Wednesday, January 2, 2008

shoddy book reviewing, or, reviewing the reviewers

Neena De reviewed my book in The Assam Tribune on 7 December, and Elizabeth Kuruvilla followed suit in the Hindustan Times on 23 December.

While I’d like to thank both newspapers for giving some space to a first-time novelist, I’d like to point out something about the reviews. Both reviews are uncannily similar: they breathlessly describe the story like a schoolchild writing a prĂ©cis about a book, then make a cursory stab at a big idea (the book is by someone from the north-east, so how could they resist “Alienation”?!), and finally end on a patronising note. De says, “If the author tightens up his style or finds a better editor, his next book will be one to look forward to.” And Kuruvilla says, “Saikia’s novel falters because of his amateurish writing style. If only publishers would realise that they should be in the race to produce the most number of good books, not just the most number of books.”

Pankaj Mishra said somewhere that to review and criticise effectively, you need to have done some good writing of your own too. It’s something I doubt Ms De and Ms Kuruvilla have paid heed to. If you’ve read both reviews, you’ll see that De and Kuruvilla are the ones who need to shape up their prose, what with De’s pedestrian turn of phrase: “He went to Delhi to study. Presumably his parents had high hopes when they sent him there.” and Kuruvilla’s convoluted sentences: “Would he be admitting to failure if, like his college friends, he went back to Shillong, a place where he does not have to try to fit in, to a girl who may not be exciting like Naina, but at least is comforting in her familiarity.”

I think both reviewers opened the book looking for the Big Themes and Universal Significance that Literature is supposed to have: I can almost hear them saying as they went through the book, “Drinking, cooking pork, having sex, no interest in working—what is this? This is not Literature!” I am sorry to have disappointed them.

A review of a novel is meant to be something more than just a recounting of the book’s plot. What has the author set out to do? In what context can you place his work? Matters like these seem beyond my two esteemed reviewers. They also display a curious lack of interest in the real workings of the novel: what did they think of the main characters, the settings in Delhi and Shillong, the way the plot unfolds? I would have thought it worth their while to put in a word about these things.

I hope they take my criticism in the same spirit that I took theirs!

Something that the editor in me spotted: the HT newspaper review has em-dashes used both with spaces and without spaces. Being consistent is a basic editing skill, but maybe it’s something beneath the august notice of reviewer and/or sub-editor in this case.

If she had read the book a bit more carefully, Kuruvilla would have realised that Naina DOES NOT fall “into the arms of an Afghan coke dealer”: on page 121 and page 184, Naina and Karim respectively clear up the narrator’s doubts as to whether the two of them had slept together.

De spends a lot of time analysing why my narrator behaves the way he does: she doesn’t seem to notice that the narrator is himself aware of these things, and that he ends up doing things against his judgement—so there’s nothing new she brings to the book.

Book reviewing is a skilled art. It certainly doesn’t mean reproducing the plot of a novel in about a hundred words and adding a lofty pronouncement at the end. Both De and Kuruvilla have a long way to go before they can call themselves reviewers.


Bald Monkey said...

The temperamental artist spews bile ! :)
You never reviewed my review though :)

Ankush Saikia said...

bashu: you gave me a favourable review, so no bile for you! but seriously, at least you gave my book a chance: i think my first two reviewers had made up their minds even before opening the book.

Anonymous said...

Ankush, why not write a 'good' review of your own book? Or at least give us links to what you consider are good (unfavourable) reviews of other books?

As a potential buyer, I found the HT review good. The summary piques my interest in the book -- more than what you've been writing on this blog about your book. "Amateurish" will discourage a few buyers. But don't worry too much. If you think your writing is not amateurish, why bother.

Here was a chance, though, for you to use the HT review to seek feedback -- give a link to the review, highlight her criticism, and ask your blog readers "What do you think of the review? (Where all) did you encounter amateurish writing?" Now THAT is a smart author.

Ankush Saikia said...

dear anonymous: thank you for your comments. there's been a link to the HT review in the first paragraph of this post since yesterday, and further links from there for feedback and mailing the author of the review.

Anamika said...

I am glad you are challenging your review(er)s. It shows great confidence in what you've written.

As for Orange Jammies, she's a fellow blogger :)

bhaskar said...

Khublei Ankush : Congratulations on writing such an engaging Book

Thanks to Hindustan Times review I got to know that a book like this is there in the market. With Queensryche's song as the Title it has to be shillong only a dhakar or mate would know. Thanks to the review I bought the book and finished it at 5 hrs flat, great story I could not take my eyes off it, I found it very interesting .
I guess the reviewer in Hindustan Times never had Rum in Stainless Steel Glass so wont know how good it tastes :-).
Jokes apart great book I enjoyed it ,It was like reliving ur youth where everything seemed possible but then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun...

Ankush Saikia said...

bhaskar: i wrote this book for guys like you. i had rum in a stainless steel glass 2 fr years in indra vihar b4 being to afford better stuff down south! 'Time' is one of the only pink floyd songs i like, and as for the HT reviewer, the less said about her the better!

Ankush Saikia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Parang said...

Are you sure you want the 2 reviewers to take your criticism in the same spirit that you took theirs? You've taken it pretty badly — criticising them bitterly.

Anyway, I didn't get a free reviewer's copy. I bought your book, and I enjoyed reading it. I didn't think much of Naina; I don't really sympathise with crazy behaviour, no matter what the extenuating circumstances. I liked your hero though. Very much.

Why is Naina's virtue being debated? She wasn't a novice when the hero and she first did it, she'd gone to Goa with her new boss, and she was happily looking forward to becoming his mistress. Why is it so important whether or not Naina slept with Karim? Just a thought.

Ankush Saikia said...

parang: thanks for writing in. it's a first book, so i guess i was a bit over-sensitive about the reviews. reviewers will do what they have to. as for naina, i think the narrator wanted to find out as much as he could about her.