Time was way back in the thirties of the twentieth century when there were hardly any major publishing houses in India. Macmillan and Longman ruled the roost. The scene gradually changed after Independence. Indian publishing houses started coming into their own. And while some of them have closed down thanks to competition, many more have been doing very well.
With the spread of the publishing field came a new development: Book reviewing.
In the thirties and forties and even well up to the sixties, few Indian newspapers had a page devoted solely to book reviews. The scene today is changed beyond recognition. The English media, especially shows it noticeably. Be it The Pioneer, The Tribune, Deccan Herald, The Free Press Journal or The Hindu, to name only a few dailies, their Sunday editions devote a full page to book reviews, with The Hindu outdoing most others in this department. And no wonder.
According to K. Narayanan, the paper'sReaders? Editor, The Hindu receives over 4, 500 books every years from publishing houses for possible reviews. No newspaper on earth can possibly review that many books but what The Hindu does is to list books received in a column headed ?New Arrivals?. But even that can hardly do justice to publishers anxious to see their books reviewed in some detail. To meet the situation The Hindu occasionally published a few lines from blurbs, but this is confined only to those books that are considered ?interesting?. Whoever is in charge of this department must be having a difficult time. Even for ?new arrivals?, a selection has to be made, considering the number of books received.
In the end how are books selected for review? According to Narayanan, ?the main consideration is the content (of the book) and its importance.? Understandably, the name of the author does influence the final choice. The quality of production is reportedly also a factor. In The Hindu, the emphasis is on Indian publications. Writes Narayanan: ?A list of the selected books and suggested reviewers?prepared by the team-in-charge?is seen and cleared by the Editor-in-Chief. Where sensitive issues and political subjects form the theme, the work is generally assigned to staff members who are familiar with the paper'sapproach and are unlikely to be prejudiced. Similarly when the reviews contain controversial statements that, in some cases, might involve legal risk, clearance at the top level is sought.? Apart from staff members who else would the paper name to review books of special importance? Book reviewing is not as easy a job as many think it is. It calls for knowledge, expertise, a distinct style and a full understanding of the issues raised. School or college text books and guides, reprints, compilations, etc do not make it to the review pages. And quite rightly so. Books relating to education are sent to the paper's Education Supplement for notice, if warranted.
According to Narayanan, the choice of reviewers is made from a panel. The list apparently keeps changing. When the quality of writing is unsatisfactory or prejudices are seen, the reviewer is quietly dropped. If an outsider wishes to write a review, his credentials are examined and sample reviews are commissioned for assessment. That no doubt explain why a review in The Hindu is estimated so highly.
What sort of pressures does the desk face? Not so much from the publisher who has to be careful not to sound offensive but occasionally from authors who may feel that they have been underrated or downgraded. The Hindu, it is clear, does not publish rejoinders. When a review is published, the matter ends there. The paper has a monthly Literary Review which deals with fiction, biography, poetry and so on. It would seem that almost all the books are received in Delhi and the selection for notice is made in Delhi and Chennai, working in coordination. But why mostly in Delhi? For the simple reason, one suspects, that most publishers have their headquarters in Delhi. Serious newspapers have a problem on hand.
How does one choose a lead review? There are times when a newspaper may get over a dozen books almost simultaneously which call for special attention. This places a heavy burden on the Book Review Editor (if there is one) or the Editor-in-chief. A choice has to be made and this would depend on external circumstances. This is an unenviable job. But this would explain why some books take such a long time to be reviewed.
Are book reviews always objective? Should we always expect a reviewer to be fair and balanced? A reader, or course, expects objectivity and fair judgment, or what is a review for? But this should not mean that sound criticism of a book is to be avoided. When criticism is merited, one should yield to it in the author'sown interests not to speak of the interests of the reader. One is reminded of a book written in the late twenties by an American author, Katherine Mayo, entitled Mother India. It was obviously a commissioned book intended to damage India'sstature as much as possible. Mahatma Gandhi called it a ?gutter-inspector'sreport?. And quite rightly so. That one book became a guideline for Americans for almost two generations and damaged India'sfair name.
Mother India had little or no literary merit. It wasn'teven well-researched. But it succeeded in its aim. There are books and books, some written with malice pre-conceived which are best thrown into the gutter. These days books are quietly being replaced or supplemented by television and we have Katherine Mayos of a different kind, indulging in what has come to be known as ?sting operations?.
Late in July this year the Supreme Court sought an unconditional apology from a private TV channel reporter who conducted a sting operation, his excuse being that he had done it to expose corruption in lower judiciary. The Chief Justice asked: ?What public good has he (the reporter) done? Prima facie, the reporter has committed a serious crime.? One, of course, can'tcompare the reporter with Katherine Mayo. They belong to two entirely different categories. The reporter'sclaim is that his intentions are honourable but alas, good intentions should be implemented through good means. Sting operations do not fall in that category. And in this context one can only give full support to the Chief Justice.
Reporting is a touchy subject and the media has a special responsibility in upholding values, even as book reviewers have?a point that cannot be stressed enough.