In search of criticism

Until I had written a book, I did not know how easy it was to get your ‘talent’ showcased in a newspaper. Until then, I lived in the notion that the newspapers somehow found you. I did not know that you had to go to the newspaper.

The first eye opener in this regard was my experience with an organisation I had joined as a volunteer. The members would organise events, and get channels or newspapers to cover the event. The tragedy was that the event would often be designed for this very purpose- something that would catch the attention of the media. But as an insider, I was witness to the fact that the event was the beginning and the end of a so-called social transformation process. The process was never prioritized; the members had got addicted to the transient publicity that the events generated. This was also the reason why I eventually quit the organisation.

I subsequently attended a book launch where I met some authors and journalists. It was here that I realised it was all about the right contacts. I remember coming home and leafing through the pages of the author’s book. Except for the poetic verses that were woven into the plot, I found the book rather mediocre. At the launch, somebody had compared the author to Kamala Das. That was painful. My experience of this book launch was so different from the book launch of a Malayalam author I had attended some months ago. Free of superfluousness and pretence. The speakers were mesmerising. It was there that I had first learned of Doestoevsky’s role in the formulation of Freud’s psychoanalytic theories. I had left feeling elated and inspired, and reunited with literature. In contrast, this book launch made me distinctly uncomfortable. I felt an urgent need to leave the place. 

At the time, I had many questions playing in my mind with regard to my own book. What I really needed was some genuine criticism. So though I longed for a hasty exit, I waited until I could hand over copies of my book to some of the people I had befriended, hoping that some of them would be kind enough to at least read the book and offer a genuine feedback. But it turned out that most of them took that opportunity to talk to me about their achievements and the status they enjoyed as authors and journalists. I came back home, feeling rather disappointed. It was only when I visited writer E.M.Hashim the next day and had a long conversation with him that I found myself restored to my optimistic and inspired self.

That night, I wrote a long e mail to my friend VV. I suppose it  strongly reflected my disappointment. I went around, seeking potential critics, unaware that VV had been deeply touched by my mail. My friends only had good words to say, partly because they were my friends, and partly because they were naive with regard to what constituted a good book. The professionals refused to comment. Some just pretended to be busy. Others were really busy. Yet others promised to read and let me know. But every time I met them, they only renewed their promise.

At long last, I stopped this pursuit and reflected on the whole scenario. Why was this book important to me? Because there was a truth in it- a strong message to society. Wasn’t there some way I could get the message across, without worrying about the status of the book or my status as an author? 

That was the turning point for me. I changed the course of my journey. With help from some beautiful souls I met in this journey, I initiated a campaign, targeted largely at college students. 

At some point, VV had called me and put me through to a journalist he knew.

“Call him now and tell him about your book. Be open and honest. He is a no-nonsense person. He will give you an honest opinion. If he likes the sound of your book, he will take it up. If he doesn’t, he will say so.”

By then, my expectations were rock bottom. Nothing to lose, I thought. I suppose he liked the sound of the book when I spoke to him about it. It certainly was a first of its kind. Nobody had looked at these films and these characters from this perspective. So he asked me to mail him the book. I sent him the book the very next day. Then there was no news from him.

By then, my campaign was gathering momentum. I was talking not just about films and mental health, but about fantasies, dreams and fairy tales. I could see that my thoughts had evolved further and I was on an exciting path of growth. So I started focussing more on how I could deliver the essence of my book through this campaign. I had never before had the courage to speak in Malayalam on a dais. But now, I was ready to speak in English, in Malayalam- whatever the audience and the situation demanded. It had become so important for me to deliver this message that I slowly started losing fear.

And then the phone call came.

“Do you remember me, doctor?”

I did. It was the journalist. I guessed that if he was calling me, it would be good news. And it was. So my book finally made it to the newspaper. But what made me happier was his honest criticism:”I didn’t get back to you immediately because when I received your book, it came as a terrible disappointment. The typographical errors, the layout, the structuring, the splitting of paragraphs, the styling, the chapter titles- everything was a mess. It deterred me from reading. So I read rather slowly, but when I completed reading, I was intrigued. By the analysis of these characters- something that hasn’t ever been attempted before. Especially since these are films that are known to every Malayalee. All of us have seen these films. My suggestion is that you republish with a professional publisher, and most importantly, translate it to Malayalam. That will have a wider reach- something the book deserves. What you need is a ruthless editor.”

Following that, he asked me many questions that made up for a delightful conversation because it is only when people ask critical questions that we think of our book from different perspectives. 

What we need the most in life, is a genuine critic. Not somebody who flatters us. Not somebody who demeans us. But somebody who holds up the mirror for us and reflects who we really are. It is this reflection that we must embrace.


4 thoughts on “In search of criticism

  1. Neetole Mitra

    Exactly what I was telling a friend of mine yesterday. I’m so tired of hearing “nice”/”good” about what I’m writing that sometimes it feels like sarcasm I’ve missed. I need a critique too. Someone who might be able to point out what I’m missing, and how I can improve what I already have.

      1. Neetole Mitra

        Yes. I would have opted for solo existence if it wasn’t for that one conundrum. Chasing mirages can mess with the head thoroughly.

  2. Commitment to the truth in your art, and persistence matter the most, Neetole. I have written all along- at times when I had the luxury of an intellectual class of readers…when I had nobody to read…when I had occasional readers. It was only when I had nobody to read, and I continued to write, enjoying the engagement very much, deriving meaning from it, that I realized how significant writing was to my soul. I think truth is timeless. It somehow finds its way into the world. Truth is all I can claim about my work.

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