Monday, September 12, 2011
Unkind review: A writer's nightmare
Sometime ago, I had the good fortune of listening to a talk by Shashi Deshpande, the well-known Indian writer in English. The talk was out of the ordinary, as Deshpande chose to hit out at reviews and reviewers.
Deshpande had good reason for being so aggressive. Some of her reviewers, she complained, had not read any of her books beyond what had come their way for review. One of the reviewers of her Small Remedies had written about the book as though it were an autobiography! Amusingly enough, a reviewer in the Washington Post had complained that there were too many Indian names in Deshpande's books. Besides, there were the smart alecs who wrote condescendingly and passed destructive judgements. Deshpande spoke about her "sense of angry impotence" and asked, "What do we do when ridicule and supercilious pieces of judgement are all that reviewers seem to be capable of?" She looked relieved when she concluded. "Tonight I can sleep in peace", she said.
Reviews can make or mar a writer's career. It is said that Keats "died of the Quarterly Review", having taken deeply to heart the savage onslaught of the reviewers of his poem, Endymion. Hardy stopped writing novels after his Jude the Obscure, a rather frank novel, got damning reviews. Virginia Woolf felt depressed whenever she got a bad review.
Critics rarely rise above prejudice. Keats's association with Leigh Hunt, who was known for his political radicalism, had made him odious to the great Tory Reviews. Boyer, who was unsuccessful as a playwright for fifty years, was another victim of prejudice. When his new play, Agamemnon, was staged, he gave it to be understood that it was written by a young man who had just arrived in
. The play was unanimously acclaimed. Among those who praised the play was Paris , the arch-critic of Boyer. On the second day of the staging of the play, the real author's name was announced. The play was hissed. Racine
"Never pay attention to what critics say", advised Sibelius, the famous Finnish composer. "Don't forget that there has never been set up a statue in honour of a critic." Among the writers who followed this advice were Doris Lessing, who never read any reviews of her books, and P G Wodehouse, who challenged his critics to get a sob out of him. To this small group belonged our R K Narayan: he had only contempt for reviews, though his books often received favourable reviews.
But Lessing, Wodehouse and Narayan were exceptions. Most writers have only looked forward to the reviews of their books and agonized over the unfair ones. Shashi Deshpande belongs to this vast majority. By appealing to reviewers "not to ruin the morale of writers", she only repeated the appeal Carlyle had made to Voltaire about a century and a half ago. Voltaire's criticism was devastating: he delighted in tearing down in words all the cherished institutions of humanity. Once Carlyle asked him, "Have you only a torch for destruction? Have you no hammer for building?"