Friday, January 19, 2007

"Sacred Games": Two Reviewers Who Haven't Finished the Book

There seems to be something about Vikram Chandra's heavily-hyped, 900 page Bombay gangster novel, Sacred Games, that has led reviewers to publish evaluations before they've finished reading the book.

I can forgive Sven Birkerts for his essay in the Boston Globe. He writes about the publishing industry's hype machine, and how a million dollar advance and a $300,000 publicity campaign are actually pretty discouraging for a serious reader. The essay is well-written, and the paragraph Birkerts devotes to the novel itself redeems the thing:

I've been reading every day, not quite finished, so the one-man jury on ultimate greatness is still out, but I can say that "Sacred Games" is moving right along. It's working. Page after page it plucks me from the here and now, from the world governed by marketing mentalities, ruled by tasks and anxieties. I really am for long stretches in some phantasmagoric, confusing, reeking, corrupt, overheated, overpopulated elsewhere, a Mumbai of the mind, with characters who surprise me with their look and sound, their twists of behavior. How strange. It's as if I've needed to go through this peculiar re-immersion to get to my turnaround, to remember -- again -- why I got into this game in the first place. It was out of love. (link)

But I was bothered by the Malcolm Jones "review" in the online Newsweek/MSNBC, where he essentially says he can't be bothered because he's too lazy (and yes, he even uses the word "lazy"). He makes the rather original claim that committing so many hours to a long book can actually dampen one's objectivity:

Book reviewers, if they’re being paid and if they’re being the least bit fair, finish the books they review. But this creates a strange, maybe unnatural, situation: the very people paid to be objective about a book are also duty bound to finish it, and believe it or not, this warps a lot of peoples’ judgment. Let’s say you read a 900-page novel and you don’t absolutely hate it. You even sort of like it. Are you going to say that? Apparently not, judging by most reviews I read. Most reviewers get invested in the books they review, one way or the other. So the books are either panned outright or praised. The praise isn’t necessarily over the top, but it is praise. The reviewer has an investment now. He or she has spent a lot of time reading this book. Can’t just say, oh, it was OK. So you wind up with positive reviews that lack something—heart, maybe? (">link)

He might have a point here about the way in which your own investment of time can act as a kind of bribe -- though I find the implications of this kind of thinking rather distressing. Reading a work of literary fiction is not really like having a lobbyist pay for a golf trip to Scotland, is it? Jones then comes dangerously close to admitting he'd rather be watching TV:

My time is precious. Your time is, too. Who has enough time in the day to do all that we want? When I go home after work, it’s triage every night. I can listen to music. Or I can play music. Or I can answer letters or write. Or I can read a book. Or watch TV. Or watch a DVD on TV. Or go out to a concert or a movie. And those would be the nights that I don’t have to clean up the kitchen, do the laundry or help with homework.

When I realized that I get paid to read and that I still don’t have time to read everything I want—in fact, it’s hard to just barely keep up—that was when I realized how up against it everyone else is. Almost no one has time to read indiscriminately for pleasure these days. You have to pick and choose and then pick and choose again, and if you choose wrong, well, there are few things more aggravating than getting well into a book and discovering that you don’t like it after all. You’ve wasted your time. Your money. And unlike a bad movie, where you brush the popcorn off your lap and forget the whole thing by the time you hit the street, a bad book just sits there on the shelf, reminding you daily what a miserable experience you had. It’s a wonder that anyone reads anything any more. (link)

There are lots of problems here. For one thing, I've never finished a very long book that I didn't in some way like, and I can't imagine there are many readers out there who would do so. Secondly, reading a long novel is a qualitatively different kind of experience than watching a film, and thinking of them as interchangeable experiences doesn't speak well of Jones (I hope he soon gets assigned to an easier beat). The dangers of disappointment may still be real, but the kind of imaginative pleasures and discoveries possible make the risk worth it for most readers.


Shreeharsh said...

Hi Amardeep,

You seem to have come periliously close to admitting Jones' argument at the end of your post when you say, "I've never finished a very long book that I didn't in some way like, and I can't imagine there are many readers out there who would do so."

That exactly his point!

Most people, have the privilege of opting not to continue a long book which they find boring (I don't know how it is with literary theorists). Jones is arguing that book reviewers don't have that privilege and paradoxically, despite being paid for reading, they lose that elusive thing called "reading for pleasure" (perhaps, because they are forced to read so many things which they don't find in the least pleasurable).

I detect a lot of outrage in your post: how could Jones compare a literary novel to a movie? how could Jones compare (implicitly) putting time in to read a long novel to accepting a junket from a lobbyist? and so on (and I like the snarky little line that perhaps he is better off reviewing movies!). But that isn't his point, I think. All he wants to say is that with 900-page novels coming out a dime a dozen, book reviewers like him get little time -- and paradoxically little pleasure -- to read for pleasure.

That said, I find the statement that most reviewers end up damning or praising a book, rather than saying it was ok, rather dubious. I have no statistics -- note that Jones doesn't either -- but my own experience says that most book and movie reviews do end up saying that the book just passes muster -- that's very, very faint praise.

9:05 AM  
raghu ram prasad said...

Hi,amar such a long 900-page novels coming out a dime a dozen, book reviewers like him get little time -- and paradoxically little pleasure -- to read for pleasure.

11:42 AM  
Amardeep said...

Shreeharsh, I think a reviewer has some obligation to the material itself. It comes with the idea of a book review as at least partially a public service.

I actually don't think serious works of literary fiction that are this long come out very often anymore (they certainly aren't a dime a dozen). And I also still believe in the idea of a big novel as a way of encapsulating a broad slice of a given society at a given historical moment. Jones seems to have lost sight of that (though I'm not sure he ever had it -- he says he'd rather be reading Dickens than Chandra, but he admits he also didn't finish "Bleak House").

1:13 PM  
With Hammer And Tong...The LetterShaper said...

I thouroughly enjoyed reading here! As a poet, I found it very interesting and informative...thank you!

7:21 PM  
Matt Ellsworth said...

Newsweek covered for Jones by calling the piece a "Web Commentary." Thus permitting, I guess, the digressions to comment on the genius of Dickens generally and Bleak House specifically--although, as mentioned above, Jones acknowledges he didn't finish that either--and to muse on the basic legitimacy of big books.

Sacred Games might be as heavy as a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew--900+ pages. But if you're a professional reviewer, wouldn't you swig some more high-fructose corn syrup, order six pizzas and roll through that in about three days? Jonathan Yardley really disliked it, acknowledged it took him five days, but at the very least had some specifics.

Back in the days of the MFA, a few of us spent some time with Alan Cheuse working through the basics of literary journalism, surely the best class I've ever taken. He employed his trademark technique, terrifying and effective, of making us read our reviews aloud, then stopping us after the first awful sentence--and not letting us continue. And God help the poor wretch who missed a deadline. If I had submitted something like this Jones thing, Alan might well have thrown me off the 14th Street Bridge.

Lost in all this is the book itself. I can't say I'll add it to my reading list, given that my main reading time comes in twice-daily 15-minute slots on the Oakland city bus (I spent six weeks on Cloudsplitter, by Russell Banks). But part of the service that reviewers provide is keeping a culture acquainted with its literature, even when we're too occupied otherwise to keep up on our own. In that respect, Malcolm Jones has really let us down.

6:03 PM  

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