Thursday, October 27, 2005

The new Chetan Bhagat, and thoughts on 'entertainment'

(A tense moment as the jabberwock contemplates this big announcement he is about to make - an announcement that might easily drive half his readers away for good.)

Oh what the heck, it’s not like this is a paid site. So here goes: I thought Chetan Bhagat’s new book was pretty good. There, I’ve said it. I have nothing to fear anymore.

No, I won’t go on about how it isn’t great literature etc, because that should be evident to anyone (even though it’s rarely evident what "great literature" is exactly). It’s something the author himself makes a point of saying in his every interview (to the extent that he’s almost too defensive now about the fact that his work doesn’t have any literary pretensions - even his narrators say things like "if you’re expecting something posh and highbrow, you won’t get that here").

I won’t talk about the book’s plot either - in the unlikely event that you don’t already know about it, read about it here. In any case, if there’s one book that doesn’t need any more publicity, it’s this one - it’s going to sell hundreds of thousands of copies regardless of what any critic or blogger says about it (that’s largely thanks to Rupa’s smart, and brave, marketing strategy of pricing it at Rs 95, something that worked phenomenally well for Five Point Someone). It’ll far, far outsell many vastly better-written books, and so maybe I should feel guilty about writing a post about it.

But there are a couple of points I want to make about Bhagat’s writing:

- I think CB is a good storyteller, more gifted in that respect than many people who are, technically speaking, "better writers". And this can be as vital to good writing as erudition or command over the language. Though his writing is conversation- rather than description-oriented, he has a definite gift for characterisation; his little observations about people and relationships are the mark of a perceptive mind.

- Importantly, I think one night at the call centre is a slight improvement on its predecessor, and that’s always a good sign. The writing is tighter on the whole and the funny, seemingless effortless one-liners (which Bhagat has a knack for) work better here. Also, it required more research than the first book, for which Bhagat had drawn on his own experiences at IIT in the mid-1990s.

(Note: the "God" section of the book didn’t work for me - it wasn’t as syrupy as it might have been but it was still too preachy for my liking. Nor was I too sold on the parts about "saving the call centre by working on American fear".)

Many authors use the "I’m not literary" defence - it’s often a way of shirking responsibility, of keeping people’s expectations of you as low as possible so they won’t be disappointed. But very few of those authors are as readable as CB is, and in the final analysis readability does count. This is the second book of his that I finished in a single sitting despite being pressed for time. That’s not something I usually experience with pulp/non-literary fiction, regardless of the authors’ claims that their aim is to provide a fast, easy read.

P.S. Indirectly related to this post. When I met Bhagat yesterday, he went through the "I write to entertain" routine as well. While I understand why people feel the need to make the "serious v entertainment" distinction, I don’t relate to that kind of talk. It’s very annoying, for instance, if you’re discussing Bergman or Godard with a friend and someone pipes up with a, "Oh, I only watch movies for entertainment." That’s insulting – it’s based on a pre-judgement of what "entertainment" must be, and an assumption that some of us are forcing ourselves to watch "boring" films for some lofty purpose only we know about. But my foremost criterion for judging any film/book is that it should provide me enjoyment. For instance, my ever-shifting list of 20 favourite films usually includes both Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and George Lucas’s Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back, and both films entertain me.

The most concession I can make is that different films/books entertain us in different ways: that on some occasions more than others the fun quotient is increased by the knowledge that you’re being intellectually stimulated as well. But that’s about it. I’d feel very sorry for someone who forced themselves to plough through a book they didn’t like just because they thought it would improve their mind. For heaven’s sake, we’ve all been through enough of that forced crap in our school and college days.


(Conversely, I don’t think there’s a law on earth that says you have to be entertained by an Adam Sandler or David Dhawan film. I’ve been bored stiff on many occasions.)

31 comments:

  1. I think CB is a good storyteller, more gifted in that respect than many people who are, technically speaking, "better writers".

    This is a very common idea that critics/reviewers point out generally when they discuss such low-brow/middle-brow crap. This is also the most common justification for adults who read books meant for children ("but you know he is such a fine story teller")

    I find it doubly problematic in the sense that it neglects the whole history of literature and art of fiction which evolved from the primitive modes of story telling to the more sophisticated and modern modes in which writing is used to evoke complex moods and feelings and to explore complex ideas and chracters.

    Story telling is meant for children, not for adult/enlightened readers and certainly not for reviewers and critics whose job should be to help other readers make an enlightened choice.

    I mean, if story telling skill was all that was needed we would read fairy tales about princesses and dragons instead of Proust or Kafka!

    Sincerely,
    Julien Sorel

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  2. Thanks for that comment, Julien. Would like to point out first that many of us do, in fact, read fairy tales about princesses and dragons instead of Proust or Kafka. In fact, some of us do read fairy tales about princesses and dragons while continuing to read Proust or Kafka on the side.

    “Story telling is meant for children, not for adult/enlightened readers.”

    Completely disagree with that bit, but I sense there’s no point in arguing.

    And a minor clarification: nowhere did I suggest that “story telling skill was all that was needed”.

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  3. It’ll far, far outsell many vastly better-written books, and so maybe I should feel guilty about writing a post about it.
    So typical of you; and actually me too; perhaps hell a lot of others as well! :)
    I am going to read it this weekend. The man has got a terrific sense of humour.

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  4. CB's first book sure did entertained me. And yeah, I agree that he definitely is a gifted story teller. I have never been able to rate or examine good writings though. I only know when I am enjoying...

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  5. I agree with you, the art storytelling is as important as the form.Great philosophers have always depended on myth to deliver their teachings. However with respect to.."For heaven’s sake, we’ve all been through enough of that forced crap in our school and college days"..i would like to out that it is this very same crap that shapes our concept of entertainment
    cheers

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  6. I agree with you, the art of storytelling is as important as the form.Great philosophers have always depended on myth to deliver their teachings. However with respect to.."For heaven’s sake, we’ve all been through enough of that forced crap in our school and college days"..i would like to point out that it is this very same crap that shapes our concept of entertainment
    cheers

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  7. Nice post. I entirely agree with your central point. If it's not interesting, why should anybody read it? (Self-flagellants like Mr. J. Sorel are mercifully rare)

    AND by that measure, THAT film is a lousy one (you know which one I mean). And and AND his swagger is not a patch on the Man's.

    (retreats to safe distance and owls over glasses)

    J.A.P.

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  8. JAP: owl away, owl away, but Clint over Toshiro? Never! And now that I know you’re not a granddaddy I’m not even going to be deferential...

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  9. Mr.Sorel's comment reminds me of what Ms./Mr. Neela said on the post about books being a new snobbery on this very blog a few days ago. quite applicable here ...

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  10. jabberwock: by amateurs, for amateurs.

    the self-importance that's so evident here is hilarious. plus, that stupid comment from someone using a 'prufrock' handle? too much to handle :) i'm assuming he or she is bengali, btw. they're the only ones so hung up on eliot and so illiterate when it comes to their ability to analyse him.

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  11. Some of us only get measly blog squatters; you get full fledged sneering, green-eyed monster comments.
    I'm jealous.

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  12. I think the serious vs entertaining debate is more an issue of semantics than anything else. After all, who's to say that something serious can't be entertaining (I for instance, can think of few directors more 'entertaining' than Godard). For me the distinction is really between things that challenge and stimulate me and things that allow me to just relax. Both are relevant needs, I think - I couldn't live without the excitement of good writing, but there are days when I simply don't have the energy to take on Proust and all I'm looking for is something trite and undemanding to sink into. There's real comfort in the quotidian, in the predictable, and that's the reason pulp can still be valuable. It's the only reason for reading Harry Potter for instance.

    There's obviously a high degree of correlation between the challening / comforting divide and the serious / entertaining one - but personally, I find the former more analytically sound.

    Oh, and so long as we are drawing the continuum, could I be one of those who read Proust and Kafka with fairy tales about princesses and dragons (more like wizards and discworlds) on the side, rather than the other way round.

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  13. Nilanjana: yup, that I do. I must be Important (in addition to being self-important, of course :)

    Falstaff: sure, nothing like a bit of Proust-meets-Pratchett. Had a feeling you’d have something interesting to say on this post btw. And yes, I’m happier with the challenging/comforting classification than the serious/entertaining one myself.

    Zero, the Idiot (I wish my defenders didn’t have such questionable blog-names!): thanks.

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  14. What a lot of self-important wankers you all are.
    The Gita says
    "Do not wank simply out of a self-importance/
    Wank only that you may reduce your chances of falling into lust in inappropriate times and places/
    And when you wank, wank such that the seed of your wanking will resound through the three realms and give pleasure to all those who cannot wank/"
    (Actually it doesn't say anything of the sort - it's far more Sorel's sort of humourless book though it has its fair share of princesses and dragons)
    Another anonymous!

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  15. I haven't read either of CB's books, but after reading your post I checked out his site to see if any of his writing was up on it. And I found the prologue to the call centre book. Completely unreadable. Does it get that much better later? There was not one laugh in the entire prologue. Unskilled prose is completely forgivable if the story's purpose is served. But I didn't find anything in the excerpt that would make me want to read either of his books.

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  16. Jabberwock: Of course, how could I possibly resist ;-).
    Btw, just followed Capable James lead and read the Prologue to the new book. Thought it was terrible. It wasn't just that it didn't make me laugh even once, there were lines in there that actually made me wince in pain.

    Anonymous: How beautiful. I think there's something in the Bible that's similar - "And Judah said unto Onan, go in unto thy brother's blog and wank about and pretend that you disagree with thy brother / And Onan knew that there was no point in wanking; and it came to pass, that when he started to wank about his thoughts spilled out in all directions, and he was accused of wanking in vain;/ and this displeased Judah, who deleted his comments also"

    Isn't it wonderful how the great religions of the world agree on all the important stuff?

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  17. Falstaff: that was cool stuff about Onan !!

    Guys(including all the wankers!): I had raised a technical point in my comment..the fact that someone is a good story teller should not be used to defend books which would otherwise be considered pulp.

    And I wanted to stress it because I see it everywhere...in professional reviews of pulp fiction or in cases of adults defending their low-brow reading choices. I agree with Falstaff, you can't handle Kafka and Proust on a daily basis and need some lazy entertainment once in a while but then why the need to defend...saying that the book is valuable becaue "he is such a fine story teller you know"!!

    next people will say...ohh karan johar? he tells such fine stories you know...and then there will go all your Godard and Tarkovsky !!

    Anyway, Peace everybody!

    Julien Sorel.

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  18. I was quitely reading the comments.....when i read that JAP thought Clint was better than Mifune.

    Now, Clint was good. Very good. One of a kind.

    But he was not Mifune. No one ever can be.

    And JAP, if you didn't think Mifune's swagger in the Kurosawa's was better than any thing Clint managed, then you should see the Samurai Trilogy (Musashi Miyamoto), and THEN say that again.

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  19. Just remembered why I've become chary about putting up controversial posts...there are just too many comments to reply to (and yes, I still do have a dial-up connection).

    Falstaff, Anonymous 3 (or 4?): thanks for those priceless quotes, will get print-outs and put them up on the m-board at my wankstation, sorry work-station.

    Capable James: I do think the actual book (or at least three-fourths of it) is better than the prologue...but I'm guessing you wouldn't like it. (Same for you, Falstaff.) It IS lowbrow (if you believe in making those classifications), no question about that.

    Julien: peace indeed, but I get instinctively distrustful when someone feels the need to mention Kafka and Proust and Godard and Tarkovsky to make some kind of point about High Art. To me, that's every bit as defensive as anything I wrote in the post.

    Fundamentally, I don't agree with this watertight division between the things you can find meaning in and the things that can only relax you/provide you entertainment. At various times in my life I've been moved/driven to deep thought/*insert any other pretentious term here* by films, books, even TV serials that others have found terribly juvenile. (Just clarifying btw, the CB book isn't one of those things!) And I do have a chip on my shoulder about people who can acknowledge depth/merit only in the most obviously profound things. And, uh, *gets defensive and self-indulgent again* this IS my blog, right?

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  20. It’s very annoying, for instance, if you’re discussing Bergman or Godard with a friend and someone pipes up with a, "Oh, I only watch movies for entertainment." That’s insulting – it’s based on a pre-judgement of what "entertainment" must be, and an assumption that some of us are forcing ourselves to watch "boring" films for some lofty purpose only we know about. But my foremost criterion for judging any film/book is that it should provide me enjoyment.


    Yep, yep. Its snobbery of another kind you might say, just like people saying they watch only "art/serious" movies.

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  21. guess am posting AFTER the debate has died down. but my 2 cents anyways. oh, btw, a declaration of liking chetan bhagat's not-so-serious book led to quite a serious discussion indeed! jabberwock, ur comments section often go one up than the original posts, which are very good to begin with. have not read this call-centre book yet. but i read the earlier one, and being fresh out of college (and not any iit), i could identify with most of it. that led to a grand bout of nostalgia. added bonus, i was laughing all the while. and that did make chetan bhagat a good writer for me, not necessarily the most skilled one though (which nobody is claiming anyway he is). besides, a book can be good in a lot of ways, cant it?

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  22. Well, after commenting here yesterday, first thing i did after i went back from work was to visit the bookstall and got it. By 1 clock, I had also finished and sisnce the ending was little eerie, and I am quite scared of the Gods..made me a tremble a wee bit.

    But my penny's word of verdict.. He sure is a very good story teller, a good narrator. And no point comparing oranges and apples. CB is a writr of a diffrent kind. he will continue to entertain hundreds of thousands..

    He sure can up with witty remarks, the stuff that makes a bestseller. Considering that it was a fiction, the characters were also pretty well Characterised. I didn't even Pee before finishing it. It was quite an interesting book but for the ending which was more of a bollywood stuff, but then he would surely want to make a movie out of it, Foresight is it?

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  23. Don't justify bad writing by saying it makes for a good story. A lot of peoiple can tell good stories but that does not make them good writers. A good writer is a good writer. Just because Rupa is marketing the book well doesn't make it reason enough to praise Bhagat to the skies. He's just a so-so writer with contacts who got lucky. Sour grapes? You bet. However much mediocrity sells I'm not going to condone it. Bhagat is not a good writer. He's a popular writer. and 80% of the people in the world are crap. So? More power to crap. Damn, I wish I could write like Bhagat. It's hard being a bad writer. Isn't it? You should try it sometime, Jab. After all, you write well, regularly. Thank you.

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  24. hehehhe. see what you meant over there, jai.

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  25. I'd say something intelligent, but *giggle* Jai has a Wankstation?

    *cowers* Sorry Jai!

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  26. I'm sorry for repeating this in case someone's already said it before, but the first thought that came to my mind was - who says that serious can't be entertaining?

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  27. Jabberowck: Agree with you on the "I watch films only for entertainment" sentiment. But here's the question since you mentioned Episode V: could you sit through Phantom Menace?

    Now loving that and Goddard is being a true dispassionate film nerd.

    JAPda: May a million unsheathed Samurai swords shower upon thy back!

    krishna

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  28. Jabber,

    Late to the party and not going to add to the serious vs entertaining debate or the challenging vs comfortable debate except (1) I personally hate the word challenging- as bad as core competence (2) Why do those who like/presume to like High Art in general seem to be sneering at those who don't? Maybe that's where some of the defensiveness of those for Low Art springs from.

    Anyway, my point, in case you hadn't figured it out is that I am really surprised you liked CB. I picked up 5 point something expecting a Bridget Jones Diary or Snapshots from Hell or Sammy's Hill - not surprising but really good fun, but it was really badly written. I hope this one is better, though I don't think I will waste 95 bucks buying it.

    I shall remain anon because there is a high probability that CB is reading this and I may bump into him sometime and I want to make pleasant conversation with him over pink champagne and not have to face his furious glares for speaking my (admittedly anonymous) mind on a popular blog that I had no idea he was jobless enough to visit.

    Sincerely,

    Cowardly-but-sometimes-challenging-anon.

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  29. Jabberwork,
    What started off as a comment to your post ended up as post on mine. Thought there must be a polite limit to the bytes you can use on another’s thought space.
    The link is here: http://shwetavyas.blogspot.com/2005/10/intent-and-integrity.html

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  30. hey i just buyed the big inspired by so many comments lets c how it goes...

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  31. Hello:
    Check out my review on the book:
    http://theplatonic.blogspot.com

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