Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Quotes from the bestseller machine

[My latest Forbes Life column, with selections from the "Craft of the Bestseller" session I moderated at JLF this January]

If you attend the Jaipur Literature Festival – in whatever capacity, as author, journalist or star-struck reader – you expect to pick up lots of quotable quotes: erudite, highbrow ones, certainly, but a few ear-popping ones too. I didn’t have to venture far this year. During a session I was moderating, the words came at me from just two feet away. The other people on the panel were saying them, and most of the audience was cheering in response.

The session was titled “The Craft of the Bestseller” and here are two quotes – both by suave, hugely popular fiction writers – that I thought particularly intriguing:

“Solitude distracts me.”
This was from Ravi Subramanian, author of a successful trilogy of thrillers about bankers and banking. It was a part-response to a question I had asked: does the new generation of “mass-market” authors follow the accepted wisdom that writing is essentially a solitary profession? Or do they see it as more of a communal endeavour?

“I have never been a reader. I hadn’t read any book before I wrote my first novel.”
This from Ravinder Singh, whose bestsellers include I Too Had a Love Story and Can Love Happen Twice? and who was one of the festival’s rock-star-like celebrities; groupies threw themselves at him, demanded selfies, and cooed away during the question-and-answer sessions.

Before returning to these two proclamations, I should mention that I was the odd man out on this session – being not just that dreaded animal, a “critic”, but also the author of books about old cinema, which don’t have a hope of selling anywhere near the numbers that Singh and Subramanian are accustomed to. For me, “bestseller” means 4,000 or 5,000 sold copies of a book; for these writers, 50,000 copies might be perceived as a letdown. So, when I was asked to anchor the conversation, I realized it would involve playing Devil’s Advocate. I’m not a literary snob: my favourite authors include many genre writers like Stephen King, Agatha Christie and Thomas Harris, all of whom have reached very large readerships; as a film critic too, I constantly defend the value of good mainstream films, and my latest book is dedicated to viewers “who are smart enough to take popular cinema seriously”. But at the same time I’m also uncomfortable about some of the narratives that have grown around mass-market writing in India – such as the inverse snobbery on view when bestselling writers scoff at “pretentious” literary types and wonder why anyone would waste six or seven years writing a “heavy” book full of “complicated” words.

And so, during the conversation, while I was genuinely interested in the thoughts and approaches of the panelists (especially Anuja Chauhan – author of The Zoya Factor and Those Pricey Thakur Girls – whose work I rate higher than Singh’s or Subramanian’s), there was some wariness too. A few days before the festival began, I had received a publisher’s press release about the session. “The creators of the hottest pop fiction and romance in recent times,” it said, “will discuss the making of best-selling authors and the transition of an author from being the ‘khadi-clad, jhola-walla’ introverts to the current stylish (sic), and socially connected with their fans.” The phrasing, with its patronising attitude to “jhola-wallah introverts”, threw me back to my childhood days and the bullying one experienced from gregarious uncles who would say things like “Arre, what is this introvert-shintrovert rubbish? A child should be outgoing and friendly.”

Which brings me to Ravi Subramianan’s quote about solitude being counter-productive for him. A lot of his best work, he says, is done while sitting at the table with his family – wife, kids – around him, talking or laughing, and maybe with the TV on in the background. Put him in a room, alone, and his creative juices would probably dry up.

Some people might scoff at this sort of admission, especially if they don’t have much regard for the work of the “mass-market” writer who is saying it. But one would also do well to remember that writing has not always been about temperamental artists residing in ivory towers and shutting the world out. The modern novelistic form, from the 19th century onwards, may lend itself to that approach, but there has been a long literary tradition – from the bards of old to the addas of more recent ages – that has involved communal interaction, creating stories through discussion, moving gradually from oral to written storytelling.

In this context, one should note that some of the “mass-market” writers of today are co-writing books (see Durjoy Datta and Nikita Singh, for instance) or otherwise mentoring younger writers – and if done with integrity, this can mean a welcome new egalitarianism in Indian publishing. Ravinder Singh has recently worn multiple hats. He has edited an anthology titled Tell me a Story, made up of stories submitted by previously unpublished writers, about a defining event in their lives. He has also started his own imprint called Black Ink, and books published by it routinely have “Ravinder Singh Presents” on the cover, above even the name of their actual authors!

This is a notable strategy – and shows business acumen – but it also raises a question that brings me back to Singh’s Jaipur quote, mentioned earlier in this piece. Shouldn’t an author, who is also now doubling up as an editor and “producer” of books, have something of a reading history?

Singh has been upfront about the fact that he had never read a book before he wrote one (his first novel was written as an outlet for his grief over his girlfriend’s death in an accident). But perhaps “upfront” is the wrong word, since it implies being confessional; the fact is that Singh, like many others of his generation, is almost boastful about becoming a “writer” without ever having been a “reader”.

And this is discomfiting, because it is inseparable from the question of a writer’s abilities. When you start reading from an early age, not only do you develop certain standards, you also realise how much good work has already been done. And it makes you humble – it might even make you diffident about your own work, which can be a problem. But at least it prevents you from being cocky and overconfident and thinking “I think I have a great story to tell, and the world is just waiting for my book; literature begins with me.”

During our session, I asked Singh the obvious question: if you don’t read yourself, on what basis do you expect others to read your books? I didn’t get a coherent response.

[Two related posts: the end of pretension in publishing? and Chetan Bhagat and the other mass-market writers]


  1. Have you read any of the books by Ravinder Singh

    1. Read around half of the first one, wasn't inspired enough to continue.

    2. 'not inspired enough to continue' - happened to me when I started one of Anuja's books. I expected to enjoy it -- didn't.

      Quite the opposite happened with CB! I had no problem reading 5 Point Someone

    3. Yes, I enjoyed Chetan's first two books (and got pilloried once when I wrote a post saying this).

  2. Well, this post does raise a familiar pang in my heart.
    Anyway, no matter what, I'll stick to my belief that it is because of all the lovely books that I've read that my writing has got its weight.
    But I guess, these days lighter is better. Lighter flies higher!

  3. It is refreshing to read (in your article) a balanced view of both sides.

    Totally agree with: "When you start reading from an early age... it makes you humble – it might even make you diffident about your own work, which can be a problem." I am not really a good writer or anything, but used to write and still do, but the more I read, the more I look at my own "creations" with distaste and think - this looks too amateurish. And then, by chance, I read a couple books - on Kindle by non-Indian authors and in paperbacks, by Indian authors. And then I wonder if I should be reading more of such just to muster up a bit of courage and put my book through Kindle publishing.

    Lastly, a lot of people confuse readability with sub-standard writing. But then again, as "writing" is not science, there are different parameters (or none at all) in grading quality when it comes to writing. I guess it gets more complicated with a book/write-up being treated as a product that needs to be marketed and the usual product questions like "who is it for?" and "where do we sell it?" becomes evident.

    1. Aparna: yes, it can work both ways, of course. I have been in situations where I have felt paralysed by the high quality of the work done by another writer who works in my field (reviewing, culture writing), but there have also been times when I have looked at a middling culture piece published in a respectable magazine/newspaper and thought "Hell, if they publish this sort of thing, why should I be so diffident about pitching ideas to them?"

  4. Here is blog from a reader who has devoured the classics and is very humble and self-effacing. Not at all the pretentious literary snob one hears about. In fact reading his writing makes me want to read the classics and really find things to love in it....

  5. Loved your article or writers, new writer who have not been readers....

    I have read exactly one Ravinder Singh book out of curiosity -- and I am not sure I want to read him again. While he does hold your attention, manages to tell a tale-- that's about it. There is absolutely no literary quality worth the phrase-- but that's ok, because his customer base is not into such frivolous stuff. But a lot of the book was actually full of extremely poor language, grammar, style -- things that matter to me. But yes, he has made money through his in- literary books, while I make pocket change through my occasional review.��

    To me, being a reader is very very important. The more you read, the more you understand humanity. And that is something Ravinder Singh and his fans need to understand.

  6. A couple of small mistakes in my comment above. Blame it on my iPad's unnecessary auto- correct, done wrongly. In- literary should have been un- literary. New writers, not writer.

    Might as well add that I absolutely loved Those Pricey Thakur Girls, from Anuja Chauhan. Hilarious, intelligent, sweet, empathetic -- exactly how Inlove it. Will happily recommend this book. Need to read her more, the other books.

    Somehow I have never felt the urge to read Ravi Subramanian. Heard him once, at a Chennai Litfest. OK. At least he sounded better than Chetan Bhagat ( and I have like his very first book; read two more which I found to be ok).

    1. yes, Anuja has done lots of good work. In fact, I was a bit irritated by how she was clubbed together with RS and RS for this session, just because all of them were "popular" writers; but then that's how lit-fests work...

  7. Agree with you SO whole-heartedly, Jai. I cannot imagine how a writer can write well without ever having read. What frightens me more, however, is that there are thousands of readers who actually think very highly of writing like this. I've just finished reading a book (which, by the way, has an average Goodreads rating of well over 4 stars), and which contains gems like "Her deep bosoms provided a beautifully rounded silhouette."


    1. Madulika: nooooooooo!! Don't get me started quoting passages from Srishti books, it can go on forever.

      Okay, just a few from one of my all-time favourites, That Kiss in the Rain...Love is the Weather of Life:

      "Random lightning appeared as evil chuckles of destiny on the pitch-dark face of the sky while the echo of thunders that followed seemed to carry the etiquette of her once said words."

      "The insect of writing a novel was born in my Department of Brain during my graduation days."

      "His engrossment didn't allow him to see a car approaching the couple...fear locked the voluntariness of all his senses."

    2. "Don't get me started quoting passages from Srishti books, it can go on forever."

      But the title of your post is about quotes, so why not? The ones you've quoted are priceless - but they do fulfill one important criterion of what most people think of as essential for a work to be 'literary': they make you think. To wonder what the writer meant to say. I had to read the first and the last quote a couple of times before I could even guess what the writer was trying to say.

      Okay, to sign off, some stuff from a book called FLAKE (which is an acronym for Friendship, Love, And Killer Escapades:

      He squashed the face of the green button and confabbed with her momentarily.

      Befuddlement prevailed in his mind-palace.

      He dressed himself dapperly and skedaddled to Shantana Bakery.