Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Why Indian Publishing Needs to Get Less Fun

(This essay was published in July's Hindu Literary Review)

In the world of Indian English publishing, kitsch has begun to dominate the mainstream. Penguin India publishes 'Metro Reads', books that they call 'fun, feisty, fast'; Random House India produces the 'Kama Kahani' series of Indianized Mills and Boons; Hachette India openly states that it cares most about commercial thrillers; and with its latest, highly-marketed release, 'Johnny Gone Down', Harper Collins India seems to be headed in the same direction. These are all books that openly disclaim any particular literary merit. They are projected instead as 'fun' reads- with the implication that only a killjoy could possibly protest them.

A Preliminary Question

But before we get to that question- are these books fun for us?- there is an important preliminary question: why are they being offered to us? The easy answer is that the market is clamouring for them, just look at Chetan Bhagat. But this is too easy. It's been seven years since Bhagat's first book. Why would it take so long to follow his example? Moreover, the mainstay of Bhagat's readership has never been readers per se. It has been non-readers, those who are new to books, even new to the English language. This is certainly a massive group, and after Bhagat's success it has certainly been tapped- but by the smaller publishers, such as India Log and Shrishti Publications- not by the A-list. For them, Bhagat has simply been a fact of life- too dominant to ignore, too declasse to embrace. Which is one reason why their own 'fun' releases take great pains to explain that they're well-written too, that they 'bridge the divide' (a fashionable phrase) between the literary and the commercial.

In any case, with Bhagat's readership out of the picture, we can see more clearly that the push towards this new breed of writing is not being fuelled by market forces- those simply aren't strong enough. Our habitual readers of English fiction are not a small group, but they are not nearly so organized as to be pro-active in shaping publishers' decisions. Readers remain reactive and the freedom to decide what books get to them, remains primarily with the publishers. Unlike in more developed environments, 'publishers here need to be entrepreneurial', wrote Chiki Sarkar, Random House's Chief Editor, in an article in Seminar last year, 'A large number of our best-sellers have probably been commissioned ... Rarely do we discuss submitted work. Half of my list consists of subjects that I think would make a good book... And I would guess that’s the same for most other publishers here. [emphases added].' Her article, by the way, was called, 'Why Indian Publishing is so much fun'.

The impetus for new books, then, comes neither from the readers, nor from the writers- their submissions, remember, are rarely discussed. So how did the Kama Kahani series begin? Sarkar explains: 'We’re full of girls in the editorial department who had grown up on historical romances and hadn’t read any desi ones. So we figured we should launch our own.'

This answers our initial question. If, today, our shelves of Indian English fiction are crammed full of 'light reading', it is because our editors felt like it. That such centralization of literary power should hold sway in a world that includes readers and writers, seems unacceptable on the face of it- but let us hold our condemnation a moment. After all, more new Indian authors are being published today than ever before, in more genres than ever before. We have crime fiction, thrillers, young adult fiction, fantasy, chick-lit, erotica. These are books, says the Penguin Metro Reads Facebook page, 'that don’t weigh you down with complicated, boring stories, don’t ask for much time, don’t have to be lugged around.' They are what Hachette's M.D. Thomas Abraham calls 'crossover' books- not literature, but good enough to 'bridge the divide' between literary and commercial fiction.

No Such Thing

But what if there was no such divide? What if there was only good fiction and not so good fiction? What if being engrossing was a virtue, even in 'literary' fiction, and being shallow a vice, even in 'commercial'? Because the truth is, that the abstract standards of literary quality are constant. Campus novels and murder mysteries may be second-rate trash or the most moving experiences, but they aren't condemned by their labels to be a half-hearted compromise. So setting out to 'cross over', is simply setting out to lose your way. To try to 'bridge the divide' is to get on a bridge to nowhere. The galling element here, is not that you are arriving at mediocrity- there's no shame in that- but that you were aiming at it.

Getting Serious

If we remember further that Indian English fiction is a very fledgling body of work, greatly in need of direction and nurturing, then the escape to 'fun' seems even more of a cop-out. It suggests a basic lack of belief that quality books can be written by Indian authors- or an inability to recognize them. In the absence of a foreign endorsement, it is as though an unwritten rule prevails, that there may not be any serious writing, there may only be amusement. But such a self-loathing attitude helps nobody. It doesn't help the new genres. These can't be wished into existence by an editor looking for kicks; they must emerge naturally from those who care about them- like pulp fiction did, in the early American magazines. And it doesn't help the new writers, because there is a sad, but common, phenomenon, of authors being published and simultaneously disrespected. In the recent past, for example, there have appeared a number of essays lamenting the inferior state of Indian English writing. But the curious fact, which would be funny if it were not annoying, is that the same people who have contributed to that state have nodded along sagely, and sighed.

The point of this present essay is not, I hope, similarly futile. It is simply to argue that we ought to demand high standards from everyone associated with our literature: not merely our writers, but also our critics and editors. Then maybe Indian publishing can get serious.


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