Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Dangerous Demarcation of Literary and Commercial Fiction

(This was published under the title 'Dangerous Demarcations' in July's Hindu Literary Review)

A product must have a description, and nowhere is this requirement more acute than in the business of fiction. Mention a new book and 'What's it about?', is the first and inevitable question. It is a perfectly serious, perfectly reasonable question. Everybody asks it, and it deserves to be answered. The artist's protest that his art is ineffable is not a good answer. In steps the tough-bitten marketeer. He has made a career out of bombarding the public with masses of information they never wanted to know. Now they do want to know, and he finds he hasn't a clue. But unlike the writer he is never short of words. He dips into his bag of cliches, categories and comparisons and what should come to hand, at the very top, but those old faithfuls: literary fiction, commercial fiction.

Perhaps you will say this is being unfair. After all, just instinctively, one feels there is something to the distinction. James Joyce is not Jeffrey Archer. Chetan Bhagat is no Chekhov. True enough, and important too; differences in depth and stylistic ability ought to be recognized. That is how the great writers are separated from the good, and the good from the mediocre. And if this is what publishers were trying to do, when they called one of their books literary and another commercial, it would be a welcome dose of honesty. If they were really saying, these books are works of art (but we don't really care if you buy them), and these books are not much good (but we think there's money in them), it would be half the job done for the critics.

But of course- they hasten to assure us- that is the one thing they are not saying. The marketing labels contain no judgments. They are meant only to be descriptive. In what sense, we shall consider. But already we have a glimpse of how dangerous they are. In belying our intuition that 'literary' connotes well crafted and 'commercial', a quick buck, they covertly mislead us.

Overtly they do nothing for us. Overtly, they are meaningless. Look and you'll see, that in practice, it is the mood of the story that determines the moniker. Imagine a novel that begins with the murder of a wife and ends with the revelation that her husband was the killer, and jealousy the motive- like every Agatha Christie, it is bound to be labelled 'commercial.' Why? Because the mood of the book is suspense; because the story unfolds by twilight. But change the order of events, push the murder to the end, and bring the husband to the centre, and draw out by the full light of noon his simmering emotion, and you have- Othello. A 'literary' classic. Both stories may be just as effectively written, and contain just as true psychology, but the demarcation will not be deterred.

And it's emptiness should now be evident. A thunderstorm is more thrilling than a sunset, which is more nostalgic. Certainly, they evoke different moods, and if we were to describe them, we would use different concepts. But not these concepts. Does it mean anything to associate 'commercial', with one phenomenon and 'literary' with the other? Is there not as much art in the storm as in the sunset? Are they not equally popular? The truth is that the same artist has fashioned them both and, very likely, the same audience will admire them both- unless waylaid by the labels.

So much for the general malaise (because the labels are everywhere). Closer home, they have an added danger, a peculiarly Indian corruption that discriminates between books, not merely according to their mood, but also their subject. Conventional wisdom has it that English fiction in India was chiefly 'literary' until about a decade ago, and is now satisfyingly 'commercial'. I suggest that this is a myth. What has really been changing is the profile of the author, and the subjects that interest him or her. The last generation of our writers were almost entirely a part of our disapora, published and feted by the Western literary establishment, and examining India, quite self-consciously, from the outside. Now, there exists a younger generation, with a different standpoint. More firmly rooted within the country, it is not natural for them to write 'about' it; except indirectly, and subtly. Their subject is not India, nor even especially the 'people of India': it is simply people.

It does not sound a frivolous subject. It does not suggest a less important fiction. But those who believe that some lives are less real than others, and that private introspection is the privilege of the West, are bound to raise their eyebrows. An unseemly rush ensues, to label without looking stories of love, 'chick-lit'; stories of crime, 'pulp'; the coming of age novel, a 'campus novel', and the whole output 'commercial'- that the old guard, safely and exclusively literary, may retain pride of place.

That this attitude is condescending, is obvious. But it is worse, because it sows the seeds of a self-fulfilling prophecy. To believe that new fiction must necessarily be trivial is to all but ensure that it will be: that bad books are encouraged and good ones overlooked. Most dangerous of all, if young Indian writers are always being assured that their fiction, no matter how painstakingly crafted and how emotionally alive, can never be 'literary', they may really start to believe it. Instinctively- remember, these categories have an instinctive meaning- they may feel themselves second-rate. Not 'real writers', like the ones abroad. Tell someone enough times that he or she is only an amateur and soon you might be right.

There's a lot in a name. We may pretend they mean nothing and resolve to ignore them, but all the same, they reflect and create mentalities. 'Literary' and 'commercial' are sloppy labels that mislead readers, and slander writers. We would all do better without them.


  1. Adit,

    Read your blog with interest. The proclivity to label hastily is a bit frustrating and this sentence really struck a chord - "An unseemly rush ensues, to label without looking - stories of love, 'chick-lit'; stories of crime, 'pulp'; the coming of age novel, a 'campus novel', and the whole output 'commercial'- that the old guard, safely and exclusively literary, may retain pride of place."

    But I suspect the poor marketing guys just need a handle to sell things - its pretty much an emerging scene - new publishers, new writers, new readers - as far as truly Made In India fiction goes .....give it a few years and its bound to get more sophisticated.


  2. Hi Manjul, I'm glad you read this and thanks for letting me know your thoughts. I hope labelling does improve. I guess the important thing is that there exist respect for homegrown Indian English literature. Otherwise there is an urge to subtly run down your own books and the label becomes a kind of apology.

  3. Can we, society as a whole, live without discriminations? Probably not. We need them.
    However, it does not mean that we should have judgemental discriminations. As you have said, judgemental discriminations are dangerous. Discriminations should be fact-based and democratic. But overall India lacks the collective intellectual power that is needed to have fact-based discriminations. We don't need sweeping and judgemental generalisations like 'commercial' and 'literary'. We do not have to look at the West or even the East to have labels. But we need labels.