Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Shashi Deshpande on critics

Sometime back I asked author Shashi Deshpande about negative reviews in an attempt to understand what drives a critic's disdain. Are writers proud of putting their name on pieces they know are dishonest? Can they as Ms Deshpande quoted another writer, ``look me in the eye and `say' what they wrote?''
In retrospect, it was not my business to wonder. Because writers whether they are investing years of their life in a book or mucking someone else's work, are first of all accountable to their own integrity. And they are answerable to only themselves. Regardless of these random drops of negativity..I feel blessed that there is a book with my name on it and I felt instinctively protective towards it and a tad defensive because literary criticism should be literary and these reviews just were not.
Ms Deshpande has birthed ten novels since 1978 and has never lost her will to write but she till date remembers the pieces that attacked her first book and belittled it. But as she explained to me, a writer's job ends with the book. And whether criticism stems from ignorant malice or downright nastiness, it should not be allowed in that space that is yours as a writer.
And then she sent me a piece she had written sometime back which made me realise whether the writer is Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Shashi Deshpande or an upstart from nowhere like me, most critics don't change and say the same things and keep saying them to different authors in different contexts in different eras.

An incisive take on on critics by Shashi Deshpande:

Barbara Epstein calls reviewing a special skill. In India unfortunately, no skill seems to be necessary. Anyone, just about anyone, it seems, can do a review of any book, any author, any genre. To quote Doris Lessing:

` … a young man or woman, reviewer or critic, who has not read more of a writer’s work than the book in front of him, will write patronisingly, as if rather bored with the whole business, or as if considering how many marks to give an essay’ to the writer `who might have written fifteen books and have been writing for twenty or thirty years – giving the writer instructions on what to write next and how. No one thinks this absurd.’

This is absolutely true of India as well. Often the patronising comments of so-called reviewers border on cheekiness (P.Lal calls is cockiness) and presumptuousness. Even more alarming are reviewers who don’t read the book. The point is, as Doris Lessing said, that the word `critic’ is interpreted to mean `to find fault’. And therefore the more faults you find, the more destructive you are, the better a critic you can consider yourself. The idea that the reviewer is the person who can guide the reader does not exist. The lightheartedness with which a reviewer damns a book without giving a single reason for it is astounding. Surely some reason must be given for what the reviewer is saying. If you don’t like something in the book, you have to say why, you have to produce the evidence. But many reviewers think that no more is needed than a lordly `I don’t like it’.

Ignorance and laziness in the reviewer create many problems. Ignorance often means that the reviewer does not have the larger context of the book. Where does the book belong? What is its place there? How does it add to what already exists? These are as integral to the understanding of a nook as what is inside the book itself. But most often these are not taken into account at all. Laziness results in using labels and tags. I have been a special victim of this, for my writing is immediately labelled feminist writing or women’s writing, which means that much in the book is missed. Doris Lessing’s main complaint about the reviews of `The Golden Notebook’ was that it was seen as a feminist book and therefore acclaimed or criticised as being part of the sex war. Which meant that the various themes, which she spelt out rather angrily in a later edition, were totally missed. To have your work being put into the slot of `women’s writing’ is equally irritating. This is part of what Margaret Atwood calls `the put-down syndrome’. A reviewer she says, spoke of the `domestic imagery’ in her book because, seeing her poetry as women’s writing, he focussed only on such imagery as could be called `domestic imagery’ and ignored the rest. When my novels are called `novels about women’ or `about women’s issues’, I want to retort, `I write about people, some of whom happen to be women’. Eudora Welty, the American writer, said the same thing about her being called a regional writer: `I write about people who happen to live in a certain region’. Labelling can go further: I remember a certain review in a magazine which reviewed three novels, all by women (one of them was my `That Long Silence’) the title of which was `A Ladies Club’. In these two words the reviewer condemned all the three novels as being upper-class, superficial and elitist. There are so many nuances in the word `ladies club’, none of which add to the value of a novel.

If a reviewer uses such short cuts to speak of a book, he/she is what I can only call an inadequate reader. And an inadequate reader cannot be a good reader because such a person cannot give another reader who has not read the book an adequate understanding of it. Which is what a review is really all about. Foreign reviews of Indian books are often inadequate, because of a lack of knowledge of the context. One example I often quote is John Updike’s review of two Indian novels, one of which was `The God of Small Things’. John Updike’s concluding statement was:

`Is there a place, these novels make us wonder, for an English language literature within India where a bristling nationalism staves off Asian neighbours and a Hindu fundamentalism has arisen to compete with the Islamic variety’.

I thought that this statement clearly showed an ignorance of the context of Indian writing. Firstly why should this problem particularly affect English writing? If it is a problem, it applies to all the languages. Secondly, even if what he says is true, it is exactly out of such confusion and turmoil that writers write. And, finally, anyone who lives in India would know that while these dilemmas exist here, we have many other problems which are much more immediately part of our lives, if invisible perhaps to the outside world. It is the outside view, the picture of Indian writing that emerged from the novels published in the West – most of them at the time speaking of nationhood and nation-making – that gave Updike such an idea. It is as if a foreign reader is incapable of reading our novels as just novels and can only read them as `Indian’ novels – something that puzzles me both as reader and writer. For example, I read Anne Tyler’s novels as novels, not as `American’ novels. Therefore I would never ask the question what place a recent novel of hers has in a post-9/11 America which is tackling the problems of possible terrorism within the country and facing a growing hatred outside.

While a negative review can stop you from writing, even if for a short time, a good review spurs you into writing, it can boost morale and increase self-confidence. It allows you to move on and not stay mired in what should be over. `One feels flooded with ideas’ as Virginia Woolf calls it. Whereas, after a bad review, she says `all the lights sank, my reed bent to the ground and that odious rice pudding of a book is what I thought it – a dank failure’. And yet Virginia Woolf herself says that a bad review can be bracing, it can make you combative. These are not contradictory statements; for a writer, a good reviewer is not the one who only praises, but who understands what you’re trying to say, what you’re trying to do and tells you whether and how and where you fall short of it. (Doris Lessing thinks that to ask for such a critic is asking for the impossible.) It’s the negative critic who’s the real enemy. Destructive criticism is specially lethal for a young or new author. Byron called it `hemlock to a sucking author’. Talent may be nipped in the bud because of unduly harsh criticism. When even seasoned writers are affected by harsh criticism, how can a young author be immune? In India I have noticed that first novels are not given any grace marks, they are judged in the same way and too often probed for greatness. Kindness, which I don’t think is mentioned in any book of criticism, certainly matters in life. Equally bad is unmerited praise which, to my mind, can be lethal. It can give rise to complacency and smugness – which is the very worst state of mind for any artist. Writing grows out of doubts, anxieties and fears, not through complacence.

One might as well ask, why don’t more authors do reviews? In the West there are illustrious examples of authors/critics like T.S.Eliot or Virginia Woolf. Even today there are eminent writers who write splendid revews which are a pleasure to read in papers like the New York Times Review of books. For some reason we don’t have this tradition in this country. There are a few authors doing reviews, but one rarely finds anyone doing it regularly or persistently enough to make a difference. Authors, to my mind, can make good critics because every author is basically a critic, since writing involves self-criticism. Authors also have a better understanding of the what goes into writing, of the process and therefore have a greater respect for any written work. A writer can also get more out of a book, and offer the reader more insights. But there are some problems, which is why I have steadily refused to review any books of my contemporaries – i.e. of Indian English writers. Firstly, being one of them, I think it would be wrong for me to sit in judgement over a colleague. Besides, this is a very small world, most people know one another, or at least know of one another. How can I be sure I am unbiased? How can I be sure I am not being personal? I have seen reviewers working off personal spats through reviews, waiting years to get back at someone who had once said something uncomplimentary about their work. Everything becomes personal. Which is why reviews are used to prove friendship as well as tick off enemies. The `you scratch my book, I’ll scratch yours’ phenomenon is often at work. There’s also the danger of being called jealous. A writer, Gauri Deshpande, who wrote a review of `The God of Small Things’, began by saying, `I know that to say anything against this book is to be accused of being jealous. But I will say these things nevertheless!’ There’s the fear of making enemies. A very practical problem, as far as I am concerned, is the reluctance to take time off from what one is writing and to read another author.

The lack of good critics is a big problem for most Indian writers, the biggest problem for English writing in this country. As far as serious professional criticism is concerned, our problem is that most of the theories come from abroad, which often means that the critics ignore the context of the writing, i.e. Indian literature. And apart from trying to confine a book within certain set theories, all critics write in a very intimidating jargon which can be understood only by other academics. My concern is about serious criticism moving further and further away from a living growing literature because of the language used. Good critical works written in a non-academic language almost don’t exist. There is a dearth of powerful critical voices in our country, of critics whose opinions can reach the ordinary reader as well as the literary world and give us the right perspective.

Undoubtedly reviews matter immensely to authors and when you have just written a book and are waiting for the reviews, you think them a question of life and death. But in more sensible and detached moments you know that however much reviews matter, sales matter even more. Virginia Woolf each time carefully notes down the sales figures. Sales figures make up for a lot; you can thumb your nose at the critics! Equally or perhaps more important are the opinions of readers – ordinary readers who speak to you of your book. My admiration for Jane Austen, already great, went up several notches when I read that she collected the opinions of her family and friends and wrote them down. No mention anywhere of the opinions of other critics – just these opinions of ordinary readers. So have I too got the best insights from readers. When I hear their response to a book, not a studied response, but one that comes out of an emotional bonding with the book, I feel fulfilled. This is the real meaning of literature – an intimate connection between an author and a reader. This is what literature is about – touching people’s lives.

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