a symptom of our ongoing global transition from the "old media" to the "new" (and, so far, ill-defined) media. To answer your question 3, I'm not a published writer (at least, not in the sense you mean) but I have fun writing on my blog. I'm sure many published writers would say the same. Perhaps that is one future direction: write what you enjoy for pleasure, and do something else (which also, perhaps, you enjoy–as I do) for money.

  2. anita lobo Avatar

    Hi Nilanjana,As an avid reader, I quite agree with your rant. If every book gets a nice review, the whole purpose is lost.Leads me to a question: why don't serious reviews and authors start a peer-review online journal – as a private ning group or even an independent website? The tools are available and many of them free.The dynamics of the good ole fashioned review have to evolve and find new ways of reaching out to readers, authors and even publishers.Cheers,Anita

  3. Rahul Siddharthan Avatar

    Anita — it is interesting you should say that, because the peer review system is being debated in the scientific community, and there are some interesting experiments being tried (in particular by this one). An online journal on the lines of an academic journal may be worth a try. But I think it will have to be a volunteer-driven and donation-funded effort: a website does cost money, even if not as much as a print medium, and it is hard to see how to compensate writers.

  4. Rahul Siddharthan Avatar

    (in particular by this one).Ugh, something got mangled. I meant "in particular by PLoS ONE, and some even more ambitious experiments suggested, such as this one."

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    Agree with Q2.But madam, why don't you openly acknowledge the incestuous circle by naming names ? Transparency helps, ya ? Why does Manish kiss up to Varma who kisses up to Arnab who then dig their daggers jointly into CB ? If CB was a former banker with loads of cash is it CB's problem that these loafers chose to, uh, loaf off in the prime of their age, and suddenly when book-writing began to look like the in-thing, each one of them starts compiling their lame-ass blog thoughts into book-length tomes ? Being moneyed individual does not make CB's books pedestrian, just as being penurious jholawalas does not make the trio's books intellectual, ya ?

  6. Nilanjana <a href="http://twitter.com/nilanjanaroy">@twitter</a> Avatar

    Falstaff, Rahul, Anita–thanks for the comments, and Rahul, yes, a website would cost money. Besides, no one reviews for free. (We review for peanuts, but not for free :))Anonymous, I gather you want to simultaneously defend Chetan Bhagat while dissing three of India's better bloggers. I don't know either Manish or Arnab personally, but I do know Amit, and his book was very different from his blog posts. As for Chetan, he's received a lot of blog love as well as a lot of very fair criticism; being a bestselling author doesn't give you review exemption status. Just ask Stephen King or Dan Brown.

  7. Rahul Siddharthan Avatar

    The business model is important, and is why the academic journal model won't work. Academic journals make their money either by exorbitant subscription costs (mostly to libraries, who have no choice) or, recently, via author fees: you can pay over $2000 for the privilege of publishing (which is generally budgeted in research grants) but the published version is made available for free. This open-access author-pays model is becoming widespread now but is obviously unworkable outside the academic setting.Can a literary review make money via sales/subscriptions these days — enough money to also pay its reviewers respectably? Unfortunately I doubt it. The Hindu Literary Review will probably continue regardless of financial viability, if only because it is one of the things that gives The Hindu its air of superiority. Nevertheless it should be encouraged and other newspapers urged to emulate it. Such a thing is more feasible as part of a regular newspaper than as a stand-alone periodical, I believe.

  8. samit Avatar

    What is a public intellectual? It sounds rather rude. And not the kind of thing that should be encouraged.

  9. Falstaff Avatar

    "No one reviews for free"I don't know about that. It's not hard to imagine a periodical that had sufficiently high quality to make reviewing for it a privilege. After all, half the lit journals out there don't pay a dime to their authors – but we still send them our work because we want to get it out there and because being published by a high quality journal means both recognition and validation. I have no idea how people who write for, say, the LRB or the NYRB are compensated, but I think if one had an outlet of comparable quality then one could convince people to write for it for free. Writing a 2,000 / 3,000 word piece once a month / two months isn't all that taxing. You yourself point to Biblio and The Book Review. What it comes down to, I think, is critical mass. By which I mean:a) Critical mass of readers: The NYRB model works partly because there are enough readers out there who value quality reviews / essays sufficiently to pay for a subscription. I'm not sure India can muster a discerning audience that large (yet) – in part because of the low standards of public discourse you point to, in part because not enough people have the kind of wide-ranging interests that the NYRB speaks to.b) Critical mass of writers: The NYRB also works because there are enough good writers out there. Say you wanted a journal that turned out about a dozen thoughtful, intelligent reviews each month. Say a writer could turn out one really good long review / essay every three months for free without being unduly burdened. That means you need 36 writers / reviewers talented enough, well-read enough and thoughtful enough to write a NYRB level review. Even if I include the five reviewers you mention in your post (only half of whom I personally think could pull it off), I'm not sure the Indian lit scene can make half that number. Bottomline, I'm unconvinced the problem is money. As I see it the problem is talent. Which, in turn, brings me back to Q2.

  10. Kavitha Rao Avatar

    I am a published writer. These are all interesting arguments, but for me, it comes down to one thing: filthy lucre. I don't write book reviews any more-and I used to write many for foreign mags -because there's not enough money in it. Rs 3-4 per word is low enough for a feature. For a book review, where I might have to read the author's previous work/ s and his current book, it makes no financial sense. This is why I have never reviewed for an Indian mag and probably never will, though I am totally removed from all the incestuous circles. I'd like to see more anthologies, but as far as I know Penguin and Tranquebar don't pay for those either, or pay very little.I'd like to see writers paid fairly for their work and I think quality will improve. Editors seem to believe that we are all in it for the sheer pleasure of seeing our immortal words on the page, but I am not. Pay peanuts, get monkeys, usually. ( by which I do not mean you, Nilanjana!)

  11. Salil Avatar

    Nilanjana, two things: At Mint, Sanjukta Sharma takes scrupulous care while assigning books to prevent score-settling or love-fest among writers who know and/or hate/love one another. Another thing: some writers, even if famous, don't get fair reviews. Rushdie comes to my mind (I'd say that, wouldn't I?) When the Enchantress came out, I was visiting India, and I remember how much glee a few eds in Delhi had, in deliberately seeking out reviewers who'd write a bitchy piece. When one magazine commissioned – and published – a spectacularly ill-informed review and I told the editors they could have got someone better, (and cited one novelist who could have done a good review), I was told, nah, she'd write something nice about the book. At the home of another editor, I ran into a prominent editor, who asked me if I had read a particularly nasty review of the Enchantress in a British newspaper. I said, yes, I did, but had he read Ursula LeGuin in the Guardian, where she had praised the Enchantress effusively? His face fell. Then he asked me: Who's Ursula LeGuin? My point picks on a minor point in your piece: famous writers don't automatically get good reviews; some invite editors to draw their daggers.

  12. Rahul Siddharthan Avatar

    I agree with Falstaff (did that comment only just show up?) If you love doing something, you'll do it for free — not always, but sometimes, even often. A reasonably high-quality online-only literary review journal that did not pay its reviewers, and survived on donations and advertisements for its running costs, should be feasible, if the writers were convinced it was a worthwhile cause — for example, if they felt they would be given space and freedom there that mainstream media wouldn't allow them; or if they thought it would be influential; or if they felt it would attract the sort of readership they really want; or if it had a lively online community that gave them good feedback.

  13. Anonymous Avatar

    But you know, I've never understood why "reviewers hold Indian writers to a lower standard" and I don't see that you've explained it here. Is it simply another function of the incestuousness–I'd prefer to simply call it corruption–that arises when all the key players party together? And incidentally, I think you're being very kind to a review like Biblio; it's a really awful, boring, corrupt and practically unedited magazine despite all the very smart people who do seem to write for it at different points; and of all the many reasons for this, lack of funding would rank very low on the list. Many latin american countries have a far more vibrant and self-critical literary scene, and it's not for the abundance of funds.

  14. Nilanjana <a href="http://twitter.com/nilanjanaroy">@twitter</a> Avatar

    Thanks for the discussion–especially the debate over literary magazines. I apologise for not responding earlier; deadlines have been particularly ruthless these last few weeks.Salil, I take your point about Mint, but I wish it and a few other places weren't the exception to the rule. Your famous writer example is a classic illustration: it shouldn't be the books page editor's brief to look for either praise or vicious criticism. But developing mature and thoughtful criticism isn't as easy to sell to your editorial board as controversy and gossip; many books page editors I know struggle to keep their standards going in the face of this demand.Anonymous, please do feel free to drop the anonymity whenever you're comfortable–as you can see, most visitors to this blog do. My point about reviewers dropping their standards was an observation, and I didn't feel the need to expand on it. Sharing only my own experience here, since I can't speak for other reviewers: my worst reviews, qualitatively, came from the period when I was reading chiefly contemporary Indian writing, roughly 50-60 books a month.The mediocrity of the midlist is prevalent everywhere, but I found soon that I had to remind myself to read Indian classics and good literature elsewhere–if I didn't, my standards would start dropping. Think of it this way: if you read 15 promising but not-quite-there books at a stretch, you're that much more likely to praise a 16th promising but not-quite-there book because it's marginally better than what's come before. It's a professional hazard, and it took me some time to notice that it was affecting my critical judgment–overpraise is just as bad as snark. I've enjoyed the three-year break from reviewing Indian writers during my stint in publishing: it allowed me to catch up with a lot of reading and to reset my personal standards.About friends: I have a lot of acquaintances in the writing world, but only a few I would call close friends. I don't review books by close friends, because I wouldn't trust myself to be objective. I do review books by acquaintances, and this has sometimes ended potential friendships–sometimes not. If an acquaintance doesn't like my review of his/ her book, tough. Back when I *had* to review whatever came my way, the books I hated most weren't the bad ones–they were the lukewarm ones. It showed in my reviews, which were lukewarm to match. I liked the negative reviews-you have to think about why a book's evoking such a strong response from you–and I still love reading a good book and being able to tell people to drop what they're doing and go out and read it, right now. But indifference as a response to a book sucks, and I feel very lucky not to have to review that kind of book any more.Btw, Anonymous, "corruption" is not a judgment I've heard passed on Biblio before. Would you care to back up your claim?

  15. Falstaff Avatar

    Nilanjana: On the lowering standards bit, I'm not sure it's entirely a bad thing. Obviously one doesn't want to lose sight of what really good writing looks like, but I would argue sticking to too high a standard may be counter-productive as well. Even if one accepts that the absolute standard of writing in the Indian English fiction universe is inferior, there's still value in making relative judgments within that set. The top 20% of Indian fiction may still be below the mean of what constitutes good writing, but it's probably still worthwhile praising that top 20% (and distinguishing it from what's worse) if only to encourage / incentivize the better writers out there, even if that means lowering one's standards overall.As an example, I've read at least one review of my work that compares it unfavorably to Calvino. This is a judgment I whole-heartedly agree with (obviously), but I can't say that being told I don't write as well as Calvino is useful to me as a writer; nor can I see that it would be particularly useful to someone looking for an assessment of the book. The point then, is not so much lowering / maintaining standards, as it is being explicit about what standards you're judging the book against. P.S. re: Kavitha Rao's comment – am I the only one who sees the contradiction in calling something "filthy lucre" and then whining about not getting enough of it?

  16. Anonymous Avatar

    Back up my claim, you mean… in a court of law? Or perhaps you'd like me to present my hundred hours of tape made secretly during an elaborate sting operation at the Biblio offices? 🙂 Seriously, I have heard at least a couple of first hand accounts of either) a reviewer being requested and then increasingly arm-twisted to put a more positive or at least a more neutral spin on a very bad book by a Delhi-based author or)gentle hints in an opening email that if the reviewer would like to review the book, then it had better be positive or at least vague, since the author is, for particular reasons, not someone Biblio wishes to offend. The same sort of thing may happen regularly at the New York Times or at the Guardian for all I know, but it seems to me that Indians have a special talent for toadying. I can understand and even relate to the 16th book syndrome as you explain it, but then that is quite disturbing isn't it? I have a different more macro take on this: modern Indian literature is still in an insecure, immature, promotional stage; it knows it's largely inferior so it chooses not to be self-reflective.I disagree with Falstaff (in fact I can hardly believe that it is Falstaff saying it) that lowering one's standards is a good thing, in fact it may be a very dangerous thing–mediocrity encouraged often just leads to more mediocrity. Why not compare a young writer with ambition with the very best? Wouldn't a truly ambitious young writer compare himself or herself with the very best anyway? There may be some writers on the scene who have the capacity (and the tough skin) to eventually be truly great writers: why would we congratulate them on the ability to read and write? It's not about assigning negative marks; the comparison should be left in there only if it turns up something genuinely insightful or useful. And besides, let's not forget, Calvino has his flaws too, though, er, I can't think of any at the moment. About anonymity: yes, often it's a cover for vicious ad hominems, SPAM or subterfuge. But for now I'd like to avail of the additional frankness that anonymity allows, and I promise to play fair.

  17. Nilanjana <a href="http://twitter.com/nilanjanaroy">@twitter</a> Avatar

    Not quite on topic, but just wanted to share Altaf Tyrewala's What I Really Want To Write:http://epaper.timesofindia.com/Repository/ml.asp?Ref=TU1JUi8yMDEwLzAyLzE4I0FyMDEwMDA= If I wrote what I really want to, goons of varied political hues would converge at my door, followed by the bovine camera crews of eyeball-hungry news channels. As retribution for what I'd written, I'd have my face blackened, my nose broken and my home ransacked. Maybe my wife and mother would have their hair pulled or their faces slapped. I hope the mob would spare my ten month old son. Having written what I really want to write, I'd expect to be summoned to the local police station, where an FIR would be filed against me. My crime? Oh, take your pick. Disrupting communal peace. Willfully hurting religious/political/regional sentiments. Offending Indian culture. Taking undue advantage of my freedom of speech. It would be impossible for me to feign surprise. I'd know I had it coming. I'd have expected nothing better when I was putting down those words, those sentences, those paragraphs. Stringing together, page by page, my own death sentence. What I really want to write makes the hair on my neckstand with its sure-shot potential to offend and enrage. Like pouring acid on a lump of sponge, the effects of what I write will be instantaneous and corrosive. I suppose the sensible thing would be never to write what I really want to. Just because dissident words haven't been printed, it doesn't mean they haven't been thought of or spoken aloud – and not just by me but by hundreds and thousands, maybe millions of others like me. Maybe the whole nation has nightmares about what it really wants to write/speak/think. One point two billion (and counting) tongues biting down on the dangerous thoughts they are itching to utter. I don't have a choice. It's my profession. If I don't write I don't eat. And if I don't write what I really want to write, what I eat tastes like mush, life loses its glitter, I grow flabby at the edges, my shoulders droop, and every moment is shot through with the stench of unspoken words decaying in my mind like meat in a go-down. Oh, the things I want to really write! Years' worth of pent up statements are dying to burst forth in an acerbic soup of the unspeakable: Thakeray, masjid, Allah, Shivaji, Sena, MNS, Supreme Court, Modi, miya-bhai, Pawar… I will be crushed in an instant. My middle-class, unprivileged, and remotely known existence puts limits on what and how much I can say. Conversely, it puts no limits on what can be done to me. Once I cross the implicit boundaries, there's no telling where I might land up: in prison, in a courtroom, or six feet under. Is it worth the trouble? Probably not. What I really want to write – I could sing it, in stead. Or perhaps paint it. I could dance it out of my system as an hourslong tandav thrashed out in parody of the blunt, cataclysmic sentences that no one in their right mind would want to pen.

  18. Rahul Siddharthan Avatar

    I too am surprised it is Falstaff saying this, because I seem to agree with him — possibly a misunderstanding. It's not a question of a writer lowering his/her own standards, but of a reviewer assessing the standards of a writer's peer group and pitching the review appropriately. Clearly it is silly to compare a new and unestablished writer unfavourably to Calvino. Most people aren't Calvino. Clearly, to take an extreme example, it is silly to say that an essay written by a high school student does not compare with what Orwell wrote. But the high school student, and Falstaff, and Orwell himself, should obviously set the highest standards for themselves — whether they achieve those standards or not.Nilanjana – a bit hyperbolic, no? Plenty of Indians write provocative stuff without having goons ransack their house. If Mr Tyrewala is saying he can't criticise the Thackerays the way he really wants without bringing hordes of Sainiks to his house — well, he could think of a way to say it that would satisfy him and bring a smile to his readers while going completely over the heads of those Sainiks. That's an art too, and a very satisfying one.

  19. Falstaff Avatar

    Anon: I suspect the problem is that you're equating lowering standards with offering unconditional praise – which is illogical and not what I was suggesting at all. Lowering standards doesn't mean "congratulating them on their ability to read and write"; it doesn't necessarily mean offering praise at all. It simply means choosing a reasonable benchmark against which to evaluate the work. It means providing the writer with a level of achievement he / she could actually aspire to. You have to be incredibly conceited and / or incredibly naive to compare yourself to Calvino. Think of it this way – you describe Indian writing in English as immature – a description I tend to agree with. Would you seriously criticize a 15-year old high school student's physics exam by comparing it to, say, Stephen Hawking's work? Education is all about lowering standards: we systematically choose standards of performance that are age / capability appropriate in that they are tough but achievable, and then demand that our students meet those standards. We don't pick the global 'best' and drive our students to despair by setting them impossible tasks. Notice also that all of the above assumes that the review is a means for the writer to improve his / her craft. But reviews are also (many would argue primarily) meant for readers. If I choose to read Indian fiction, it would be nice to have some meaningful guidance about what the better books in the mix are. Setting a standard too high means that we don't get differentiation between the books being published in India. Which means that a) readers are unnecessarily subjected to worse books than they strictly need to be and b) that the more promising writers in the pack don't get rewarded for being better writers, while the less promising writers get higher sales than they, arguably, deserve. If you're going to compare every book you review to the best in the world, you may as well just issue a blanket statement saying you don't think Indian writing in English is worth reading. Conversely, if you choose to review Indian writing in English, you pretty much need to recalibrate your standards somewhat. Finally, it's not as though resetting standards is an anomaly. We all have different standards for different writers, based on our expectations from them. I, for instance, am fairly critical of Philip Roth's last two books, not because they're bad books per se but because they are unworthy of the writer Roth can be. Standards are necessarily moving targets, and being too rigid about them only makes the act of reviewing both less interesting and less useful.

  20. Anonymous Avatar

    Isn't it a little sad that we're routinely comparing professional Indian authors to high school students? When will we ever be ready to graduate?

  21. Falstaff Avatar

    P.S. Notice also that the 'everyone should be held to the same standards' idea is a double-edged sword. It's not as though even the good reviewers Nilanjana lists are necessarily world-class. If we set the standards for book reviews by, say, James Wood's New Yorker reviews or Coetzee's occasional pieces in the NYRB, then there wouldn't be a single reviewer in India worth reading. The important thing, with reviewers, as with reviews, is to recognize the best within the sample space, and discuss how it could be made better.

  22. Rahul Siddharthan Avatar

    anonymous – "When will we ever be ready to graduate?"I don't know — perhaps when we learn the difference between analogies and comparisons? Speaking for myself, I made no comparison. (PS – I assume you're the same "anonymous" as the previous anonymous commenters, but that's the other problem with anonymity: one can't be sure who said what. Can't you at least choose a pseudonym, as some other people do?)

  23. H. Rohan Avatar

    "Penguin and Tranquebar have commissioned novella-length work recently, marketing them as Metro Reads and as easy, accessible reading."@Nilanjana Roy: Ahem… so about "Many of the old conventions–a full disclosure on the part of the reviewer ", how about starting with a Full Disclosure: Tranquebar, then? (On a completely different note, perhaps you could tweak your blogger settings to display date of comment too (currently only time's being displayed – not too useful!)).

  24. H. Rohan Avatar

    My contention is that English book reviewing in India is fundamentally flawed – it has taken an idea of literariness from England without recognising that literature and literary reviewing is (or should be) fundamentally tied in to the language in which the works are written, and what relationship that language has with the reading public at large. I hate to bring up the old charge of colonialism here, but 'reviews' that are carried out primarily by an upper-middle class brought-up-on-English-classics elite in our country will continue to suffer a disconnect with its intended audience – and with the "popularisation" of newspapers an increasing marginalisation that the author of this piece complains about. Indian-english writing must necessarily (and without patronising/"lowering standards" on the part of book reviewers) go through the phase of Chetan Bhagat, Amit Varma, and Sidin Vadukut – we have to understand that these voices do reflect the voices of the people, and that this is how a majority of people come into contact with a largely still-foreign language. Only then can Indian writing in English come of age.

  25. Nilanjana@twitter.com Avatar

    Rohan, interesting argument–no one's brought up the neo-colonialism pov yet!On the disclosure: I followed the policy of mentioning my connection with Tranquebar for a year after I left the organisation. It's been over a year now, and I would of course flag the connection if I needed to comment on a book/ author I'd commissioned. It's a series I had nothing to do with, it's been a year since I left, and I really don't feel the need for a disclosure.

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