Welcome to Secrets of the Book Critics, in which books journalists from around the US and beyond share their thoughts on beloved classics, overlooked recent gems, misconceptions about the industry, and the changing nature of literary criticism in the age of social media. Each week we’ll spotlight a critic, bringing you behind the curtain of publications both national and regional, large and small.
This week we spoke to writer, translator, and book reviewer, Jenny Bhatt.
Book Marks: What classic book would you love to have reviewed when it was first published?
Jenny Bhatt: Anything by Virginia Woolf. If pushed, I’ll say To the Lighthouse. I love Mrs Dalloway too and both novels have a lot to say and show about time, mortality, memory, perceptions. The group scenes in both—she was so skilled with both small and large tableaus. Mrs. Dalloway is all about Clarissa Dalloway—how she sees herself, how everyone else sees her; it’s a masterclass in the art of character-building though, of course, it has a plot and story too, To the Lighthouse is more about the complex relationships and interactions between people, which I find more compelling because we are indeed different with different people and at different times. The structure of To the Lighthouse, with its three movements like a musical composition (that stunning middle section), is quite something. There is such a confident rhythm to her language in those impressionist-like scenes. To the Lighthouse has its flaws, no doubt. Many don’t like the ending being a bit uncoordinated and drifting. But that’s one of the key aspects of Mrs Ramsay’s role within the family. She was their symbolic lighthouse, wasn’t she?
To me, this little novel is all about the power of language. There isn’t that substantive a plot or story but every idea, object, and person is brought to life in a way that gives us the very essence of their being with, oh, a phrase here and a sentence there. To the Lighthouse always leaves me a bit breathless whenever I reread. Although, of course, she gave us some groundbreaking innovation (for her time) with every single novel. And she wrote such classy burns in her reviews and letters to editors—they still hold up well.
BM: What unheralded book from the past year would you like to give a shout-out to?
JB: I know many of us despair that there are hundreds of amazing books, especially by indie presses, going unheralded each year. We’re all making efforts to read and review more diversely but it’s not easy. This year, I’ve been reviewing more short story collections and literary translations—and more so by women writers and writers of color—because they don’t get as much attention as mainstream novels or big-ideas nonfiction. Next year, I hope to focus more on smaller indie presses. And, collectively, perhaps we could all be paying more attention to poetry collections.
The book from 2017 I want to give a shout-out to—riding the current Crazy Rich Asians wave—is Regrettable Things That Happened Yesterday by Jennani Durai. Singapore has been seeing some kind of surge in short fiction lately and, unfortunately, the books aren’t getting to Western readers quite so easily. A Singaporean friend sent this to me. These ten stories have newspapers as a recurring motif. They’re well-told with sharp, precise prose and some unexpected ways to look at the role of daily news—obituaries, job ads, horoscopes, crime reports, movie listings, etc.—in our lives beyond the now-common refrain of “fake news” and 24/7 clickbait. Singapore is a multi-cultural society with immigrants from almost everywhere. It is also highly and systemically racist in many ways. So Durai looks at all of this and asks some tough but insightful questions. As a debut collection, it’s not perfectly, evenly polished. But it is, I must admit, a lot better than some of the debut collections I see getting published in the US because some writers have the literary networks that help open doors. And it shows a writer with keen observation and imagination. I hope it gets some love from Western publishers.
BM: What is the greatest misconception about books and book criticism?
JB: Can I please give you three brief ones?
1/ Some readers have said to me they don’t need to read reviews; they’ll read the books and decide for themselves. Clearly, this misses the point of a review being to open up a wider conversation around the book versus simply telling readers whether it’s good or bad. I don’t even engage in this kind of discussion because they’re dismissing a form of writing and discourse without understanding it. That said, the mindset probably persists where reviews are more about summarizing a book and saying what’s good or bad rather than about going deeper with “so what?” questions and showing how the book is part of a larger ongoing conversation. It bothers me when I read reviews that are well-written but don’t do those latter two things.
2/ From some writerly circles, I hear about how literary criticism is mostly about deconstructionism and I sometimes push back on that (though I do like how Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has often said that deconstructionism is not destruction but, because you’re doing it from the inside, it’s critical intimacy versus critical distance.) I prefer Rita Felski’s approach in The Limits of Critique where she writes how we shortchange the significance of art by focusing on the “de” prefix—its power to demystify, destabilize, denaturalize, deconstruct, debunk, decipher. This is done at the expense of the “re” prefix—its ability to recontextualize, reconfigure, remake, recharge perceptions. She adds: “Rather than looking behind the text—for its hidden causes, determining conditions, and noxious motives—we might place ourselves in front of the text, reflecting on what it unfurls, calls forth, makes possible.” Because: “Works of art do not only subvert, but also convert; they do not only inform but also transform—a transformation that is not just a matter of intellectual readjustment but one of affective realignment as well (a shift of mood, a sharpened sensation, an unexpected surge of affinity or disorientation.)”
3/ This general misconception hits closer home for me. I write literary fiction and do literary translation work alongside my reviewing. So I often get asked how I balance these different forms. For me, all three forms of writing feed into each other and help me improve overall as a reader and a writer. Reading critically for reviews helps the fiction writing, especially when editing. Translating teaches close reading and working for the precise word or phrase, which helps in the other writing forms. And writing fiction helps with tuning into what another writer is trying to achieve with story, character, plot, structure, theme, and language. The writers I look up to the most have all practiced these three forms of writing. I hope I get to keep doing them too.
BM: How has book criticism changed in the age of social media?
JB: You’ve probably gotten this response from other interviewees: everyone’s a critic on social media. It’s concerning, though, how pithy, unsubstantiated social media comments from random strangers do actually influence readers. Are we becoming more gullible or more lazy? Bit of both, I suppose.
The flipside is that I’ve discovered some terrific reviewers and reviews because of social media. This twitter thread by Kima Jones is about cultural critics of color and, of course, many are book reviewers too. I’m still working my way through it and discovering writers I never would have known of otherwise.
One thing I miss that social media has sort of taken away is how people used to respond to reviews with essays or letters to the editor. I’m in my mid-40s so I still remember that. It happens less and less now because it’s easier to just tweet or post a review link with two-three lines of response. Perhaps we’ve lost something of cultural value there with the art of the thoughtful, considered letter response.
BM: What critic working today do you most enjoy reading?
JB: Plenty here have mentioned Parul Sehgal. Some of her reviews, like the one she wrote in The Atlantic last year about Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, stay with you. Whether you agree with her or not—and, I would argue, the critic’s task is not to make us agree with them but to help us think for ourselves—she always opens up new possibilities to explore.
Hilary Mantel’s reviews in the London Review of Books are quite amazing. You have to go back to the late-80s and early-to-mid-90s. She doesn’t do them anymore, it seems (which is fine for now because we need that third Cromwell book, dammit.) I began reading reviews religiously (LRB, TLS, The Guardian) when I was an engineering student in the UK and working two part-time jobs. I was starved for book-talk and this was the most accessible, efficient, and cost-effective way—even though it was mostly about books by white men.
In the US, I like the in-depth reviews at Public Books. The reviewers are almost all academics or scholars from around the world, so their knowledge base is both more diverse and specialized. Strong masthead headed by Sharon Marcus.
And can I please put this out into the universe as a bucket list thing? Zadie Smith’s book-related critical essays with their deeply-layered insights and sharply-polished prose—it would be a blessing to have more of them in our world.
Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, and book reviewer. She is a Contributing Editor (Books) at PopMatters and has also written for The Atlantic, BBC Culture, and National Book Review. Her short stories have been published in literary journals in the UK and the US. Her first literary translation will be out in 2019 with Harper Collins India and she is looking for a home for her short story collection. Having lived and worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the US, she currently splits her time between Georgia, US, and Gujarat, India. Find her here and on Twitter @jennybhatt.