Nov 152012

There’s little Indians hate more than foreigners writing (or making a film or insert your chosen art form here) about the country. This sentiment is particularly evident in a city like Bombay. “Why do they want to see only the negative side of the country?” is one question. “Who do they think they are?” is another. “Why don’t they focus on their own problems?” All, of course, are valid questions, and I’ve asked these very questions, particularly when I lived in India, about various documentaries and films that portrayed Bombay and, indeed, India.
But now that I’ve written a novel set in Mumbai from the comfort of my living room in the U.S., I have a different take. Possibly because I did get a few , “Sitting in America and writing about us…” sort of comments — mostly said half in jest. Anyhoo, that’s the reason for my reversal.
Hypocrisy? Perhaps. But I’d like to think of it more as a disinterested view.
A previous blog post chronicles a list of my favorite books on Bombay.
It’s only on revisiting that post today did I realize that four of the five books on the list were written by authors who don’t live in the city. Among them is Katherine Boo, the author of Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, which won the National Book Award last night for Nonfiction.
Here’s what I wrote about the book at the time:

Reporter Katherine Boo’s telling of life in a Mumbai slum can be daunting reading, but it provides stark and necessary relief to much of the narratives emerging from India in the Western media about India’s growing prosperity.

Here’s what I liked about Boo’s book: She neither patronized nor infantilized the subjects of her book. Now, that’s a rare trait in most of us with relatively privileged upbringings who deal with the poor or poverty. Boo’s focus comes from her career, which has been spent reporting on poverty in cities like Mumbai, but also in American communities.

Her reporting on the mentally retarded in Washington, D.C., won her a Public Service Pulitzer in 2000. Here’s what the awards committee said about her work at the time:

“Awarded to The Washington Post, notably for the work of Katherine Boo, that disclosed wretched neglect and abuse in the city’s group homes for the mentally retarded, which forced officials to acknowledge the conditions and begin reforms.”

Her article “The Marriage Cure”, which reported on Oklahoma’s efforts to promote marriage as a way out of poverty, won a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing in 2004.

What is especially remarkable about Boo’s reporting is that she’s avoided the allure of reporting on the world’s “big events,” preferring instead to focus her attention on social issues. Here’s how the Guardian described her in a recent profile:

“American reporter Katherine Boo decided early on that hers would be a different route. Once and only once did she agree to write about life at the top: in 1993, as a reporter at the Washington Post, she was commissioned to write a lengthy magazine profile of the new vice-president, Al Gore.
Afterwards she felt it had been pointless. “I get tired of obsessing about characters,” she says when we meet in London. “I feel like there’s a lot of people who want to do that kind of work, and they’re really good at it. I think social issues are kind of worthy things that people graduate from, to a large extent. In journalism, if you get to be really hot stuff, that’s where you get to go – to the White House! – and that’s too bad.”
So Boo, then in her late 20s, returned to her vocation: writing about the lives of the poorest people in America.”

I highly recommend Beyond the Beautiful Forevers if you haven’t read it yet. It’s a remarkable work of reporting that delves deeply into the lives of people whom the rest of us do our best to ignore.

Sep 192012

The other day, I saw a tweet recommending my book, Murder in Mumbai. As any first-time writer can attest, positive feedback is a validation.
Of course, there’s the positive feedback from friends and family. I think of those like the internal tracking polls that the Republicans and Democrats run for their respective candidates: Mostly positive (from an unexpected source: “Super!), but with some incisive critiques (My mother: “It would have been better if there were a love story at the center.” Mothers always cut right to it).
But it’s the negative feedback — the bad reviews — that have more of an impact.
Let me explain.
My thoughts on the matter could stem from the kerfuffle over mystery writer R.J. Ellory’s reviews on; or The New York Times story on the company that writes fake reviews (for a fee, of course); or because I visit Amazon at least twice a day to see my (steadily slipping) ranking and to read and reread the reviews of my book. Either way, despite what other writers may say, reviews do matter to me. Especially bad ones.
I spent the period before the publication of Murder in Mumbai worrying about what people would say. I vowed to be one of those writers who is so self-assured that (s)he doesn’t need validation. Of course, on the morning of the publication, I ran to Amazon.
There were two reviews: One good, and one — let’s just say it wasn’t flattering. As I read and reread it, instead of feeling rage or whatever you’re supposed to feel when someone has shredded your work to bits, I was amused. Amused because of how well written the critique was. I saw immediately that it wasn’t a personal attack (I’m just not famous enough for that). I didn’t necessarily agree with all of it, but there were bits in it that made me laugh in much the same way I’d have done if the review had been about another writer’s work.
Here’s my favorite bit:

“Calamur’s prose is competent but lackluster, the sort of writing found in the middle pages of second-string newspapers. Long strings of ponderous dialog carry much of the story.
Mystery fans with a special interest in India might be drawn to this story. While it is far from awful, it fails to rise above the ordinary.”

I could see it: cover blurbs that say: ‘Far from awful.’ ‘Second-string’ writing. (Actually, I found that particularly funny given my profession).
But unless a review is unreasonable — and there are plenty of those around — this sort of criticism is quite helpful. Much of it comes to mind as I work through my second book, trying to keep the narrative going. On some days, especially on days when I find myself staring at a blank screen, the words hit harder than on others — when words flow easily.
But I know reviewers have a tough task, too. Many of them, especially the ones on Amazon, are doing it as a labor of love. They’re making the effort to read books — some good, some bad, and some just OK. They have the right, just like everyone else, to have an opinion about a writer’s work. It may not be one you like, or flattering, or even fair. But it’s there. And it’s an opinion. And the fact that the good reviews are next to the bad ones reminds me of that old Kipling line about success and failure being the same impostors.
And to illustrate how fickle personal tastes are, I’m reminded of a review I once read for a promising writer. Here’s what part of it said:

“This is an awful book. … there is nothing of credit to his writing. It is devoid of any depth. Don’t waste your brain…”

You might have heard of the book in question. It’s called War and Peace.

 Posted by at 11:11 am