The Art of the Review V: Nilanjana Roy

Parul Sehgal — PWxyz, 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 Swatis 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 DalyrymplePankaj 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.

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The Art of the Review III: Michael Miller

Parul Sehgal–PWxyz, April 1st, 2011

We’re thrilled to have Michael Miller in the hot seat this week. Miller got his start at the Village Voice and has since written for the Voice Literary Supplement and been an editor at Time Out New York–where he curated an extraordinary book section that celebrated both the popular and the recondite, the traditional and the experimental. Always pushing the reader to more complicated, challenging pleasures, he brought Brian Evenson, Lydia Davis, and Rudolph Wurlitzer to a whole new audience.

Miller is now a Reviews Editor at Bookforum where he’s also (full disclosure) my superb editor.

He chats with us about lazy critics, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, Stephen Elliot’s good taste, and why being too “right” about a book can make for a dull review.

Give me a sense of your average day. How many books do you get/how do you separate the wheat from the chaff? How do you decide to farm out reviews?

I deal mostly with fiction and poetry, plus some nonfiction books about pop culture, music, and film. I’m not sure how many books arrive each day, but the stacks are high! I pick books in a variety of ways. Sometimes I’ll see a book by an author I’ve read and liked in the past. For instance, I read Ron Padgett’s biography of Joe Brainard, so I’ve set aside his new book of poems, How Long. Same goes for Jo Ann Beard: She has a piece I love in one of those Best American Essays anthologies (the one edited by David Foster Wallace), so I’m definitely going to check out her new novel, In Zanesville. I also hear about a lot of things word of mouth: I think Stephen Elliott has good taste, so I usually check out what he chooses for his reading group at The Rumpus. That’s how I heard about Deborah Baker’s The Convert.

I can’t speak for the other editors here, but when I’m assigning reviews, I try to find someone who knows the territory but not too well. Ideally, a reviewer will be just a little out of his or her element. That leaves room for some original thinking—even surprise—on the critic’s part.

In your review of Mark Gluth’s The Late Work of Margaret Kroftis, you praise its “direct, no-fat sentence style,” the author’s “creative command of his cultural references,” the book’s ability to quietly “break your heart.” These are all qualities I’ve admired in your reviews–economy, smart allusions, an emotional and intellectual engagement with the book. When you’re reviewing, do you have some sort of criteria that you hold the book to? Or does every book demand or invent its own set of criteria?

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