The Art of the Review V: Nilanjana Roy

Parul Sehgal -- May 6th, 2011

If the book critic is, in John Freeman’s words, a ”public reader,” then Nilanjana Roy is that and much more; her blog The Akhond of Swat is the bustling agora of Indian letters (or at least Indian writing in English). The New Delhi-based writer (and her very engaged commentariat) tackle the latest books, book scandals (hello Greg Mortenson), news tie-ins (a round-up of Osama Bin Laden biographies) — as well as a host of questions specific to Indian publishing (notions of “authentic” Indian writing, translation issues.)

She started reviewing at age 17, “20 years ago, when Indian publishing in English was still young, and when readers like me switched between languages—Bengali to English, English to Hindi—without self-consciousness; we read the way we spoke, changing languages like you would the gears of your car.”

She’s been a book reviews editor at Outlook and Biblio, and today, when she’s not instigating debates over on her blog, she writes a column at the Business Standard and contributes to the International Herald Tribune. Warm, wry, and accessible to a fault– even when covering archaic rape laws or how parallel imports will affect the Indian publishing market — she is a bridge between text and reader, between the safety of our tastes and the terror of the new.

We chat about Rushdie vs. Naipal, the virtues of a “magpie mind,” and why critics shouldn’t review bestsellers.

We’ll get to more high-minded discussions in a bit, but I can’t resist asking about the feuds in Indian letters. What is going on over there?! Since January alone, there’s been Hartosh Singh Bal vs. William Dalyrymple, Pankaj Mishra vs. Patrick French, Mihir Sharma vs. Anand Giridharadas. As you’ve noted, it’s the same argument with many avatars that’s been happening for a long time: Who has the right to write about India? Who is Indian enough? Whence this anxiety of authenticity? Do you find these conversations and quarrels profitable, resolvable, or even interesting?

I used to run a litblog called Kitabkhana, and going through the archives is a great way to realize how much these feuds and spats resemble the grand — and petty — intrigues of the Mughal courts. Some of it just stems from a historical fondness for argument, and it’s not all bad: Mihir Sharma’s contrarian reviews can be cutting, but they also have substance to them, and you need a Mihir as an antidote to the culture of respectful politeness, or the mindless praise allocated to books that are seen to be successful.

Naipaul vs. Rushdie is a beautiful example of a feud that covers some serious ground — the differences between their approaches to history are sharp, and worth paying attention to, because each offers a distinct and mutually contradictory way of making a way in the world. It’s never been carried out by the participants themselves, but by groups of historians, writers, thinkers who fall into either the Naipaul or the Rushdie camp, and the disputes range from the absurd to the trivial to the deeply serious.

The obsession with authenticity, is to my mind an empty quest — you’re getting into a ridiculous debate over whether the urban Indian, for instance, will ever be as authentic as her counterpart from the village, you’re evaluating different ways of writing India and elevating one over the other as the only true way. But the exasperation, the sense of disenfranchisement on the part of writers who don’t have the kind of easy access a French or a Giridharadas might, the impatience with a West that seems to want only a certain kind of facile, tourist’s guidebook writing from India, that is not interested in more complex narratives — these are very real. Giridharadas and French are almost accidental targets — the real battle is over an anxiety over what kind of portrait of the country will emerge, and an impatience sometimes with narratives that either simplify or contradict the version a Pankaj Mishra sees as the true story, for instance.

The realities of the marketplace currently dictate that Indian writers working in Indian languages other than English will rarely find an audience outside the country; that causes bitterness. The marketplace also dictates that Indian writers in English will of necessity be judged, bought, sold and read by editors and publishers working to the tastes of the European and American markets, which currently control English-language publishing — a fact that is often distasteful, frightening, or daunting to many Indians.

Hidden under all of this is the real fear: that we are losing our own distinct voice, that we are losing the right to tell our own stories without glossaries and without the necessity of explanation, that we speak and write and think in a borrowed tongue — English is an Indian language, but it is still an alien Indian language. So all of this makes these spats interesting; resolvable, no, but profitable, yes.

You blog and tweet. You’ve been published by the International Herald Tribune and Guernica. How connected do you feel the book worlds in Delhi, Mumbai, New York, London actually are? Or are we all more parochial than we’d like to believe?

I wish I could say that we’re all connected, and to some extent, we are — there is a resonance between litbloggers like Jessa Crispin and Laila Lalami, for instance, and editors and readers the world over speak the same language, which is the language of discovery and engagement. I could be in London and feel such a sense of community and belonging; a writer here will often find her real family, her family of other writers and thinkers, elsewhere, and may belong just as much to New York as to Delhi.

But the worlds are so distinct, so carefully separate. The yearning that I’ve heard many young writers express towards New York or London — the need for approval “over there”, to be featured in the GuardianPW, the New Yorker — this yearning goes one way; writers in New York and London don’t feel the same need to be loved in Mumbai and Madras. Nor do we in Delhi or Mumbai feel the same yearning, sadly, to be loved in Bogotá, or in Melbourne. So that truth, the truth that London and New York still hold the reigns of power — chiefly for Indian writers in English- co-exists along with the truth that books and reading connects all of us — both are true, even if one is a very harsh truth.

You have a terrific “post/rant” on the state of Indian criticism, calling for better, more engaged reviews and for publishers to act as more effective gatekeepers. What precipitated that post?

Some of it had to do with reflecting on a brief stint I spent in publishing, where my publishing house, Tranquebar, was under the same compulsion as every other publishing house in Delhi to publish by volume rather than quality. It seemed to me that few of us publishers were doing the job we should have been doing as gatekeepers: too much in the way of average, even mediocre work was finding its way into print. And reviewers weren’t being able to do their job either.

There was no mythical Golden Age of Indian reviewing I could look back to, but what is notable about the present situation is how easily we have banished writers from our editorial pages — I think we’re in danger of losing a tradition of informed public debate, though some magazine editors still try to keep this alive. Perhaps what really got to me was not even the shrinking space for book reviews — it’s the unthinking way in which we now allot book reviews by the power and the importance and the network of the writer, rather than by the literary merit of the book. The first questions asked when a book is launched are: is the writer important? What are his sales figures? We’ve forgotten how to evaluate books by any measure other than power and money and access, which may be the outcome of the publishing industry and the media being located in Delhi, a city notorious for its obsession with power, pelf, and access.

Your own reviews tend to toggle between analyzing the book to commenting more broadly on the state of Indian letters; it’s as if you’re trying to suss out what a particular book’s publication at a moment in time says about Indian literature. Is this is just how your mind moves (extracting the abstract from the specific) or is this because Indian writing in English is green and particularly self-conscious?

That’s very shrewd; I wasn’t aware of this, but that’s an accurate summary of what happens. I’m afraid it’s a flaw in the way my mind works — it’s a magpie mind, but the reviews I loved reading the most as a teenager were the ones that offered context and a broader view, and perhaps unconsciously that’s what I try to do. Reviewing a book in isolation is possible, and I’ve done some of those, but they remain unsatisfactory reviews: airless, without much breath or life in them.

It’s just the way one reads. If you read Tolkien, for instance, you must hear the Norse sagas behind the story of Sam and Frodo, and medieval English poets; if you read Agha Shahid Ali, it’s almost impossible to read his poetry on Kashmir in isolation, without reading his poems alongside the headlines, and alongside Bulle Shah’s verse; nor can you read some of his work without thinking of Primo Levi, or Amos Oz, or any other writer who has reported on any “country without a post office”. You don’t read in isolation — especially not contemporary Indian writing, where there is so much to say, often, about the “family” each book comes from, or the arguments they’re having with other views of history — and I guess my reviews reflect that.

You have a very distinctive voice in your reviews — you’re funny, confiding, and conversational, but you’re never afraid to reveal your exasperation or enthusiasm with a book or issue. Tell me about the evolution of your reviewing style.

I was far more arrogant when I began, because I had no idea at the time how little I’d read. At just short of 40, I am hungry now to “read” more, not just books, but in the way of contemporary film, art, politics, all those aspects of life that feed into writing and reviewing.

My 20s were wonderful years — I didn’t know any of the writers or publishers, any of the insiders, so those reviews are compulsively objective. The reviews of my 30s have more information and nuance, but I was far too polite, out of a kind of strangulating courtesy that I think I’ve finally jettisoned. The lovely thing about moving into my 40s is that I will only review books I’m interested in now, and I review with absolute freedom. The Indian book reviewing world is very incestuous, and you have to be passionate about the reading and dispassionate about the writers; there’s no other way.

Handling book review sections, at Biblio and Outlook, made me see what the book review could (and should) be — a broad rather than narrow space, a space where the most important arguments of the day, the ones that don’t find space under the onslaught of breaking news, can be made. If there’s one thing I want now, it’s longer reviews, more meat, more space — I cannot do the 600-word reviews any more, they feel like blurbs to me. And as time has passed, other aspects of my life—an obsession with the politics of food; deep engagement with gender issues, especially in the subcontinent; a love for travel, a fascination with cyberculture — all of these have fed and changed my reviewing.

I’ve just finished working on a collection of essays on books and writing called How to Read in Indian, and that is the form that interests me most — the long, personal but not autobiographical, 2,000 to 5,000 word essay. It’s hard because you have to justify that length, you worry about dropping into self-indulgence; and yet it’s so rewarding because it really allows you to get your teeth into obsessions—the inner lives of plagiarists, why the e-book grows on you, the Indian Mutiny novels of 1857. The space feels like moving from a small, cramped airless cubicle to a large room with windows and a breeze coming in off the verandah.

Do you have a set of criteria that you hold all books to–or do you think each book demands/invents its own set of criteria?

For me as a critic, the absolutes remain fixed. No amount of fidelity to its own ambitions will rescue a bad book, if the author is unskilled; no amount of craft will rescue a good book that is hollow at its heart. I’m increasingly a little wary of the demand that we read a book inside its genre; I loved Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for instance, but if you’ve read a lot of science fiction or dystopian fiction, what you will respond to in the book is not the stunning originality of the premise—because that premise has been done, extensively, before in science fiction. You will respond to the craft and to the humanity of it, but the slavish adoration of many of the mainstream reviews annoyed those of us who had read SF — we knew that his premise may have been brilliant, but it was not original. To take a slightly different example, why is it not possible to review Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall alongside George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice epic? Because they’re pegged as literary fiction versus fantasy, so they don’t occupy the same mindspace—but they are the same kind of book, and Mantel is just as much a companion to Martin as Tolkien. If you’re really serious about reviewing books by their own criteria, Martin should be reviewed as literary fiction just as much as he is seen as a fantasy writer. Okay, end of rant.

Have you ever been wrong about a book?

What critic worth the name hasn’t? I would love to be able to review books multiple times — to see how much my reading of them changes over the years. I’ve never been egregiously wrong in my judgment; I would say that most of my sins were caused by an excess of politeness, especially to older writers like Khushwant Singh, and that my book reviews reflect with a kind of helpless accuracy the nature of the book under review. I’m completely unrepentant about the books I’ve slammed, because it takes a lot for me to not be polite — almost always, the books I’ve trashed have been overhyped, like Siddhartha Dhanvant Shanghvi’s unbelievably purple The Last Song of Dusk, and my review isn’t going to put a dent in their sales. Writers will disagree, but sometimes a ferocious review is a compliment—some of the harshest reviews I’ve written are also the most engaged, and the most passionate; The Last Burden (Upamanyu Chatterjee) and An Obedient Father (Akhil Sharma) both elicited very strong reviews, but I would also argue that those were strongly engaged reviews.

The worst reviews, and the ones I feel terrible about, are of mediocre books, where for some reason my reviews come out mediocre as well — equivocal, neither here-nor-there, milk-and-water reviews that are of no use to anyone. I won’t write those any more, because there’s no satisfaction in them — I’d rather not review the book.

What, if any, are the critics’ responsibilities?

Be honest, be merciless, be humble, and when you do offer praise, be generous. None of this matters unless you’re honest, and the honesty won’t matter much unless you’re a relentlessly curious reader. Read a lot; read with discrimination, but read voraciously; develop your own tastes and be open about them, own your opinions, and be prepared to change them as your reading changes. And quit if reading ever becomes a chore.

What critics – past or present – are important to you? Which contemporary reviewers do you read regularly?

There are so many! On Indian literature, I look forward to Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Aloke Rai, Amitava Kumar, Priya Joshi, younger critics like Chandrahas Choudhury and Anjum Hassan; definitely Amit Chaudhuri and Jeet Thayil on poetry. Then there’d be the usual-James Wood, Elif Batuman, Ron Charles, Maya Jaggi, Michiko, the many book blogs from Bookslut to Elegant Variation and Moorish Girl. I’m missing out a huge number of critics, so let’s rework this and make it a wishlist: I’d love to have more criticism by the writer Rana Dasgupta, S. Anand (he publishes Dalit writers), Rakesh Khanna on languages (he’s with the publishing house Blaft), longer essays by writer-reviewer Manjula Padmanabhan or younger writers like Kuzhali Manickavel, more cross-language criticism by, say, writers like Krishna Sobti and Charu Nivedita. It’s also wonderful to be able to eavesdrop on “writers on writing” talks via YouTube or sites like the Hay Festival site.

What are the characteristics of a good critic – or at least the kind of critic that matters to you?

The best critics have perspective and passion, and a way of placing a book in context; the ones I instinctively gravitate towards are the ones, like Manguel or Fadiman, who relish reading and books with an almost physical sensuality, but who retain the ability to be critical in the best sense of the word; they are good listeners, attentive to what lies behind the words. I grew up reading Dirda, Wood, Kakutani and several other critics, but there’s a special place in my reading life for writers who write criticism. From Martin Amis to Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie to Orhan Pamuk, J.M. Coetzee’s “Lessons” to Margaret Atwood’s short essays; Vijay Tendulkar on plays and theatre, Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s memoirs of a literary life—there is so much richness in the conversations that happen between writers, whether they’re reading their contemporaries or the classics. Then there are some who wouldn’t be considered literary critics, but I’ve learned as much about how you should read and what happens when you do read from Vilayanur Ramachandran’s view of the brain or Steven Pinker as from a Hélène Cixous or a Roland Barthes.

When you’re reading a book and you feel a twinge of pleasure or displeasure, are you likely to accept it or interrogate it? How much do you trust yourself/your tastes?

I’m much more likely to ask where it comes from, and to see whether that might lead me into areas of interest: we carry our own biases with us, and some of them come inevitably from our personal lives and backgrounds, and some from the other self you build over the years, the reading self. Some emotions are more interesting than others; exasperation is usually of limited interest, because it’s spawned by a certain kind of tediously bad writing, but revulsion or dislike is usually fascinating, because it often reveals areas of strong disagreement between reader and author. I do trust my taste, and my own very personal reader’s canon—the private shrine to the books we love the most, that have shaped us — but I am always aware that what I think of as my “literary taste” is evolving and changing over time.

There’s a process that happens when I’m reading, and I imagine this would happen for many critics; years of reading and reviewing enables you to come to the quick, instant judgement required today if you write for the media, but that judgement, while it may not be incorrect, may not always be satisfying. You may respond with depth, or a detailed analysis, but I find books take time to settle in my mind; with the authors whose books mean the most to you, whether that’s Marilynne Robinson or Arun Kolatkar, the book’s not done with you when you’re done with reading it. It will resonate, and images from the book will come back over months — Amos Oz and Murakami are particularly good at writing passages that come back to you as though they were part of your own, private memory—and it may be a while before you know exactly where you want to place that book, how you want to discuss it or share it with other readers. I’m not very good at the instant review. I can do it, because I’ve trained myself to do it, but it feels like and is an unnatural way to read. I like to be able to sprawl with a book — especially fiction — and spend some time getting to know it, letting it find its own space.

Any advice for up-and-coming reviewers? What do you think the Indian and/or international culture of criticism (is there even such a thing?) needs more of?

If you secretly want to write, to be a writer, then don’t start by reviewing books — find some other way to earn a living, but don’t discontent yourself by filling your life up with other people’s work. I didn’t want to write until very recently (and that’s non-fiction) and it made me inordinately happy to be able to read and to be paid for it; happier than it made a few other friends who, deep down inside, wanted to be writing themselves, and should have written.

What do critics need more of? In India, we need less pressure to do the obvious stories — the big-advance stories or the interviews with the flavor of the month. We need more honesty, less politeness, but also less viciousness. Internationally, perhaps we all need to read much more in translation than we do, and it would be so nice if we could make a pact to leave the bestsellers alone. The bestsellers are doing fine all on their own — a thousand cookie-cutter news stories is a waste of our time as critics, so perhaps we just shouldn’t review the top 30 bestsellers. They don’t need us, do they? And I would love it if we could break down the artificial divide between genre fiction and “literary fiction” — what exactly are we trying to protect when we corral in “literary fiction” anyway? This is the old why-isn’t-Neil-Gaiman-considered-a-classic argument, and it’s a valid one. I guess I’m a little exasperated with high seriousness at this point, but then that might be because my tastes run to low amusements instead.

Need more Nilanjana? Hang out with her at the Akhond of Swat or follow her on Twitter @nilanjanaroy.

One thought on “The Art of the Review V: Nilanjana Roy

  1. keerti ramachandra

    Nilanjana, Thank you …. a million times over. You have put into words, what has “oft been felt but ne’er so well expressed”

    I hope all aspiring reviewers / critics and some established/frequently published ones review their own work … so that we readers also begin to look at books, their contexts, the whole purpose of writing/ publishing … and finally enrich our own lives with guidance from those who have sharper eyes and fluent tongues!

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