Thursday, January 11, 2007

The end of pretension in publishing?

Posted below is a feature I did for the latest issue of Man’s World magazine. It was meant to be about books that are commonly classified as “lad lit”, but a related story that I find much more interesting (and which I’ve incorporated here) is the number of writers who are targeting the mass market – reaching out to the kind of reader who might pick up a cheaply priced novel because of the easily relatable characters and settings in it. The attitudes of some of these writers are very revealing. There’s plenty of inverse snobbery, for instance: the assumption that “literary” must necessarily be synonymous with “pretentious”, and that the best reason (the only reason?) to write a book is to sell thousands of copies and become famous quickly. I couldn’t help thinking about my recent interviews with Vikram Chandra and Raj Kamal Jha: Chandra saying he would be pleased if his book found just one reader with the “same heart”, Jha saying he felt lucky if 4-5 people appreciated something he had written. The mass-market writers would probably snort at these statements.

Working on this story was another reminder that many of us who read/review for a living and move in lit-circles tend to lose sight of the possible directions IWE (Indian writing in English) might take in the next few years. I think there’s scope for more indepth features about the increasing democratisation of Indian publishing.

Here’s the story.

‘We can’t do very literary stuff’

“What we’re seeing,” says Neelesh Misra, “is the end of pretension for the publishing industry.” The journalist-cum-author is talking about a new movement in Indian writing in English: the growing number of writers who are reaching out to the “casual reader” – that is, someone who prefers easily recognizable stories and settings, and conversational prose, to the rigours of literary fiction. Misra’s own first novel, Once Upon a Timezone, is a case in point. Despite a low-profile launch, it had sold over 8,000 copies as of early December, a very impressive figure for the fiction market in India.

“People who didn’t read earlier are picking up books now,” says Misra, “and they want themes and characters they can relate to.” Many urban Indian youngsters should be able to relate to his fast-paced story about Neel Pandey, who dreams of going to the US but ends up working in a Delhi call centre and forming a long-distance relationship with an American journalist.

Misra is in his 30s, well-ensconced in his job as a senior editor with the Hindustan Times, and proclaims that he’s “primarily a journalist who also happens to write books” – but his views are shared by a much younger man who hasn’t even embarked on a career yet. Tushar Rahaja, 22, recently graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and the author of Anything for You, Ma’am – An IITian’s Love Story, says he and his friends can’t connect with a lot of contemporary fiction. “I know many people who don’t read simply because they find it very boring,” he says. When Raheja wrote his debut novel, he relied on his visual sense and a flair for recording casual conversations: “I knew I couldn’t do very literary stuff.”

This movement away from “literary stuff” is catching on. Traditionally, one of literature’s strong points was supposed to be that it could make you uncomfortable – by opening windows into new worlds, challenging the reader to (at least briefly) understand characters who live and think differently. Much of the new writing on the Indian literary horizon performs the opposite function: it’s about reinforcing what you already know of the world; seeking comfort in the fact that there are others who have experienced the same things you have (even if it’s something as basic as having an argument with a girlfriend at the Barista in Green Park market - you know, the one that's just around the corner from Evergreen?). And as it happens, much of this writing is currently in the form of stories about the lives of confused young men.

Dude lit: a facile classification

Many new books deal with the coming-of-age experiences of a male protagonist – the ups and downs in studies, friendships, romance and career. In recent months, apart from Once Upon a Timezone… and Anything for You, Ma’am, there’s been Abhijit Bhaduri’s Mediocre but Arrogant, about a youngster named Abbey who lives and learns in a Jamshedpur management institute in the early 1980s (don’t miss that the book title spells “MBA”) and Tuhin Sinha’s That Thing Called Love (TTCL), centred on the ad-sales manager of a matrimony website and his quest for true love.

This commonality has led these books to be classified as “lad lit” or “dude lit”, the Boy’s Own Club riposte to Chick Lit. But the authors themselves resist being slotted. “These are terms propounded by the media,” says Sinha, pointing out that his novel deals with the lives of a motley group of characters, not just one male protagonist. “In a broad sense, I suppose it can be called lad lit. But personally, while writing it, I was least concerned about what category it would fit into.” Besides, he says, the feedback he gets through his website and on email comes from both male and female readers.

Chetan Bhagat, whose bestselling Five Point Someone and One Night @ the Call Center have been vanguards for the genre, is more aggressive. “Chick lit refers to literature that is read primarily by women. But ‘lad-lit’ is read by men and women both, what is so laddish about it?” he asks. “Some journalists like to slot items into snappy sub-categories, and so do the marketing divisions of publishing companies – that’s how this compartmentalisation happens.”

Abhijit Bhaduri says Mediocre but Arrogant wasn’t written to fit a genre but flowed naturally out of his own experiences as a business-school student. “I wanted to write about the experience of growing up in India in the 1980s and I chose a business-school setting because I was familiar with it.” Similar sentiments are voiced by Sudeep Chakravarti, whose Tin Fish captured the ethos of Mayo School in the mid-1970s, a milieu the author had experienced firsthand. For all the recent media hype, “lad lit” is simply a jazzed-up term for the good old-fashioned Bildungsroman, which is the sort of book a first-time novelist – still struggling to find a comfort zone in fiction – often writes.

Reading is cool. So is writing. But 'serious’ equals ‘pseudo’

So while it’s interesting that stories are being told from the young male perspective, the more notable thing about these books is that they constitute a new approach to writing and publishing – one that’s opposed to the idea that reading has to be a solitary habit, confined to a select few. Through pricing strategies and through the accessibility of their writing, these authors are targeting a mass readership and they make no bones about it.

A couple of years ago, Rupa & Co’s gambit of pricing Bhagat’s Five Point Someone at Rs 95 famously paid off: in a market where a mere 5,000 sales are enough to classify a novel as a “bestseller”, Five Point Someone sold lakhs of copies. Youngsters who would otherwise never have listed “reading” among their hobbies were buying the book – not just from regular bookstores but even at railway stations and traffic crossings. This is a strategy that other publishers have picked up on. Srishti Publishers has marked Raheja and Sinha’s novels at Rs 100 (in fact they are marked down even further at some bookstores), while Once Upon a TimeZone (HarperCollins India) and Mediocre but Arrogant (Indialog Publications) are both priced at Rs 195 – which is still quite low given their higher production quality and better editing.

“I told my publishers I didn’t want my novel priced at more than Rs 100,” Raheja tells me. Reason? He can’t imagine why someone might want to spend Rs 500 or more on a book “when he can go out with his girlfriend a couple of times and enjoy himself with the same money”. The obvious jokes aside (people who read have time for girlfriends?), this indicates a thought process that’s very different from that of purveyors of literary fiction. It’s the thought process of someone who’s willing to see a book as a pop commodity, something that provides instant gratification the way a quick meal at McDonald’s would – rather than as a pathway to intellectual stimulation.

But then “intellectual” is a bad word in these circles anyway – it’s synonymous with “pretentious”, and invariably preceded by “pseudo”. There’s plenty of inverse snobbery on view: the eagerness to take potshots at “serious writers”, the simplistic and self-serving assumption that any writer who uses big words, long sentences and descriptive prose must necessarily be insincere or catering to the demands of the West. The writers who target a mass-readership can’t understand why anyone would be “self-important” enough to write an 800-page tome, or to spend six years working on one book. “My life has been so eventful that I’m sure I can already write 50 books based on my experiences,” says Raheja confidently.

Abhijit Bhaduri and Neelesh Misra are relatively measured in their attitude to literary distinctions. “I want to avoid talking down to readers or getting into fancy descriptions,” says Misra, “but I do think of my work as middlebrow at least. If I write something, it should meet a certain quality requirement.” Bhaduri, who counts Rohinton Mistry and Arundhati Roy among his favourites, says, “The casual, conversational style of writing appeals to a large mass of people, but literary fiction has its own place.”


Significantly, many of these writers have a strong online presence, with personal websites and blogs that help in promoting their books. “My Ryze page helped spread awareness about TTCL,” says Tuhin Sinha, “When you don’t have a professional PR agency working for you, the Net is the best option.” This medium also helps the writers to bypass the critic (another bad word!) and interact directly with that more important beast – the reader. For as Raheja puts it, “Critics use words that are out of the public domain. They are distanced from what they write about – they don’t know how much effort one puts into writing a book or making a film.”

Another interesting thing about this new lot of novels is that many of them are practically ready to be transferred to the big screen. (As a boy tells his girlfriend in Anything for You, Ma’am, “When God is giving us such a good chance to live a movie, why should we despair? Right now it is a perfect script for a masala movie.”) This isn’t surprising, for on the whole these writers have closer ties with Bollywood films than with literature. Sinha, for instance, is a Mumbai-based scriptwriter whose work includes serials like Pyar Ki Kashti Mein. “The scriptwriting experience has helped,” he says. “I’ve been told my book is very visual.”

Similarly, Neelesh Misra has written songs for Hindi movies – notably “Jaadu hai nasha hai” from Jism and “Maine dil se kaha…” from Rog – as well as a couple of scripts. His book ends with a very movie-like coda about what eventually happens to the various characters (sample: “Meenal Sharma and Sonia Shah are now India’s first legally married lesbian couple”). And Raheja’s ultimate aim is to make a film and oversee most aspects of the production. “I hate collaboration in art. Ideally I would like to do everything myself.” He draws an imaginary marquee in the air with his hands: “It should say Written by, Directed by and Music by Tushar Raheja.” Chances are that film versions of most of these books will be underway soon – which in turn should open the market even further.

But as Bhaduri says, “Today it’s lad-lit, tomorrow we’ll have teen lit or even kid lit. Eventually it’s all about giving the reader something to identify with.” Purists and critics will continue to be sceptical about this new writing, but for good or for bad it seems to be working. The coming months should see the playing out of the conflict between mass-market writing and literary fiction, especially if the larger publishers start accepting more manuscripts with an eye on what appeals to the untrained reader.


Tempting as it is to put all these books in the same bracket, they do vary in quality. Once Upon a Timezone… and Mediocre but Arrogant are a cut above the others. The former is a good airport read, but it also makes interesting observations about the changing nature of relationships and communication in today’s world – especially in the way the protagonist and his US-based girlfriend become close long-distance despite lying to each other about important things. Bhaduri’s novel (soon to be followed by “MBA” sequels, starting with Married but Available) is well-plotted and benefits from the illustrations, done by the author himself, which are like the doodles you’d see in any college student’s notebook.

On a lower rung in terms of writing quality and production values are Anything for You, Ma’am and That Thing Called Love, both of which are earnest first-time efforts but cringingly awkward in places. When a young couple spends time getting to know each other over coffee in That Thing Called Love, the author notes, “They soon realised that their coffee had been over for sometime. They’d been instead sipping the magic of their interactions.” It’s the sort of amateurishly constructed sentence that one is immediately tempted to condescend on – but then, who is to say there isn’t a market for such writing? This manner of basic, school-level playing around with words is exactly what might appeal to a lovelorn young man who has never read a novel before and casually picks one up at a roadside stall for “timepass”.

However, even the most indulgent reader would have to squirm at a sex scene late in the book, when a boy “pulls off a girl’s bra to discover that her lofty boobs did indeed meet the idea he had of them”. (“Lofty” boobs? Really? Where was the editor? But I forget – assembly-line books don’t waste much time on the editorial process.)


  1. very interesting... loved your occasional doses of sarcasm :)

    There is always space for all kinds of things, the idea is to to be able recognize the merits of individual works and then treat them accordingly. What depresses me is the prospect that perhaps the little, almost nonexistent, space that Indian media has for books coverage might be wasted on such products.

  2. Thanks. Very frustrating story to work on. I began by thinking the lad-lit angle (with a few quotes from each of the writers) could be tidily covered in 800-1000 words, but then it turned into something larger and eventually even 2000 words weren't enough. There's plenty more to say on this subject. Will perhaps do a companion piece from the publishers' perspective...

  3. There are some positives in this. Its always good for the publishing industry to have a cash cow because it means they can fund the better books. And it seems they have found one. The myraid chick lit books that flood the US market (not to mention schlock thrillers) don't enroach much on the better books. Sure the piece of the pie gets smaller, but the pie itself gets larger too.

    Pretty soon there will be boutique imprints in India like Ecco, which I'm sure gets a healthy infusion of funding from the Michael Crichton sales at Harper Collins. (I would insert a smiley here but...)

  4. Lofty indeed.

    People my age are boring. Have you read some of my blog posts? I would't want to put it in a print queue, let alone getting it published.

    I don't wanna hear the "bitches and hos ain't shit" schtick from my friends now, what would make me pick up a book that's full of that?

    Seriously, bildungsromans with steamy affairs and sex scenes are a dime-a-dozen.

    For me, the first sign of trouble is a callcenter. Callcenters are the new punks. Previously, stories concerning youngsters used to be about school, gangs or some other social ill that the media had glommed onto and overhyped. Now every god-dammity-damn indian story has to involve a callcenter in some form or fashion.

    I'd rather go read a comic book.

  5. Btw, Mediocre,But Arrogant started off as a blog as well. Start reading from the bottomost post.

  6. Who is to decide which book is lofty and which isn't? I think the market will prove to be a good judge. After all, I don't think any publisher is altruistic enough to willingly publish a book that may be the best literary thing ever if it didn't recover the costs. The very fact that the "intellectual" books exist on the shelves means there is a market for them. And as long as that market lives, no amount of "mass appeal" books are going to cut into their pie.

  7. ... untrained reader.


  8. Anangbhai, since you are so full of beans about call centers (and quite funny, too) why don't you post something on call centers in lad-lit? I think there is material there worth expounding. After all, they were the cash cow of the Indian economy not so long ago.

  9. Wonderful wonderful piece. I was wondering about whether Indian writer _not_ in English has such a genre, and whether the IWE trend is really the successor to _that_ tradition. My circulating library certainly has a good deal of rudimentarily produced Hindi pulp, which sees pretty good circulation...

  10. Hmmmm. Interesting post. Was asked to read Anything for you ma'am. Couldn't get past 10 pages. I'm just wondering if our reading levels have dropped that much. I'm not saying that everyone has to read a Rohinton Mistri (there's a typo in your story btw: "Rohington"), but even the most occasional reader should be able to get that he can come up with (and I'm trying really hard not to be condescending here) the horsedroppings that Anything... has to offer. For another book in the same dismal range, try out "Earning My Laundry Stripes". Honestly, why would anyone read this when even Sitcoms have better writers than this. I'd rather people stopped reading altogether than reduced themselves to this.

  11. Oh... link for story on dubbed movies is here:

  12. Super story. The readerly movement away from 'serious' and 'literary' is of a piece with other pop cultural movements, wot? Lowest common denominator products are wonderfully symbiotic--good for the manufacturer's bank balance and good for the consumer's self-esteem. Why rock the boat with 'pretension' ?

  13. Nice article. Though you want to know the simple truth? One book clicked (we know which one, ok two) and clones mushroomed. There is no movement, no transformation. And there are no literary books or non-literary books. There are good books and books that suck. Sales and good books normally go together. End of story.

  14. (Off topic)
    Just got a call from India today group wanting to cover DBM XV. The reporter specifically asked me if you were coming! :p

  15. i love em lofty boobs meself, arrrr.
    this will do wonders for your already spectacular google search results

  16. Isn't it interesting that much of this (supposedly) exciting new writing is closely linked to affiliations to a particular institute or degree? I suppose the next bestseller will be 'Tiny Torts - An NLS Love Story' or 'A Cut Above', the fascinating new novel from a 27-year old surgeon trained at AIIMS. We don't want to leave any target segments uncovered, do we?

    I wonder if there's market research on what proportion of people who read Five Point Someone were from an IIT, or wanted to be?

  17. Tsk. Next thing you know, someone will come around saying Shakespeare, W should have written limericks.

  18. shakespeare was a 'popular writer'..but critics now call him classic. same for dickens. wonder if FPS will become an Indian classic in 20years?

    a lot of literary books are badly written too. and if they write for 4 guys, why do they publish and invite bollywood actors to their launch?

    popular writers market well to the masses. literary writers know how to market to the critics.

  19. if they write for 4 guys, why do they publish and invite bollywood actors to their launch?

    Zimmerman: good point. But there's no contradiction between wanting your book to sell thousands of copies (for the royalties and to maintain your reputation) and at the same time being okay if only four people actually read it (or appreciate it). A books editor recently told me, only half-joking, that her writers didn't care whether people read their books - as long as they bought them!

  20. RTP: thanks for the link.

    twilight fairy: unfortunately, no. Busy Saturday afternoon, at least from 3 onwards.

    Turbanator: "the simple truth". Wow.

  21. zimmerman: "a lot of literary books are badly written too." Such as?

    Oh, and there's a difference between only caring about serious readers and actively objecting if your publisher invites Bollywood stars to your book launch. One doesn't imply the other.

  22. falstaff - have a look at this,

    many of the literary books won't be well written. there are good/bad books in literary as well as light fiction. Don't compare literary stars with average light fiction books. And one category isn't better than the other. But the critics are stuck in that which category is better story (jai has done it 10 times). There is BBC and there is Zee TV. Both have good and bad programs.

    Publisher invites bollywood stars? cute. Any author who became a celebrity, well, worked at it. It doesn't just happen. It is just that self-promotion is of a different kind there. Just as the masses can be influenced, critics can be too. Everyone's human. And we love to be herded sheep too.

    Jai -
    they can blog if they want four people. they don't have to publish. and if they do care about sales for royalties, they are in it for the money too. it is a business mixed with art, whichever published book you look at. It is just the proportion may vary. And that is subjective.

  23. zimmerman: I'm not sure what the list you link to is supposed to suggest.

    I'm not saying that we take the stars of literary fiction and compare them to average lad-lit, on the contrary, I'm suggesting that we compare average literary fiction to the stars of lad-lit. I would argue that even a 'literary' novel as mediocre as, say, Roth's Everyman is infinitely better written than a star lad-lit novel like FPS.

    And I don't think the critics are stuck in the 'which category is better story' at all. I think the critics are quite clear that they're catering to an audience of serious readers who are interested in writing that explores ideas and language, rather than books that are just a form of popular entertainment to go with soaps operas and reality television. It isn't a question of whether this is better or worse, it's just a different need / audience - and one that it's more rewarding to write for, simply because there's something to be said about 'literary' novels beyond the fact that they are fun or have stories that anyone who went to an IIT can relate to.

    And I don't know what you mean by 'cute'. Even if we assume that literary novelists are desperate to garner favour with critics, as you suggest, that doesn't provide any reason for them to invite Bollywood stars - on the contrary, you'd think they'd want to avoid being associated with said stars in order to be taken seriously by critics. It seems reasonable to assume that the impetus to garner the kind of publicity that bollywood stars provide is as likely to come from publishers looking to popularise books as from the authors themselves.

    Reading through your comments it seems to me that part of the confusion comes from the fact that you and I are talking about very different things - you seem to be focusing on a group of Indian writers whose claim to being exponents of 'literary fiction' is, in my opinion, dubious at best; while when I say literary fiction I'm talking about a larger international community of writers and critics, the kind of people who show up in the New York or London Review of Books. If you're making the point that it's time that people who get touted by the ToI as literary stars or make it to the Crosswords Bookstore Best Indian Fiction list get taken off their high horse I don't disagree, but let's not confuse that with genuine literary fiction of the Pynchon / Amis / McEwan variety.

  24. Falstaff: "a lot of "literary" books are badly written. Such as?"

    of the top of my head (and yes, I've read all of these).

    1. Raj Kamal Jha's cringe-worthy first novel (forgotten its title: blue bedspread?)
    2. David Davidar's sickening "House of Blue Mangoes"
    3. Vikram Seth's overlong and inauthentic "Suitable Boy".

    And remember the orchestra has to play really out of tune for me to pick the bad 'uns.


    NB: I presume "literary" refers to authors who come out farthest away from Shobhaa De in a cluster analysis.

  25. Sigh. Another long discussion where everybody (including me) is going to post long comments, run around in circles, pick on specific points in other comments...and still end up being inarticulate. Here goes anyway...

    if they do care about sales for royalties, they are in it for the money too. it is a business mixed with art, whichever published book you look at. It is just the proportion may vary. And that is subjective.

    Zimmerman: I’m confused. Who’s denying any of this? I indicated as much in my comment about even "literary writers" wanting their books to sell in large quantities.

    Also, please tell me when exactly I’ve done a story about "which category is better"?

    I think the critics are quite clear that they're catering to an audience of serious readers who are interested in writing that explores ideas and language, rather than books that are just a form of popular entertainment to go with soaps operas and reality television...

    Falstaff: This is hardly an unequivocally good thing if it completely cuts critics off from the world occupied by the "non-literary" reader. Also, as you might know from some of my previous posts, I don't believe there's anything like a clear distinction between the books/films that "explore ideas" and the ones that serve as mere entertainment. Every response varies, depending on the life experiences and the interior world of the individual who's doing the responding. A book or film (or even, yes, a TV soap!) that you think of as shallow might very well stir profound thought in another person - or at least direct that person to another work that deals with the idea in greater depth.

    Also, while I agree that standards in IWE are significantly lower than those of the better American/English writers, how relevant is that to the issues raised in this particular story - which deals with the reading/writing culture in a country where English is not the first language for the majority of the population. The hierarchies of intellect/snobbery here are very different. At least a couple of the young writers I mentioned would very likely never even have heard of Pynchon or Roth or Amis, much less read their work; for them, the "literary" writers, the ones who need to be attacked as "pretentious", are the likes of Vikram Chandra, Jha and so on.

  26. For Falstaff :

    I would argue that even a 'literary' novel as mediocre as, say, Roth's Everyman is infinitely better written than a star lad-lit novel like FPS

    Maybe you would like to expand on the argument, for it seems ( and I am sorry for that ) specious ...

    I haven't read Roth's Everyman and am not likely to, either, having sated myself with his earlier stuff. I would also not be likely to read Chetan Bhagat's work(s).

    For Jabberwock :

    You missed the little pointer in the earlier comment ( to be read in context of the title, and the general tenor of your post ). No comments, I suppose?

  27. What exactly is a 'literary book'? Its easy to define a classic, but what's a literary book? s
    Seriously? And there is no 'readerly movement away from...'. There have always been pop books. Dont think there's anything wrong with that!

    'Every response varies, depending on the life experiences and ..' as J said.

    But to cast aspersions on non-pop books as boring snobberies is not the best trend ever, one feels. Its like crisps vs spinach.

  28. n!: See my comment to zimmerman. I disagree on Suitable Boy, but agree entirely on Blue Bedspread and House of Mangoes, both of which I didn't bother to finish because they were too badly written.

    My point is that we're using the epithet literary fiction to cover a very broad range of writing (frankly, a much broader range than I would have considered - when I hear 'literary fiction' I don't think of Jha or Davidhar). So if by literary fiction we mean people who the ToI profiles as our most promising writers then I agree that there's a lot of hype and very little quality, but what's furthest away from Shobhaa De is not Abha Dawesar but Sarah Waters or Nadine Gordimer.

    Jai (looong comment coming up): It's relevant precisely because the young writers you mention haven't read Roth or Amis or Pynchon, which means they're criticising something they know nothing about. It seems to me that this whole debate is a false one, because it seems to assume that Indian readers have to read Indian authors and therefore have to choose between pretentious wannabes like Jha or Davidhar or out and out storytellers like Bhagat. My point is that readers have a third choice - they can read genuinely good literary fiction, such as the work of Roth / Pynchon / Amis. And I don't see what English being the first language has to do with this - if you can read Jha or Seth I don't see why you can't read Graham Swift or Murakami. Or the work of writers from non-English countries writing in English (Yi-Yun Li springs to mind). Even if a small fringe of international novelists are so into wordplay that it makes their writing inaccessible to those relatively unfamiliar with English, the vast majority of NYRB type 'literary fiction' isn't particularly hard to read.

    It's relevant because I think it's worth asking the question - why don't we have better literary fiction? Do we really want our response to the fact that IWE doesn't match the writing in the West to be that we give up on literary fiction entirely and limit ourselves to reading lad-lit? That strikes me as a shockingly insular approach. Shouldn't we rather be considering what it is about, say, our education system, that keeps us from developing a pool of stronger writers and more engaged readers. Maybe we need more creative writing programs. Maybe we need better teaching of English in our schools. To say that we're just going to give up on a whole art form because we can't be bothered to look beyond the Sunday supplement of the Delhi Times or the Crossword Bestseller list is patently ridiculous.

    I'm not suggesting that critics insulate themselves. I'm suggesting that critics stop pandering to popular taste and / or publisher pressure and try to help people identify and engage with good literary fiction. If most of the 'literary' fiction we see come out of India is pretentious and ordinary then the critics should be saying so. If people are getting turned off literary fiction because they're reading Davidhar and deciding they're not interested then the critics should be telling them that they're right which is why they should be reading Roth instead. Critics are supposed to be opinion-makers, not yes-men (or yes-women) who agree with whatever publishers / Crossword sales figures tell them. Look, someone has to stand up for good writing here. Someone has to undo the hype that publishers are spinning around writers of little or no talent who are getting hyped in order that their books will sell - a trend which, it seems to me, is destroying the quality of readership in India; someone has to help create the informed demand that will put people like McCarthy and DeLillo on the shelves of Crossword. And if the critics don't do it, who will?

    Sure, different people have different perceptions - which is why we have multiple critics and we pick the ones we choose to listen to. It's not a question of agreeing on what books are well written or badly written, it's a question of agreeing on what we're looking for - originality, richness of ideas, inventiveness in language, etc. If all we're trying to do is figure out how likely you are to find a book enjoyable, then we don't need critics, we just need market researchers who will give us sales figures coupled with a survey of how people who read the book felt about it.

    At any rate, I wasn't making a normative case for critics focussing on the literary in fiction. I was simply making a factual statement. When was the last time you saw a major critic reviewing the latest Julie Garwood or Sue Grafton? Michiko Kakutani doesn't spend her time wondering whether the new Dan Brown is better than the new Roth. People who like Five Point Someone may feel that it should be featured in the London Review of Books, but I doubt the editors of the LRB are agonising over it.

    kk: I don't know that I can expand on it that much. Based on the one chapter of FPS I read before I gave up on it the plot seemed predictable, the dialogue stilted and the writing itself hopelessly awkward and there seemed to be no interest in anythinng beyond telling a story. By contrast, Everyman, which, as Roth novels go is pretty ordinary, has some fascinating descriptions, dialogue that both seems entirely natural but also verbally exciting - Roth is clearly interested in how he says things, not just in what he says.

    The argument is specious in that any assessment of a work of art is necessarily subjective (actually, it isn't really an argument, it's more an opinion). There may be people who feel that Chetan Bhagat's writing sounds more natural, flows better or is more inventive than Roth's. That's an opinion I can't dispute. I'm just interested to know if there are people out there who feel that way. Or is it just that the people who are dissing literary fiction haven't read Roth - as Jai suggests.

  29. Glad someone else liked A Suitable Boy! And at least that answers my question somewhat about what is a literary book. Apparenlty we're considering anything that anyone anywhere thinks of as a literary book to be one. If every book I couldn't understand or that went over my head or I didnt connect with is going to be termed a literary book, this whole discussion is pretty pointless!

  30. falstaff - wow, long but good point.

    one thing though, u havent read FPS but said Everyman was 'infinitely' better. then you say critics should do a better job. wow.

  31. Yeah it is a little disappointing to see how little of literary fiction from outside India and other foreign languages gets covered in Indian literary media (whatever small that is.)

    Another disappointing thing is to see so few blogs by literary journalists and reviewers or even students and academics? I am sure they read more books than the book editors ask them to do. Wouldn't it be great to talk about those books which don't get mentioned in the books pages on their own blogs. Isn't that what blogs are for?

    It is unfashionable now to say this but i do think that the critics should guide people's tastes and help eager, curious and enthusiastic readers to make a more informed choice.

    btw, just curious is Against the Day going to get reviewed in the indian media anywhere? :)

  32. Nice post, Jai. Some good discussions, too.

    Was rather hoping someone would mention/use the term dick-lit. Just for kicks. Works better to complement chick-lit. Lad-lit sounds very bland in comparison, but obviously more acceptable in general.

  33. Here are some positives I can think of that this trend in publishing might foster:

    More people, particularly the young, might look to writing as a financially viable profession. While it would bring in a certain number who are in it mostly for the money, some genuine talent might take the plunge too. I am of the opinion that many are conditioned to suppress or ignore or sideline their writing talents because it has "no future".

    At least a few of the young writers who got published will hopefully go on to aiming higher and producing more accomplished works.

    That is a lot of might and if and hopefully. But yeah, hopefully.

  34. Wish you'd taken a stand - you're vague about where you stand though the piece isn't bad. (To be honest, I wish you'd been more critical. I hate such books.)

  35. n!: 'A Suitable Boy' was badly written? Really? (Not liking a book and thinking it is badly written are two different things.)

  36. Uh zimmerman, I think that's an unfair dig at Falstaff. After all, he did say that he read one chapter of FPS. Which is more than one can manage of Anything For You Ma'am. Does one have to read the entire book before deciding that something is badly written? Doesn't the lack of will to make an effort towards finishing the book itself suggest that the book wasn't up to the mark? After all, most serious readers do struggle through a book unless it is almost completely unreadable.

  37. 'Five point someone' was bad, and I don't mean the depth or language when I say that,what I mean it was a highly exaggerated and ridiculous account of a college life. I devour books, so I taste all kinds, but I could not go past two chapters. Of course, my opinion does not matter too much because I am jsut another reader.
    What I understood from my experience is that I don't think, these type of so-called non-pretentious books are not really going to wipe out the pretentious ones in a hurry. The readers who always read, will just add some more to their menu, the once who never did might get lured by the price tag and the 'movie-type' picturisations to become readers.
    Hopefully. :)

  38. Falstaff :

    Thanks for the reference to Pynchon. Just managed to order a copy of Gravity's Rainbow.

    I do not disagree with what you say. However, there are a couple of points that I would like to make, if I may :-

    ... is clearly interested in how he says things, not just in what he says

    I would argue that there is a sub-set of the 'serious reader' who might contend otherwise - whether a particular writer, inconsequential of 'literary' skills ( assumedly the 'how' ), has anything to say, after all.
    { I personally felt that Roth had exhausted all that he wished to / could explore with the publication of Goodbye Columbus, Portnoy's Complaint & Deception. The rest, including The Professor of Desire could be likened to typically 'popular' ( and hence, by implication, non-literary ) re-working of the same old themes of personal angst and identity. }

    ...any assessment of a work of art is necessarily subjective ...

    I would merely indicate that this could be extended to say that any assessment is necessarily subjective, which, however, is not necessarily a bad thing.

  39. Found this interesting ...

  40. KK: You're welcome. Hope you enjoy it.

    On Roth: I have to say I disagree with the article you link to - saying that "Roth doesn't even attempt the beautiful turns, the sparkling observations, the sharp-edged parentheticals that characterize a typical John Updike sentence" is nonsense - you have only to read a chapter or two of, say, American Pastoral to see the intensity of verbal inventiveness that Roth brings to his writing - sure, he spends a lot of time ranting, but his rants are scathing and hilarious and the plots underlying them simply delicious with irony.

    It's certainly true that Roth's universe is a limited one. But why does it need to be anything but? Are we now going to diss Faulkner because all of his novels are about the South, most of them set in one fictional county? The article you point to says: "I just can't abide by the current meme that calls him a relevant spokesperson for our current time". I agree with that, and am certainly not claiming that reading Roth will offer you grand insights into American Judaism. But it's unfair to criticise a writer by attaching a label to him and then blaming him for not living up to it.
    Roth may not be America's most profound cultural critic, but in my opinion he's one of the most lively and delightful writers around.

    Oh, and certainly there are a bunch of Roth books, especially from his middle period that are less than memorable. The Great American Novel, for instance, or My Life as a Man, or some of the Zuckerman books. And yes, the Breast is a one joke book. But what about Sabbath's Theatre? What about the Counterlife? What about Patrimony? What about Operation Shylock? What about American Pastoral? it's hard for me to believe that you think these are the works of a writer who's exhausted all he had to give.

  41. Anirudh: I actually enjoyed ASB (though I skipped several pages/chapters). Its not that badly written relative to FPS or something (Vikram Seth doesn't write fantastically badly). But I found the writing inauthentic - like a Vasant Vihar Stephenian trying to write about people in a Punjabi Bagh household. Not his finest work.


  42. Anirudh: as you might know from my previous writings, I'm not all that good at "taking a stand" - much prefer to be the fence-sitter. (And here I was thinking that was my special appeal, in a world where everyone else is busy taking stands! Tch...)

    If I were to write a full review of any of these books (which I wouldn't do: none of them interested/stimulated me enough), you'd see some "highly critical" writing there. But for the purposes of this story, it was more important to examine a certain trend with tolerance, and to try and understand it, rather than to take the easy way out by being contemptuous and dismissive.

    Falstaff: thanks for the loonngg comment is all I can work up the energy to say at this point.

    I would merely indicate that this could be extended to say that any assessment is necessarily subjective, which, however, is not necessarily a bad thing.

    KK: not necessarily a bad thing? I'd say it's a very good thing (life's rich pageant and all that) though it does tend to make life very complicated. So much opinion pornography.

    Btw, I'm glad that someone else bothered to mention that any assessment is necessarily subjective, since usually I'm the only one croaking that line...

  43. If there's space in the market for it (and I'm sure there is), why not? A bit of choice never harmed anyone.

  44. *grin* Good to finally read this after talking so much about it. :)

    -Aishwarya, who cannot be bothered to sign in.

  45. Psst...saw you in We the People. Unless I missed a scene (I went to pee a couple of times), you spoke just once, for about 23 seconds.
    Okay, I didn't count, but, hey, you get the point, right?
    Anyway, here's the real point: Why? Why come in a show when you know, all you'll get is 23 seconds, or such, of fame? Specially considering your blog is so goddamn interesting.

    A fan

  46. Anon: I spoke on the show twice, and the first time was slightly edited (nothing major though). I should have avoided going, not because it was just 23 seconds but because I'm uncomfortable with TV cameras and find it difficult to capsule my thoughts about a large and complex subject in a single glib sound-byte.

    It definitely wasn’t done "for fame", btw. I’ve been called around 7-8 times for such shows (or for a one-on-one interview), mostly to do with blogging or literary stories – but this was only the second time I said yes.

  47. As an ex IITian I can safely state that many ex IITians do not intend to read Chetan Bhagat.

    I don't think I have a problem with clichéd Ladka Lit or its success, its a genre, some people (inexplicably!) like it and read it, period. If its the future of Indian English literature, that too is not different from trends elsewhere where badly written lite lit abounds. It only suggests that there is a big enough English educated middle class that requires simplistic reflections of its life/reality. Further, I don't think it has pretensions to be anything else unlike our more literary stars. And here I do think there is a quality problem with at least some of IW in E - and lets face it, a number of Indian writers did get published because India is "in" the way Latin American or eastern European literature was awhile ago. Example: Seth himself can be tres facile in his writing, opinion is divided on Kiran Desai and Amitav Ghosh writes badly written books like The Glass Palace and so on. I can't see the next Nobel (inaccurate barometer though it may be of literary worth) going to an Indian author.....

  48. Timezone was lightweight crap of the NRI comedy movie genre. Strictly C-grade sitcom. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

  49. Hi,your blog was a revelation.I'm writing a book too. And, your views have given me a new perspective. Thanks

  50. Hi. Discovered your blog today. Read some half a dozen pieces . Plan to wade thru' all your stuff. I'm a huge book buff, been reading since age 8--and that was long back!I'm an Eng Lit post grad who has taught school for a few years.

    My young adult daughter got a couple of these lite-lit Indian publications as b'day presents. I also picked up two more from my Local lender.My conclusion is --they tell stories in lite-movie style, and that's about it.The language does not move you, there is no evocative turn of phrase, nothing I would not down as a an interesting quote.

    'Anything for you Ma'am'& That Thing Called Love-- these books are particularly shoddy as regards language and style.

    I'm not looking down on these books. Simply an observation that their writers have tales to tell and they are doing so.Good for the publishing business which has so far made money only through'computer' books and guides.

  51. Maybe That Thing called Love will win the bad sex in fiction award quite like Bunker 13

  52. Avdi: very doubtful. You need to be a much higher-profile novel to win a prize that prestigious. Also, the bad sex award usually goes to a book that has at least some redemptive value (so that the bad sex writing really stands out, so to speak, from the rest of the book!).

  53. Well the end of pretension isn't yet in sight. There is a lot of mutual back scratching that takes place amongst authors and critics. David D's 'House of Blue Mangoes' comes to mind. I spent good money on that unreadable tome. When I realized the Author was being lavished because he was some Big Fish in Penguin Publishers it was too late. My money was gone and the reviewers I read had let me down.