What is a book review? Well, for one, it’s the happy announcement that a book has been born. For another, it judges this new-born. Is the book good or bad or so-so? And why is it good or bad or so-so?
Frankly, it’s hardly an exact science. While someone may appreciate the ‘literary’ traits of an Anita Desai, someone else may find exactly those very qualities ‘pretentious’. Similarly, what strikes some as the utter charm of ‘the-way-we-speak-in-urban-India’ language in Chetan Bhagat novels can be banal for others. Then there’s the other problem with book reviews — what I call the ‘incest factor’. Consciously or not, the reviewer and the author of the book share the same blood sport — both deal with words; they deal with tricks of the same trade. And here’s where the book is so unlike all those other things like film, music or food.
The film critic doesn’t make a film to comment about a movie. The music critic doesn’t strum a tune to judge a song. The food critic doesn’t rustle up a mean dish to pass judgment on a restaurant menu. The book critic, however, writes about another person’s ‘writing’. This is dangerous symmetrical warfare where the reviewer and the reviewed are armed with the same weapons: words. So like all humans who like writing and aren’t necessarily authors, the book reviewer, apart from telling us what he thinks of a book, is also out to impress the reader with his own turns of phrase. In the right hands, the book review can be worthy of applause, even more delightful than the book it might be cheering.
But shouldn’t there be a reviewer of reviews? Do Michiko Kakutani (The New York Times) or S. Prasannarajan (India Today), star reviewers of the circuit, worry about how readers will react to their commentaries about someone else’s work?
First things first. A good book review is not to be confused with a positive review. As many of us know, a negative review can be a wondrous thing — and, indeed, overwhelmingly makes for more memorable reading than positive ones. It’s easier for non-fiction to be reviewed. The writer gets facts wrong and automatically the reviewer’s axe comes down. (Case in point, Maria Misra’s Vishnu’s Crowded Temple: India Since the Great Rebellion.)
It’s infinitely trickier with fiction. The bad reviewer simply recounts most of the plot, quickly tying things up with a wishy-washy sentence that’s supposed to be opinion. But how does one account for the various tastes of various reviewers? The truth is: one doesn’t. Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence can be a tiresome novel for those tired of Rushdie’s trademark lush verbal callisthenics. But it can be a tour de force for those who revel in that kind of thing. If Rabelais reviewed the book, he would have had a very different take from that of, say, Jane Austen. Well, of course, there are book reviewers who double as writers of books. Philip Hensher, resident book reviewer for the Guardian, was on the Booker shortlist this year for his novel, The Northern Clemency. Then there are writers of books who also review other people’s books, where the established writer conducts a sort of ‘peer review’.
All this should make the reader of reviews suspicious. After all, if an established crime fiction writer favourably reviews the book of another crime fiction writer, it is useful to believe that he wants to keep his ‘colleagues’ happy. If he gives a negative review, it is our right as a review reader to suspect that he is jealous and wants to proclaim (as subtly as possible, of course), that he remains the king of the hill.
So if there is any kind of writing where the reader is advised to maintain a healthy scepticism, it would be book reviews. For the book is the book, and the book review is the book review. As the critic Walter Benjamin put it, “Of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method.” Till then, read the reviews as writings unto themselves.