The review cycle

Dear Teju,

At home we get a few magazines and a newspaper delivered to our mailbox. The Financial Times comes everyday, the New Yorker each Thursday, the Economist the day after, and with Time I never can tell the time – it slips in unnoticed. Each has its particular lens, form and style, but there are commonalities too: political events and book reviews are two themes that cut across these periodicals, and following a thread here often reveals more about the publishing industry than the object under the lens.

For instance, some books are reviewed everywhere. What seems to matter here is the reach of an author’s brand or the publisher’s clout: you either have to be a big name, or have a big label behind your name. So Amitav Ghosh, David Mitchell, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Michael Ondaatje – they are picked up everywhere. It tells you how closed publishing circles are. Looking at these reviews repeat themselves – over a span of a few weeks or, depending on the publishing cycles across the pond, a few months – I would sometimes ask how a new author from a small publishing firm could break through this barrier. Or even a new author from a well-known publishing firm.

Open City has shown how.

What began with James Wood’s review in the New Yorker this spring ended today with Economist’s article hailing a “surprising new voice in fiction”. In between these parentheses were Time’s reference to Soyinka’s reading list (featuring Open City) and Pankaj Mishra’s tiring pyrotechnics in the FT.

(We also get a copy of the Scientific American each month. If you had slipped in a theory or two on those notorious bedbugs or on the colony collapse disorder, you might just have made it in there too.)

I’ve kept aside the print copies containing these references. Looking at these reviews I sometimes wonder how I would have responded if I had known nothing about the author, if I had come upon review after review praising this narrative of a flâneur in New York. Would it have been a different book for me? I’ll never know, and perhaps it is better that way.

What’s next in the journey? Der Spiegel, perhaps, once the German edition is out? And after Europe it will reach the Indian shores. I’ll be watching.

Parmanu

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