Sunday, November 27, 2005

Another IWE (groan!) debate

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard/participated in discussions about the sad lack of solid, no-frills writing about contemporary life in India – the lack of stories about the experiences and concerns of a readily identifiable generation of people, told without faux-exoticisation, without pandering to a western market. But some things are always worth hearing again, so here’s a fine article by Jaideep Varma in today’s Times of India: "Why the Indian English Publishing Scene is Worse than Bollywood".

Most of Varma’s points are good ones (and as a debutant novelist with a low-profile publisher, he certainly has reason to be upset about the lack of attention given by media to the Small Books) but I have to wonder where he got the idea (expressed in the last para of the piece) that Indian literary blogs have a reputation for being progressive alternatives to the mainstream. This is certainly true of lit-blogs internationally (my first-choice literary news sources today are blogs like Maud Newton, The Elegant Variation and The Reading Experience over even The New Yorker and The Guardian). But the only Indian literary blogs worth the name that I know of are Kitabkhana and The Middle Stage, both of which have not been updated too frequently in recent months (and maybe a couple of other link-oriented ones like Prufrock’s Page). And it’s worth remembering that the authors of these sites, Hurree Babu and Chandrahas Choudhury, also review extensively in the mainstream. In fact Ravi Singh, the Penguin India publisher, recently told me that while he enjoyed reading some lit-blogs, he felt that we all often seemed to be saying the same things – perhaps because we are the same small group of reviewers who write for the mainstream as well. So it’s unfair to first put literary blogs on a pedestal that they haven’t staked any claim to, and then diss them for not providing enough of an alternative to mainstream media. The Indian litblogosphere hasn’t reached such lofty heights yet.

BTW, Hurree Babu and Chandrahas are friends of mine and I think they’ll agree that the literary community is an incestuous little hellhole. But given that we are regularly bombarded with new titles from the big publishers (some of which, Jaideep, are genuinely good books); given that we have very limited review space in mainstream media and limited time to blog about new titles; that we can only read so many books in a week, and that this number includes older books read for pleasure rather than for work: given all this, we’re doing the best we can. Yes, it is a pity that smaller titles get lost in what must, to the outsider, seem like a dreadful publisher-media-blogger nexus – but realistically that scenario won’t change until newspapers decide that they can dedicate more than one page a week to books. Maybe that will open the floodgates and you’ll then see many more dedicated reviewers of the quality of Nilanjana, Chandrahas and Uma – both in MSM and in the blogosphere.

Anyway, the above discussion is my cue to put up a couple of related mini-reviews. Varma’s own recently published Local was an attempt to fill this very large gap in Indian writing in English (or IWE – yes I know, I dislike that term as much as you do!). It’s the story of Akash, a copywriter in an ad agency in Mumbai who hits on the idea of spending his nights entirely on Western Line trains – this being cheaper than renting an apartment and not as inconvenient as you might think, assuming you can cope with shady characters and irregular sleep patterns (trains must be switched in the middle of the night: walking on the overbridge connecting the platforms, Akash has “the tangible sense of moving from yesterday to tomorrow”). Local is a provocative account of life in a bustling metropolis and of the madness of the advertising industry. It’s occasionally uneven longer than it should have been and needs better editing, but it’s very readable on the whole.

And another such book I see a lot of promise in is Siddharth Chowdhury’s Patna Roughcut, which I’m halfway through. It’s about the lives of a disparate group of people in Patna’s Kadam Kuan and while the narrative structure has elements resembling magic realism, the writing has a pulse and rhythm very suited to the book’s setting.

P.S. Not directly related, but also read Nilanjana’s latest Speaking Volumes: "Dial B for Bestseller". What she says at the end - “better editors please” - might seem obvious but it’s extremely important, both in terms of editors willing to approve manuscripts that don’t fit in the time-tested categories and in terms of better sub-editing on those manuscripts (tighter editing would have made Local a better book, for instance).

P.P.S. And oh, don’t get me started on book titles: the depressing stock of words like “spice”, “cinnamon”, “frangipani” and many others that are invariably used by publishers to accentuate a book’s exoticism – even when, as Varma points out, the actual writing eschews exotica.

P.P.S. If I've overlooked any good Indian lit-blogs, a thousand apologies. Send me the link.


  1. One thing I find boring with Indian literary journalism is, well, it is very "journalistic". More often than not, a liteary review in indian magazine is a bland (or witty in case the writer is good) recital of plot followed by a few cliched reader directed judgments. There is hardly any discussion of literary context or tradition or ideas. It is of course not to say that people don't have talent or wherewithal to do good literary criticism meant for public consumption, but that there is no culture and precedent for this in the mainstream media.

    I remember reading Sham Lal's collection of reviews (A Hundred Encounters) a few years back. I could not believe that those reviews were published in a main stream newspaper, much less in ToI!

    Actually Biblio is one magazine that does try to do something like that but how many people outside lit field have even heard of it?

    I think more than bemoaning a lack of interest in "smaller books", we should bemoan lack of interest in serious mainstream literary criticism, a lack of mainstream "Biblio"!

    btw, thanks for pointing out that "Patna" book. Can you point me to some place where I can find some more info about the book?


  2. btw, this is one kick-ass lit blog...though one can't expect him to review a book by a lowly indian author :)

    I can't believe his geek code. He calls himself a business geek!

  3. I know, that's Falstaff - very good and amazingly prolific. Thanks for the reminder - guess I had been thinking only of blogs by Indians based in India. (Also, Considerable Speck isn't an exclusively literary blog - though the last few posts have been.)

  4. "Link-oriented". True, true. Oh, for some more time left over after earning one's filthy lucre *deep sigh*

  5. Think there's a grass-is-greener thing happening here, Prufrock2. I feel like such a jobless moron after writing some of my 1000-word posts. let's exchange blog-lives for a fortnight.

  6. I really like the tone of your writing. It's balanced and not taking potshots at MSM, just for the sake of. I, also, would love to have your job :-)

  7. And what about indian literature per se or rather the ´other´ vis-a-vis ´indian writing in english´. are there any blogs where the óther´ is discussed. Frankly, Manik bandopadhyay, Nirmal Verma, Rajendra Yadav,Basheer,Manto are all that Indian literature is about.

    Other than Biblio there is also ´Indian Review of Books´ which also gives a lot of space to the óther´ literature. I hope I got the name correct because sitting here its difficult for me to verify the name. even google could not find it.

  8. Hi Jai, thanks for linking and expressing views on the piece. Since you have specifically addressed me in the post at one point, may I be permitted a counter on a couple of things you said? I got just 800 words in TOI to make a rather comprehensive point, so some issues were left unexplained.

    Of course, many of the foreign-published books are good books, many even outstanding. So, I am definitely not knocking those books at all. Just wish Indian-published books got a fraction of the same opportunities, that’s all.

    About the comment I made about the literary blogs – a very prominent blogger (whom you know very well, you guys link to each other quite often) himself told me that he considers blogs as a significant alternative to MSM; he even refers to his own posts as “editorial”. Maybe you don’t take yourself as seriously as that, but there are quite a few bloggers who do, I’m afraid. Hence that remark. (As far as the two Indian literary blogs you’ve mentioned are concerned, I think a cursory look at what they choose to write about will suffice.)

    About having just one page to do reviews and therefore not being able to do the Small Books – sorry, but that’s a copout. How many pages do cinema and music get for reviews every weekend? How many of them review Indian music/ films vis-à-vis US or UK music/ films? There is hardly a new Indian film or new music album that goes unreviewed. That suggests to me that literary criticism is more blinkered and biased than film/ music reviews in our country. How sick is the Big Books vs Small Books argument? Tell me – if Rabbi, Indian Ocean or Lucky Ali come out with new albums and their albums are not covered in the media because Dylan or U2 or REM have brought out new albums, will that be acceptable to you? Would it be acceptable to you if ANY album of original songs by a new Indian artist was ignored because Oasis brought out a new album? Unfortunately, that’s your argument, the way I see it.

    It’s not about lack of time as you put it, but attitude. Otherwise, why would some of you (you have used “us” in your post, so I’m taking that cue) choose to write about Chetan Bhagat and not about other new Indian-published books that HAVE been read by some of you (even as criticism)? Or are you now going to make the argument for commercial realities like all the big newspapers and magazines do – why talk about a book that will not sell 5000 copies? That would justify writing about CB, but tell me, how many copies does Ian McEwan sell in India?

    Finally, it’s not just yours or Nilanjana’s bemoaning of editing standards, because that seems to be a general trip amongst reviewers writing about India-published fiction lately; it’s almost become a trend. What I find amusing about that is that when I engaged with three different reviewers who made that remark about Local – they all had TOTALLY different things they wanted cut in the book; there was no consensus whatsoever! (Rather like the Beatles’ White Album syndrome – when it came out, most reviewers insisted that it should not have been a double album – but when a dozen of them gave their suggestion on which songs should have stayed in the single fat-free album, every one of the 30 songs was listed by some reviewer or the other! Oh, and no, I’m not comparing the White Album with Local, relax). I’m just making the point that editing is a very subjective process too, as subjective as writing or reading is. And when I sometimes see reviewers saying privately that Shantaram is badly edited or that On Beauty should have been 30 % shorter, but never ever saying it in print, it makes me wonder if it’s that same attitude at work, or play, here. This is why I used the word “pusillanimity” in my piece. It seems to me that Indian-published writers (especially translated works) are just easy targets of this kind of criticism.

    Look, ultimately, it’s your time, your space, your prerogative to write about what you want. It’s just curious to me how much homogeneity there is amongst reviewers today, especially when it comes to Indian-published fiction

  9. Jaideep,

    I think the problem is, as Jai said in his post, the space given to serious literary coverage in media. Now if you have only one page every week to write about books, you will definitely have to make the difficult decision of choosing only a few books to review.

    Also, the reviews should introduce the reader to the latest debates and questions from the world of arts and ideas. If writing about a McEwan book serves this purpose better, he will definitely be chosen over some debutant author.

    The solution is to increase the book coverage in media (may be replace Delhi Times with "Books Times" at least once a week) and not to ignore the best of the world to promote some home grown product.

    In fact same thing applies to film journalism too. If you go by what gets printed, you would be forgiven to think that world cinema ends with those low-brow hollywood adaptations of comic books! No wonder then that there were only 10 people attending the screening of Lars von Trier's Manderlay at the Goa IFFI this year, arguably the most provocative and the most important fimmaker working in cinema today.

    I think what is needed is an understanding on the part of the editors that literature and arts are serious matter and that they don't deserve the "lifestyle" treatment as they invariably get ("cool books, cool wine, cool places").

    It is not surprising that many of the books features are done by giggly and silly teenage females who prefer to drool over, say, Vikram Seth's good looks than to inquire him about boring topics such as jewish history or holocaust!!

    What we need is more debate and more dialogue, and that will not happen by replacing foreign books with indian ones but by increasing the scope and seriousness of their coverage.

    Ah! long, meandering comment. Sorry!

  10. the articles are good, make valid points but jaideep and nilanjana suffer from the same elitism. in one stroke jaideep dismisses chetan bhagat as simplistic/pulp, whereas clearly the author has made an impact in the last few years and a lot of people do like his work - and it is very contemporary India. And now he gets a LOT of media coverage (probably too much, but maybe because of the recent launch), without a foreign tag. I wonder if there is a bit of that nasty emotion called envy in these articles - also known as 'unhappy admiration' as someone called it. Great going jazzy Jai, this is more fun than rock n roll!

  11. as a non-literature background person who likes to read, most of the book reviews published in MSM are unreadable, rather uninterpretable.

    there seems to be some sort of a oneupmanship game that goes in the book reviewing pages.

    before you go demanding more pages for books and make unreasonable and even naive demands like 'books times' lets see who are these reviews written for?
    a. serious literature buffs who know and appreciate the difference between words like kafkaesque and proustian
    b. fellow lit-freaks(not meant as a pejorative), and lit-community and the publishing world intelligensia aka the infamous nexus.
    c. for the lay person who would like to occassionally read, and if introduced to some material more accessible than rushdie and naipaul. who currently reaches no further than chetan bhagat and shoba de, because he/she knows no better, rather no one told him/her.

    my guess is it is the first two.

    i think more important than what they review, what begs attention is how they review. the way its done now ensures that book pages are blind spots to the readers, much like edit pages.

    MSM is designed to have maximum reach, and those that dont fit that parameter are automatically given the boot. thats a reality you can crib about, but cannot escape.

    btw incest, the biologists say, throttles the gene pool and the species eventually dies.

  12. "this is more fun than rock n roll"

    Yeah, that's exactly what I'm afraid of. *Umpteenth futile reminder to self never to put up a post that will attract several long comments*

    Jaideep, you've addressed too many issues here for me to coherently take stock of, but here are some scattered rejoinders:

    - If some issues were left unexplained in your piece, rest assured there's plenty I haven't said in my post as well (I know theoretically I have unlimited space on this forum but I also have very limited patience with my own ramblings. Also, this topic is a very complex one, there's no pretending that one can cover all aspects of it in a single article/blog post/conversation.)

    - I consider blogs a significant alternative to MSM as well. I just don't think Indian literary blogs have reached that stage yet - especially because, like I mentioned in the post, there aren't enough good lit-blogs maintained by people who are unassociated with mainstream media.

    "About having just one page to do reviews and therefore not being able to do the Small Books – sorry, but that’s a copout."

    No it isn't, and let me speak for myself here. I can read only so many books in a week (the number has been shrinking btw). The books beat is still only one of many different things I cover at work; I still spend a lot of my time reading purely for pleasure (which means older books); and though readers of this blog will guffaw, I do have a personal life as well.

    Given all this, the way my reviewing schedule works is: new books come my way (dozens of new books every month, I must point out), I select the ones I would definitely be interested in reading (because I like the author or because of something interesting I've heard through the grapevine), and I also go through the first 3-4 chapters of the books I don't know much about, just in case there's a promising little treasure in there somewhere that I might want to follow up on. After finishing each book I decide whether I'd want to do a full review for someone, and then I start working along those lines. What I do review, I review with as much integrity as I can muster. But yes, the process is an inherently flawed one, and it goes without saying that many well-written but less-publicised books will get lost along the way. That will continue to be a problem so long as there are so few of us working dedicatedly on the literary beat.

    - I read an interview you put up on your site, where you lamented that reviewers would rather read Murakami, Pamuk etc than read Indian authors. Well, sorry about this but I'm one of those readers. I find Roth, Ishiguro, Murakami, Pamuk, Barnes and a few others more interesting and provocative than any contemporary Indian writer I can think of (talking about Indian writing in English here - I haven't read enough in the other languages, and apologies for that). Now this is purely a matter of opinion and taste - the same way that I didn't at all watch Hindi movies for over 10 years and am only getting back into them now. Does it mean I have a colonial mentality or that I'm cut off from the realities of my own country? I don't think so but if you insist, well, I'll live with myself somehow. Time is short and one does the best one can.

    - As Alok says in his comment, the movie write-ups in our mainstream newspapers/mags are hardly the right yardstick for judging how these things should be handled.

    More later. Let me know if you want to move this thread to email or want it to stay here.

  13. There are very few good sub-editors/copy-editors in the Indian publishing industry. The rest are mediocre.

  14. jai,

    to begin with, let me say that this whole 'lit blog' thing is a bit of a joke. you cannot honestly believe that a blogger who posts largely mediocre reviews is somehow helping anyone in any manner. it's an ego-trip, nothing more, nothing else.

    secondly, i find it sad that you fail to distinguish good reviewers from the mediocre ones.

    the ones you mention -- nilanjana roy and uma dasgupta -- would never pass muster at a books page outside this country (i know because i've worked on these pages in a couple of other countries for over 12 years). they pass off as reviewers here simply because they are among the few who care to jot down a few pointless comments on the books they happen to be reading. the criticism (if you can call it that) simply doesn't exist.

    take a look at the current sunday express books page for proof. while roy fails to make any sensible comment on the book (she has a habit of sitting on the fence), choosing to talk about her (obviously flawed) years at some bad school instead, dasgupta talks about finding books missing in her c. s. lewis collection before making some perfunctory remarks about the narnia series.

    the ONLY reason these people are allowed to still comment is because not many others care to, NOT because these people are qualified to.

    that's all i have to say. thanks :)

    (sorry, no 'litblog' to comment from, hence the forced use of the anonymous tag)

  15. Claire: I disagree with most of what you say, but thanks for saying it anyway.

    I don't "honestly believe that a blogger who posts largely mediocre reviews is somehow helping anyone in any manner". The lit-bloggers I have respect for are anything but mediocre. Having said that, all reviewing - even when it's done by John Updike - is to a large extent an ego-trip.

    Congrats for working on books pages "in a couple of other countries for over 12 years". Must've been fun. But your belief that Nilanjana and Uma wouldn't pass muster in a books page outside India is so laughable I won't even bother to comment on it. (Congrats also on your own presumably flawless school years. Do let me know the secret - will try to use it in my next life.)

    Nothing wrong with "sitting on the fence" if it's done honestly. In fact, I wish reviewers would do it more often instead of feeling impelled to make definite statements about every book and movie (like those supposedly reader-friendly last lines that sum up the book so the reader doesn't have to plough through the first 900 words).

    Thanks again, I remain yours, etcetera etcetera...

  16. And this Comments thread is now officially closed. Any more comments shall be deleted and Da Vinci Code pop-up viruses sent to all your IP addresses.

    (The Word Verification for this comment was, appropriately, "eepjai")

  17. Jai - c'mon, don't close the comments. that is like the kid who had the bat and would stop the cricket game to go home just when it became interesting. and this one is all so harmless anyway. And yes, all commenters be polite and ADD to the discussion if possible.

    Jai - u can close the game when the score reaches a certain significant level. Say quarter century of comments?

  18. ah, jai,

    always so quick on the defensive. yes, 12 years was fun. got paid a lot. you'll never know the feeling. also, yes, flawless education. again, something you'll never have access to.

    best (really),

  19. Relax Amitav, am not closing comments, especially not after reading the latest one by "Claire". Truth is, I was more worried that the whole thing was going to turn TOO polite - with long, thoughtful comments that one would have to post long, thoughtful replies to. But as long as people are on the "you'll never have access to education" track, I'm cool with that. Just makes my blog a lot more entertaining.

  20. Alok / Jai: Thanks.

    I'm not sure I would count Considerable Speck as a 'lit-blog' in the sense in which Jai is using it, though.

    a) As Jai points out, Considerable Speck isn't just about books

    b) I'm not trying to review new books - the fact that a large proportion of books reviewed end up being recent publications is purely a function of my own reading rather than a more general design.

    c) I'm not really trying to 'review' books at all - I certainly have no intention of writing anything that would 'pass muster at a books page outside this country' - getting away from that kind of scaffolding is precisely what the blog is about. Jotting down comments on books that I happen to be reading is exactly what I'm trying to do. Any utility other people might get out of what I write is entirely unintentional.

    I certainly don't think it would be fair to compare Considerable Speck to the other blogs you mention, if only because (I suspect) the objectives behind writing it are very different. Let me also say, in response to some of the comments made to this post (Jai - you can't close out comments - it's not fair to those of us who were away for Thanksgiving and just got back) that I'm not sure that I find these other blogs 'useful' as much as I find them entertaining. I enjoy reading the reviews on these blogs and find them invariably interesting and occassionaly insightful (though, of course, this may be just my flawed education talking) - which is pretty much all I would say for reviews in the New Yorker or the NYRB. If there's any other utility I'm supposed to be taking away from these reviews, I'm not quite sure what it is.

    P.s. Aren't you always suspicious when people offer experience in other countries as proof of international expertise, without bothering to name the countries? It's like the companies that say they export to more than twelve countries worldwide - meaning that they get 2% of their entire annual sales from the Maldives, Uruguay, Bhutan and ten nations in Sub-Saharan Africa.

  21. Wow! Very funny discussion!! Made my day today :)

    I now feel like such a jobless, humourless moron (you are not the only one Jai!) for putting those long, boring comments on this post :(

    Falstaff: yeah. I realized later. Jai was talking of more "news and views" type blogs. But your blog is great anyway.

    Jai: Please don't delete the comments or send the da vinci code pop-up virus!! Don't behave like the "kid with the bat"!! (what an excellent analogy) :)

  22. I would have never guessed that a post on Indian literature and litblogging would involve trash talking, but I am kind of in love with "Claire" for introducing that aspect. thoroughly enjoyable.

    also enjoyed the link to TOI article, your response and his response to your response, and your response to his response...

  23. I am ignorant, so ignorant. Let's sidestep this whole "Indian Writing in English" tangle for a moment and ask: how many regular book reviewers are a pleasure to read? There are any number that are entertaining and informative (including this blog and ConsiderableSpeck), but I (greedily, restlessly) am asking for something more: the sense of having an enthralling conversation with the reviewer - nimbleness,
    sensibility, views strongly held and contested, quip and riposte, tracings of history, lights going on and off and on again in a darkened room... Except that one doesn't have to say a word. It is all on the page; so generous!

    Reviewers who are also performers. James Wood, Christopher Hitchens? Surely there must be more.

  24. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  25. Sorry, made a mistake with the post just over this. This is it.

    There are no absolute rules of reviewing, or reading, or anything. So, I’m not saying that this or that is right. But I do feel that literature (and music and cinema) is the place where a society interacts with itself, and societies interact with others. If you have contempt for literature (or music or cinema) from your own space (country, region…whatever), then you are not in touch with your own reality. If Lars Von Trier or Philip Roth or Pamuk came from countries/ cultures where this was the prominent attitude when they were fledgling artists, they would not have evolved to who they are.

    Jai, I referred to Pamuk, Murakami etc in the context of translated writers from the world vis-à-vis translated writing in India, NOT Indian writing in English – this is a significant difference. IWE is at best a precocious child in this context. The colonial attitudes in the publishing world and the media have prevented contemporary new writing in Indian languages – this is the biggest tragedy. in my opinion.

    Alok, I’m a big fan of Lars Von Trier myself, but if I saw his latest film being written about over say, Vishal Bharadwaj’s Blue Umbrella, it would be a shame. There is adequate scope to balance both - that is all I’m saying. Your solutions for balancing are impractical and unnecessary and the reasons are explained very adequately by theidiot (whose comments I completely agree with).

    Amitav, of course I’m envious – of you too, for not having everything you say being ascribed an ulterior motive. Chetan Bhagat writing “simplistic pulp” is a mere fact, not a value judgment. I actually think more writers like CB would be a great thing for Indian writing as at least they write honestly about the environment around them; sooner or later the genre would expand itself and maybe CB himself would take more chances and explore more too. But the fact is that his writing is simplistic and unchallenging (and also unpretentious and charming, in some ways), and I don’t see why “pulp” has to be a derogative term. Also, CB is more relevant to a lot of Indians than Ian McEwan is. I think I just saw Jai wince. (and please don’t tell me how popular he is – so is Salman Khan)

    Jai, I sympathise with your lack of time and the process you go through to review. I do appreciate your integrity and your sincerity; otherwise I wouldn’t post comments on your blog. But I don’t think this is the only way it can be done. This whole business of having a small bunch of people writing lit reviews is idiotic. The fault here lies with the editors who make such choices. To broad base this more, with people of different sensibilities contributing, will only make this a richer, less homogeneous space. That will also free up time for all the reviewers. Though I suspect though that many of the star reviewers will not want that, as they may perceive it as a reduction of their worth. There IS a colonial mindset in the media – the evidence is overwhelming, it’s a no-brainer, really. (On a personal level, I want to clarify that I do not mean EVERY single reviewer is similarly blinkered – and that comment had nothing to do with Local but how many of them are open to new translated titles of Indian languages and indigenous fiction generally – that’s my parameter, wrong or right. I think people like Uma MD and a few others have done this with honesty, and even if I don’t agree with their reviews sometimes, I truly appreciate their open-mindedness; just wish there many more of them.)

    Let me ask you a question, the answer to which I am not clear about myself. Does the media owe the public information about what books are being released in the country? On the face of it, no of course, as they have to make a profit blablabla. Yes, there are space issues and choices have to be made, but fundamentally, is it the media’s duty (or is this word too archaic and idealistic in these times) to tell the public what is out there?

    I think Claire is just baiting you, Jai. She can’t be serious about what she is saying, however “entertaining” it may be. Don’t let it spoil our discussion.