For the love of a good story


Book reviewing for beginners


By Rajneesh Narula

(Another in my occasional essay series)


I have been threatening to write an essay about Buffy the Vampire Slayer for some time now. Some of you have found this a vaguely amusing prospect, although I fail to see why. The woman knows much about weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, and can tell you a thing or two about irony, the use of sarcasm and double entendre’s. These are all subjects that both Bush and Blair know little or nothing about. Indeed, the theme of my essay was to have been ’10 things Buffy could teach George W’. However, Dina (a student of mine) pointed out (disparagingly) that Bush Junior could learn much from any 11 year old, there really was no particular call for evening tuition at the White House from ditzy petite blondes with a penchant for dating men with fangs. Dina then went on to analyse my TV viewing habits (Bugs Bunny, Alias, Sopranos, Popular and Star Trek) and concluded that my preferences had much in common with the aforementioned 11 year old.


I must reluctantly admit that Dina was right (there is a certain perverse satisfaction from being shown up by one’s student. It’s a Darwinian thing). My choice of TV entertainment is not even mildly socially redeeming, and any pretence to the contrary is a load of hogwash. I thought of blaming my deprived childhood (no TV in Zaria, except for Hawaii-Five-O, Professor Smart, re-runs of Festac ‘77 and the occasional public execution). But that would be lying. I enjoy viewing and reading junk as much as I do the classics and I see no reason to apologise about my apparent lack of taste.


The snobs amongst you will no doubt be disappointed.  As an academic in reasonably good standing, I am expected to devour books with intellectual merit, tomes that answer the Big Questions, or at least point in that direction. Unfortunately, pride of place beside my bed tends to be Asterix and Cleopatra rather than something more suitable to my station in life, perhaps, Plato’s Republic.


But I ask you, does it matter? Movies, TV, fiction, cartoons, these are all varieties of storytelling, mankind’s eternal search for escape from the humdrum of ordinary life, a chance to live through another’s eyes, to be someone else for just a day.  If you achieve momentary respite from your woes, if it makes you happy (and has done you no irreversible harm) it must be good for you. I spend much of my time with Economics. Although much in Economics borders on the fictional, it is not funny. Nor does it seem to make me (or anyone else) happy. Therefore it cannot be all that good for me.


Thus, when I seek rest and recreation I prefer fiction and teenage TV programs to the exclusion of all other forms of story telling. Fiction, however, remains my preferred entertainment. If left to my own devices, I would like to devour a book a week, perhaps more. I leave each book endowed with subjective opinions, a direct result of my own experiences, my previous readings, and my own collection of petty jealousies and vendettas. In short, I am a product of my circumstances, as are my opinions about each story.


It therefore annoys me that I am never asked to review books of fiction, because I feel certain that my opinions and tastes are no less worthy of consideration than those of a professional writer, maybe more. I feel that I represent Mr. Average Book Reader at least as well as – if not better – than those stuffed shirts who currently get to review books. Not because I am a better writer than Ben Okri (for instance), but precisely because I do not write or read this sort of stuff professionally. I do not have the haughty opinions of a specialist getting in the way. It is elitist and furthers the despicable myth that literature is only worthwhile if it is exclusive. It behoves the average editor, therefore, to identify the reviewer according to the intended audience of the book, and furthermore, to ensure that the average reader for whom the book is intended can identify with the reviewer. It is terribly unjust to ask a prize-winning author (with the usual biases towards literature that these book prizes require) to judge an airport thriller or a romance novel. In an airport thriller one seeks writing that numbs, not taxes, the senses. Something that kills the dull hours on a flight to Sydney, but one where, if several pages were accidentally to be skipped, no sense of loss will be experienced, either to the story, or to the reader. A Mills and Boons novel, likewise, has no pretensions towards being literature, and should never be read as such.


The basic point of a book or film review is to give you an idea of the book in its own genre. They should be by people whose opinions you respect, and which are relevant to the book and its intended audience. It is the great tragedy of the review business that reviews are often written by the wrong people. It is not Wole Soyinka’s approval that should matter to you when deciding to buy Nick Hornby’s latest oeuvre about his favourite songs and their creators. In this case, Shakira’s opinions are probably much more salient, a woman about whom I suspect there is more to intellectually than meets the eye (and on most matters Shakira there is already much that meets the eye). For my beloved readers who have forsaken MTV, Shakira is a Latino peroxide blonde pop singer with more zest and whisk than a lemon meringue.


It should not be the privilege of the intellectual or the celebrity to evaluate the entertainment value of a story for the general public. Formula or not, JR Rowling, Robert Ludlum and Stephen King have each sold more copies than all the Nobel prize winners put together. The main character may occasionally be one-dimensional, the plot predictable, the metaphor dull, overworked and asthmatic, but they have an appreciative and large audience, even if intellectuals would not give them the time of day.


As Salman Rushdie points out in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, ‘No story comes from nowhere; new stories are born from old—it is the new combinations that make them new’. It seems to me that all fictional stories are endowed with the same four primary elements, and each story has each of these features to differing extents. These are fantasy, masochism, improvement, and nostalgia.  Some genres possess an excess of one over the others.  The love story is all four simultaneously – fantasy (an escape into an alternative universe), an exercise in masochism (‘why is my life so dull’), but renews our hope (‘tomorrow is another day’) or celebrates our past (‘I too once new a love such as this’).


A good story is a good story regardless of its intellectual merits. The best stories can be told and retold, viewed and watched again. Like the stories in the Bible, the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, The Arabian nights, the plays of Shakespeare or Aristophanes, the sagas of Dostoyevsky or Achebe. We know the outcome because we have read the words a hundred times before, but we are gripped, fascinated at its retelling, even mouthing wordlessly the dialogue with the characters. We savour particular moments, certain passages, we underline, re-experience, even memorise. But the words seem always fresh, and we are as delighted or horrified as the first time. If you do not believe we relish and revisit the dreadful, take that ancient classic, Oedipus, which has not been out of print for some 2500 years. We are eternally fascinated at the spectacle of a man choosing freely – and righteously, from the highest moral grounds -a series of actions, each of which bring him to desecrate systematically every one of the laws of civilised man. We are, as one scholar put it, obsessed by the terror of coincidence.  We never fail to be horrified at Oedipus who (at the end of his inexorable slide to the bottom, in more physical and mental anguish then we can comprehend), cries out, “the horror is mine; none but I is strong enough to bear it”. Or the fate of Piggy in Lord of the Flies, or the pointless massacres that are most of Shakespeare’s tragedies (Titus Andronicus makes the Texas Chain Saw Massacre look like a telly tubbies production).


Sometimes we grasp at a story of pure fantasy (Dune, Foundation, The Alchemist) asking ourselves – in our heart of hearts, sotto voce – might this not be true, could it be that we are puppets on a string, could it be that we are not just pawns in some great game, that we might be special, that we may after all, be ennobled. That we might – quite possibly – have special powers to do good (a la Buffy). At other moments we seek to celebrate the futility of the lives of others, so that ours may sparkle in comparison (Othello, A Clockwork Orange). Everyone seems to love a good revolution (except presumably those being revolted against) inspiring us to new heights. Nothing warms the heart more than the story of the oppressed freed from his/her/their shackles, such as Roots, Les Miserable, or A Tale of Two Cities.


Whenever there is a crisis of belief in our lives we turn to storytellers and their stories. For those (such as I) who are forever on the quest for a gentler reality, for an escape to a kinder, fairer world, there is refuge in the fantastic. For those who already live sequestered in a world of illusion and fantasy, the storyteller provides the service of furnishing a controlled dose of reality. 


Good stories are like a quiet lullaby, a clement friend, an indulgent lover; a soothing ointment for existential angst. Stories are the much-vaunted elixir vitae, churned from the murky oceans of life’s myriad experiences, through the happy collusion of gods, demons and writers as a gentle balm for the ruffled soul.


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