Thursday, December 15, 2011

Doing a Book Review

[Published: col. 9,]

If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it. – Abraham Lincoln

The mantle of a judge perhaps gives us a greater high than anything else in the world possibility could. Perhaps more so when we sit in judgement over another person’s intellectual prowess – as, for instance, a book reviewer. When we do a book review, it is important to understand that, along with the freedom of expressing our views, we also have a responsibility – towards the task we have been entrusted with, towards the publication that has offered us the opportunity (or to ourselves in case of a blog); and towards the work, the writer, and the publisher – regardless of our sentiments towards them. The real test of a reviewer is not how he/she handles a book he/she loves, but one he/she absolutely abhors.

How does one maintain balance and civility in the face of contrary emotions dying to lash out at the work/writer? But there it is. The best sign of maturity is objectivity – a balanced view, taking into account both the book’s merits and faults. Whenever it comes to a creative work, likes and dislikes will always be subjective. No book is all good or all bad. Whether the work is literary or popular, fiction or non-fiction, the experience will always be unique to every person who reads it. A good reviewer is aware of that, and hence careful with his/her comments and phrasing, and, above all, professional in his/her approach. Language and treatment are as much the marks of a good reviewer as they are of a good fictionist.

Today’s reader is more perceptive, more aware of the world around him/her. It’s easy for him/her to detect a biased judge, a failed writer, a disgruntled non-professional, a malicious human being or simply a green-eyed one – hidden behind a particularly vicious piece of writing – where the merit of the book has little to do with the review it receives. Unfortunately, these days, one comes across the Cinderella Sisters syndrome too often – tomes raving and ranting unrestrainedly, ironically, revealing the reviewer as a hysterical figure frothing at the mouth instead of the dignified and articulate critic he/she is supposed to be. The purpose of the entire exercise is lost.

On the other hand there are also reviewers, who, if they feel they would not be able to rein in their dislike for a book on paper, or curb their severe response, choose to opt out instead of allowing their hysteria to show in their writing.

Most professional writers are receptive to constructive criticism if it is presented gracefully and well, but how does one respond to unwarranted comments and malevolence? As a reviewer, why not use one’s linguistic skills and creativity as weapons instead? Why not use relevant examples and parallels, gently showing the hows and whys, and giving the devil his due where it’s deserved? Wit and humour elegantly used to make a point, or a clever turn of phrase that expresses the reviewer’s thoughts, are more effective tools than wild ranting. Good writing – whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, an email or a review, is all about grace and subtlety.

No matter how much one dislikes a book, it is in bad taste to reveal the nub, or give away the suspense for the potential reader/buyer. A book review is different from critical appreciation, and has a different purpose/timing. In fact, even a critical appreciation has its own requirements, which are even more challenging. A good review neither flatters nor maligns, but provides a fair view.

Then there is the overzealous critic, who jumps to conclusions without doing his/her homework well, and is in such a hurry to heap blame on the author’s shoulders that he/she fails to establish facts before signing off the damaging memo. Not the most brilliant approach to accomplishing the task.

Any review reflects upon the reviewer even more than it does on the work/writer it analyses, so it’s best to think twenty times before publishing your piece.