On reviewing (Or, is there an Indian way of reviewing?)

Amit Chaudhuri, in the very first sentence,lets us know that he knows that what he is doing is against the grain of conventional wisdom:

Ancient wisdom proclaims that it’s better not to respond to reviews.

But then, I guess, the frustration that importance is being attached to information rather than substance is too much to bear:

Chaudhuri’s review, I should add, is as generally thoughtful and generous (for which I am grateful) as the Telegraph notice is cursory. But both spend time on factual errors or omissions (the latter expends almost the entirety of its small space on these) in a way that’s reminiscent of a great deal of reviewing in this country. Are our reviewers just more meticulous in these matters than their counterparts elsewhere? What is the hidden, life-and-death, clinching import of information?

With any anthology of merit, structure, the relationships set up between the texts selected and the challenge posed to the reader thereby are questions that must be dealt with. Errata can’t take up too much review space, or be made to look more significant than they are; errata are errata and, contrary to what many of our reviewers think, not criticism; unless, of course, facts that were central to the book’s argument were misrepresented, in which case the argument itself falls apart.

A nicely thought out piece, which ends with some analysis of the role of authenticity in Bengali literary criticsm:

Authenticity has been a bogey in Bengal, and India, ever since modern ‘literature’ came into existence. Buddhadeva Bose claiming Madhusudan Dutt (picture) “didn’t know Bengali”; Tagore saying much the same thing in an interview to E.J. Thompson; Dineshchandra Sen’s opinion that Tagore’s “mode of thinking is essentially English”; Bankimchandra announcing there was no “authentic (khaanti)” Bengali poet after Iswar Gupta — the list goes back to the source itself. This is fine; except that the fundamental business of cultural reciprocity has got bogged down repeatedly in the issue of the authentic. Authenticity, and its unfriendly local incarnation, territoriality, have killed off a great deal of Indian criticism; they’ve often transformed criticism into bureaucratese; for which, as it happens, error-finding is an indispensable instrument. For the bureaucrat, with his emphasis on the correct information holding the key to identity, the fact that I haven’t mentioned (as The Telegraph points out) that Kaliprasanna Singha translated the Mahabharat or that Samar Sen edited Now puts the legitimacy of the five hundred-odd pages of Memory’s Gold and years’ work into question. But then the bureaucrat’s universe is very different from the critic’s.

By the way, I have also noticed that far too many Indian reviews, even while not taking this route of pointing out errors, just state some facts about the book, what it is about, who the author is and so on without getting to the business of criticism. If it is not errata, sometimes, it is just a precis that passes for a review. All of this makes me wonder (to borrow the words from A K Ramanujan), if there is an Indian way of reviewing.

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