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.