Sunday, February 07, 2010

I have a dream

I know—so did Martin Luther King, and so did Abba. But my dream is neither about the state of Mississippi being transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice, nor about having a song to sing to help me cope with everything. Mine is possibly harder to turn into reality.

The dream is that one day, we in India will be able to deal in the currency of ideas and opinion without letting our giant mutant egos get in the way. In this la-la land that I inhabit, Shah Rukh Khan would be able to pick Pakistani players for his cricket team and the Shiv Sena could froth at the mouth like a rabid dog but not be able to shut down his upcoming movie (My Name is Khan). A woman’s dress might provoke catcalls or comment, but not molestation or sexual assault. And book reviews would be both written and read professionally—that is to say, as subjective opinion, formed as objectively as possible.

That’s what it would mean to have a real critical culture, rather than one of either mutual admiration or personal vendetta. I should say upfront that this is old whine in an old bottle. But if this is the third time I’m writing about book reviewing, it’s only because it happens to be the closest tip of the closest anti-intellectual iceberg in a sea filled with such icebergs specializing in sinking critical debate about everything from leisure to religion.

My dream is that we could attempt to melt those icebergs, and create a real critical culture. Possibly the single most important ingredient in this (completely fanciful) idea is good faith: to speak in good faith, and to listen in good faith. In my dream, a reviewer would say, “I read this book and my honest opinion is that it sucks/is brilliant/is mediocre. In the same dream the author, reading this review, would say, “Oh look, someone’s honest opinion. I agree/disagree.”

That’s my dream. But I know I’m awake, because what I see is intimidation, bullying, tantrum-throwing and serious cases of egoitis. The din of clashing ideas is the stuff and marrow of democratic debate, but whether this ends up being an enriching rather than irritating and pointless sound depends on how the conversation is conducted. The first pitfall of any debate is when, due to aforesaid giant mutant egos, people swerve away from the issue at hand, into blizzards of personal invective. It’s irrelevant, and adds exactly nothing to the discussion. You might as well respond to a statement like ‘I love brownies’ with ‘You would—your eyes are blue and your grandmother was Yemeni.’

People assume that if reviewers are nice about someone’s work it’s because they are friends with the author and can’t bring themselves to be honest; if they’re not nice, it’s because for reasons of [insert gratuitous psychoanalytical and sexual speculation] they’re out to get the poor geniuses who poured blood, sweat and tears into their book for years.

I’d hate to, but I’m forced to admit the possibility that this is in fact the prevailing reality—that reviewers really are motivated by either deference or malice. I’d hate to think that, but it would at least explain why authors often seem incapable of reading reviews of their work without assuming such motivations. The other explanation, of course, is that they’re simply whiny, self-pitying megalomaniacs with blue eyes and Yemeni grandmothers.

In my dream everyone has gotten over themselves and accepts that when you put something into the public domain for public consumption, you will get public opinion, on message, to which you can respond, on message. And then, honeychile, live with it.


Vipin said...

zweimal in der Woche, fraulien? your pen overfloweth wonderfully - as always!

J said...

So does this bring one back to Hartosh's argument about literary cliques?

Whenever I get to write a review, I find that it's one of the most challenging aspects of my job. Because in a story one's poli(-)tics somehow is usually covered. In a review you find it hard being objective without skinning your own scabs.

Wonderfully written though.

Anonymous said...

Well put ! But isn't this symptomatic of the state of our society and is reflected in other places ?

Having a 'real critical culture', to me, is a bit like developing a sense of humour which involves learning to make fun of ourselves first. So maybe we need to learn to criticise ourselves first.

Jon said...

write a book already