Any review by definition is the assessment of a thing, and assessment by implication is the estimation of the quality of what is being assessed. Hence, it is imperative that a reviewer, so as to estimate the quality of the thing under assessment should have the measure of the absolute character of its kind. Thus to assess a thing made of gold, the jeweler has its 24-carat characteristic to go by to see if the thing on hand is of 22 or 18 or worse. All it takes to transform the novice of a jeweler into an expert assessor is a few sightings at the touchstone.
But what about assessing books? Books being the products of mind are bound to be different in many conceivable and not so conceivable ways. Besides, their content and style won’t lend scope for evolving a quality parameter to judge them all by one common yardstick. Likewise, the proclivities of the readers wouldn’t make them a homogeneous lot either for the reviewer to address. It is thus in the book reviews, the reviewer’s literary likes and dislikes tend to shape the touchstone of quality on which the shade of the book on hand comes to be assessed. In this free for all, lament all, the causality is the objectivity in assessment of the books?
But, then, can there ever be objectivity when it comes to assessing the books that are subjective anyway? Yes, but only when the reviewer allows his focus to shift from the book to the readers themselves. After all, it is said that there is a reader for every book and a book for every reader. Going by this truism, the purpose of a review is for the reviewer to try to be a literary matchmaker and anything other than that negates, especially if it amounts to driving away readers from books. However, it is by imbibing the ethos and adopting the methods of the matchmaker that a reviewer could become his literary counterpart. After all, doesn’t the matchmaker’s ethos lie in his commitment to see that every referral is tied in the nuptial knot? What of his methods to achieve this end?
As soon as a resume lands in his lap (or laptop!) he identifies the areas of strengths and weakness of the eligible under his belt and sets out to shortlist the similarly placed to lead to the altar. Gaining the ear of the prospects, he would go about stressing upon the positives of the single under his care to help him or her reach the goal. Of course, he deems it fit not to site the drawbacks of the match, leave alone downplaying them as though to appear balanced. After all, had he not figured it out all to make a match of it? Surely this commonsense approach, besides ushering in unions ensures the matchmaker’s well-being as well. In time, all this combines to inculcate in him certain empathy for the singles and an urge to see them in conjugal bliss.
What about today’s reviewers of the Indian writing in English? Sadly, I feel, for the most part, they fail to grasp the import of their role in attracting readers to books and thus help sustain the reading habit of the multitude that is anyway under siege from electronic media. So, lacking the ethos to serve a cause, they seem to give a go by to the golden rules of matchmaking that stood the test of time. With their maverick methods, instead of bringing in readers, they tend to drive the prospective flock away from books. If only the reviewers were to be judged by the number of readers the books they reviewed had attracted, the review scene would have been all too different. Thus, with no empathy to name for the authors’ toil and full of disregard for the readers’ interests, most of the reviewers turn out to be bulls in the book world. Alternately, whenever the publishers’ contrive with a conniving media to hype a title to the hilt, the overawed reviewers play ball either bereft of a mind of their own or lacking the required conviction to swim against the current. In time, all this makes the readers cynical about the reviewers and thus the reviews cease to be the literary guides for book selection.
But then how to bring about an objective review in a subjective matter like books? Above all else, the reviewers must realise that the raison d’etre of their reviews is to help win readers for books and not to belittle them in public. With that premise, the reviewer must visualise the likely readers of the book on hand and then set out to build a ‘bridge of review’ for the latter to reach the book stores. For that, it should be enough if the review pictures what the book is like for the individual reader to decide whether it is right for him or not. Unfortunately, and mostly as is the case, the reviewers harp on what the book is not and what it ought to be, betraying the concern of the reviewer to dissuade the already reluctant reader from touching it than inducing the vacillating to go for it. Of course, the reviewer could easily alert the disinterested of the kind about its unsuitability to them by the process of positive elimination. What are the required skills and the needed tools to build a benign bridge for the reading public to access books?
As a matchmaker would, at the very outset, classify the matches as per relevant categories and sets about to match them, the reviewer would do well to announce the genre of the book, say in case of fiction, as one with a story and a plot or written in stream of consciousness or dwelling in magic realism et al. It is another matter if the reviewer’s presentation wins over the reluctant or makes them glued to the piece for its own sake. Having categorised the substance thus, the reviewer might let the reader have a feel of its style by excerpting from the book itself. After all, that is how one scans a book in a bookstore, isn’t it? Having done that, the reviewer should set out to picture the characters present and the environment in which it was set. Anything other than this, I think, is mere ranting and not reviewing.
In the case of fiction, one would like to know about the plot, its literary style, the narrative pace, the strength of characterisation and such features in book reviews, which give the reader an overview of a given novel to go in for it or not. But as the reviews go, it’s invariably the case of the reviewer usurping the space meant for the book for self-projection on the literacy stage, with the poor thing serving as a stool to appear taller in the intellectual world. If the review does not begin with a rambling preamble, it carries the verdict of the reviewer even before the reader gets apprised of the case details! What follows is either an ode to the author or the mode of the indictment as the case may be. Whether it is a case of lauding or lampooning the language, or patting or slighting the style, the reviewer wouldn’t condescend to descend to let the reader have a sample writing for self-assessment. All through, it is but the rigmarole of hyperbole of the reviewers’ point of view. And it does get nasty at times what with the reviewer wondering why the book had come to be written at all! When it comes to non-fiction, what is on view is the scholarship of the reviewer on the subject-matter of the work. It is as if the book under review is but an excuse to air the reviewer’s own views, unmindful, or even contrary to, what the work seeks to expostulate. In either case, the reader is left with no clue as to whether the book under review is the sort that interests him or not!
Interestingly, reviews by the academicians of both fictional and non-fictional kind have a character of their own. I think those who seldom come out of their campuses into the ever-changing world or who rarely step out of the libraries for a stroll on the campus lawn tends to comprise this group. While the former fail to imbibe the virtue of suspension of disbelief, the latter tend to hammer on the grammar that the New York Times famously stopped with the finale that Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize for literature and not for grammar. It is these who tend to apply the yardsticks of classics of yore to measure the current crop of writing in the changed setting. It is even fashionable among some of them to point out that ‘all characters speak in the same tone betraying the hand of the author’. It does not occur to them that people of a certain background in a given society all speak in some characteristic who conveys their thoughts in his own language. After all, don’t we know that everyone’s writing has a signature of its own? How can ever a writer become a chameleon of writing styles? Anyway, taking them seriously, if any author makes the characters speak in weird ways, won’t that go hard on the reader? Well, I feel reviewers should desist from the temptation of trivialising issues with frivolous observations.
While the English media chokes literature thus, I am of the opinion that the bhaasha (vernacular language) press tends to trivialise it by providing easy space to all comers in its preponderant periodicals. And this largesse naturally lowers the standard of bhaasha literature with hordes of writers of hundred short stories and scores of poets incapable of rhyming a couplet even. As a measure of mediocrity of the regional writing these manage to compile anthologies of their poems in a couple or more volumes. It seems to me that while the budding bhaasha writer’s short story is not expected to steamroll the magazine sales, the Indian writers in English are expected to bring in return on publishing investment. That being the case, reviewers should have the humility to realise that, after all, they are readers themselves, and it is only fair to fashion their reviews to let their fellow readers decide if the book is right for them or not. Let the reader be the God and let not the reviewer play Satan.