22 July 2009

Why I started writing this blog ... or How to Write a Book Review

Laurane Marchive is an intern at Sunday Mid-day. She is a French student and in Bombay for a few months, and is working towards two different degrees at the same time in France, one in political science, which will lead to a journalism master, and the second in modern literature. Click here to read something Laurane wrote about Bombay. Laurane interviewed me for research paper on “How to enter a literary career”. I sent her answers to the questions she asked, but it was the train of thought they set off in me that led me to create this blog ... thank you, Laurane! I’ve pasted our conversation here because it made me think about why and how I write book reviews.
What kind of formatio
n ( diplomas, professional experience) does one need to have to become a book reviewer?
I received my Master’s
degree in Pure Mathematics from Bombay University in 1982. After 3 years as a lecturer in undergraduate Mathematics at Ruparel College, Bombay, I had a baby and took a career break. During this time I started writing. My byline became ” quite prominent (no one was more surprised than I that what I wrote – mostly personal-experience humour – was fit for publication) and The Times of India offered me a job as a features editor in 1989, which I took up. I’ve just flipped through my records and find that my very first book review appeared on 28 April 1991, in a wonderful but short-lived newspaper of the Times group called The Independent. I remember very clearly how this happened: I saw the book lying on someone’s table and said, “Hey can I read that?” And he said, “Sure, review it for us. 1200 words.” Apparently it was all very ad hoc in those days (and no one does 1200-word reviews any more either). But I think it is still possible to become a book reviewer in this way. I don’t think any newspaper or magazine in India looks at your qualifications before they ask you to review books for them. After that, The Independent gave me books to review regularly. I think other journalists must have read some of these reviews or in some way had an idea that I could write a book review, because after that over the years I have received quite a lot of books to review. I think the general understanding is that if someone is an experienced reader, and capable of analyzing, comparing, and writing readable copy, they can be considered as a book reviewer. I think it also helps if the person is capable of meeting deadlines and responding to last-minute changes or requests.
Is it easy to become a book reviewer? Is it a struggle to make a living out of it?

It is probably not very easy to become a book reviewer for the reason that not many Indian publications give space to books. However, from what I know of the way papers are run, it is not difficult at all. But it is not possible to make a living out of writing book reviews unless one has an extremely humble lifestyle.
Is it your only job or are you also writing for other medias, newspapers, or maybe just other beats?
I write books on commission, and also occasional articles for other publications. I’m also a painter and my paintings of Bombay and commissions also contribute to my income: saazaggarwal.com From mid-1995 to early-2006 I worked in HR in a software company and I sometimes get HR process-related consulting assignments or assignments to conduct personal growth training programmes from other software companies (I have 2 training products of my own which I customize for client companies on request).
Do you think it is possible for someone who is not Indian to become a book reviewer in India? Is there an international market or does it remain something local?
Yes it’s possible. Indians writing in English is a comparatively new phenomenon and we have actually read more of international authors than Indian ones until very recently. At Sunday Mid-day most of our books are either based in India or written by Indians but if you go into any bookstore you’ll see many more international authors than Indian ones. The international market is much larger than the local one. But what our book stores get are the ones that our book distributors accept. When traveling abroad I still see many wonderful new books I’ve never heard of, and which we are never going to see in India because they will never be sold in this country.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to become a book reviewer? ...
Read a lot of books, try and read different genres, styles, classics, contemporary stuff.
... As you write your review, always keep in mind that the author has constructed the plot very deliberately, so try not to give away any surprises – that would be unfair to both author and reader. ... Try not to think that you know better than the author of the book or the reader of your review. According to me, readers find preening reviewers repulsive. ... Be as entertaining as you possibly can within the framework of the space the publication gives you. I don’t write intellectual reviews because I’m not an academic or an intellectual, just someone who loves books. I don’t have a background of having studied literature. I feel that for me, writing for the Sunday Mid-day, this background is a big advantage because most of my readers are also not academics or intellectuals. I think of my readers as people like me, who love to read, both for entertainment as well as for instruction. I try to give them what I would like a book reviewer to give me.

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