The most interesting thing in the Sunday papers is the letter from Tunku Halim in the Star because I think it throws up interesting questions about how local books are reviewed and what we expect from reviewers, and I hope I'm not sticking my neck out by bringing the topic up. (Both author and reviewer are my friends, and I hope they both still are after this!)
Michael Cheang's review of Tunku Halim's latest book 44, Cemetery Road appeared last Sunday. It is a compilation of previous stories from his previous collections with three new ones. I haven't read the book yet (drowning in books I have to read for review) although hope to do so soon, so this personal jury is out, for now, on the merits and demerits of the book. My argument then is a general one.
The review was largely a very positive one, but a couple of the criticisms were leveled by Cheang against the writing. He also had issues with the writing style in one story:
... words leaped out at me like a vengeful spirit. Elaborate descriptions, overdone superlatives and textbook-style plotting abound ...But it was the charge that he had used “very similar plot devices” (similar to each other presumably) and some of his earlier stories were “predictable” that got up the author's nose.
This is a serious allegation indeed against any writer and I wish to state my case. Here it is and right to the point: the stories are NOT predictable, nor are they similar in terms of plotting.As a reviewer myself, I have to say that the author is not the one to make a judgment about whether his work is predictable or not (no matter how concerned he was about avoiding predictability when he was writing it). It is a judgment entirely for the reader. And in this case for the reviewer. Now a review is a personal opinion. Reviewers differ greatly on how they perceive a book. One loves it. One shreds it. But none of them has the final word.
If Cheang thinks otherwise, he should have elaborated, pointing out the offending stories and also to explain why. Such a flippant comment can easily be thrown in, particularly by a reviewer who readily admits from the start that he regards horror stories as often “cheesy”. Yet what he claims is “predictable” is extremely difficult to justify unless we do a test. After reading say 25% of the story, Cheang should then tell us what exactly is going to happen. I doubt he can. This also leads me to the question of predictability or, its opposite, the unexpected ending. It is the journey rather than the destination that matters. If you watch any Hollywood movie you more or less know the good guys are going to win. Yes, predictable. But how? The journey that gets them there is what counts. That’s what you enjoy. It’s the detail of the story, the suspense, the action, even if you know the outcome, is what makes for good entertainment. So predictability should not be an issue. Having said that, my stories are not predictable.
Just look at how different the reviews of On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (I take this example since I've just finished reading it) are in the New York Times "a small sullen, unsatisfying book" and in The Washington Post where Jonathan Yardly enthuses that it "reaffirms (his) conviction that no one now writing in English surpasses or even matches McEwan's accomplishment".
Who is right? Both.
These are personal reactions to the novella, and the fact that readers can react so differently to a text is large part of our engagement with literature.
Cheang should have elaborated? Could he have included more specific examples? Perhaps so. But actually he was already 167 words over the limit (according to recent guidelines for Star reviews in which the word limit was cut from 800 words to just 500).
It's unfortunate in a sense that Cheang and Halim opened up such a bag of worms because no local publication gives space for the in-depth discussion of literature that it deserves. There is no forum for in-depth discussion or analysis of texts outside academia. And writers do need to know what they are getting right and what they aren't so that they can move forward.
It's good that an effort is being made in the Star to review local books, and I hope to see other titles on the book pages.
The reviewer doesn't like the genre? That there are so few competent people willing to review books is undoubtedly part of the issue here. Besides, does not liking a genre actually diminish the value of the review?
But the reviews cannot, and should not, always be positive ones. They should be fair and authors should understand this.
Tunku Halim to his credit says that he does, and writes some further thoughts about the review on his blog. He adds that he feels:
... that local reviewers have a pre-conceived idea of local writers which is “it’s local, so it can’t be much good”. The reviewer looks through blinkers, searching for negatives, not the positives. This means the local author necessarily has an uphill battle from the start. He or she has to convince the reviewer that despite being local the work is great. But take heart, this attitude will change with time.This is certainly something we should examine our reviewerly consciences for.