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.


In the woods next to a gentle stream


[ Part two of a series – a conversation about the book Open City – that began here. You will find this post accessible even if you haven’t read the book – try it. Then, go buy the book. ]

The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.

Roland Barthes

Dear Teju,

I’ve been thinking, in these past few days, about classification. How does Open City compare with other novels in the reading experience? If I relate reading a conventional work of fiction – with its apparatus of plot, well-developed characters, a beginning, middle and an end – to the act of watching a tennis or soccer match, with its well-defined boundaries, roles and actors, winners and losers, a start and a finish, then Open City makes me feel, at this moment after a hundred or so pages, like someone sitting in the woods next to a gentle stream watching the water flow by, with its characters who appear, linger for a while, and go away, as it has been going on since millennia. There has been no beginning – the first sentence led me into the middle, really – and I do not expect an end. What I see in the stream is guided by Julius’s eye (he is both a character in the stream and, like me, an observer watching it) but my eyes can wander, and so can my mind. Unlike a match, where the anticipation of what happens next often robs me of the joy of the present until, in almost no time, it is all over, sitting by the stream and watching it flow is a reflective activity, unhindered by any plan of action, unlimited by boundaries of space and time.

On the flight to Brussels, as Julius entered into conversation with Dr.Maillotte, I was reminded of my weekend trips to Brussels (when Wife still lived in that city) and those train conversations. One particular encounter stood out; you’ll soon see why.
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