Monday, March 02, 2009

More on the mass-market writers

[Did this for Biblio]

Personal experience tells me that if you’ve built up a reputation as a “serious literary critic” – even if it was entirely unsolicited and you’re not comfortable with the label – the best way to lose credibility is to write something faintly complimentary about Chetan Bhagat. This doesn’t mean proclaiming that his books are great, or even good, works of literature. All you need to do is to be less than sneeringly contemptuous. Write a blog post cautiously suggesting that Bhagat is a decent storyteller, that he knows his readership very well and is good at creating a comfort zone for them, and within minutes the angry comments will flow in. Here, from my blog, is one of the more restrained ones:

“This assertion that CB is a good storyteller is a common excuse that reviewers make when they discuss such low-brow crap. But story telling is meant for children, not for adult readers and certainly not for critics whose job should be to help other readers make an enlightened choice and to serve the cause of literature.”

Now of course, critics have a responsibility to literature. Equally important, they have a responsibility to themselves; to express their honest feelings about a work as articulately as possible – preferably backed with knowledge and context – and to understand that these feelings reflect their own distinct backgrounds, experiences and biases and mustn’t be taken as the final word on anything. But as Bhagat himself puts it, “If you’re a critic with a professional interest in what’s happening in the world of literature, you also owe it to yourself to be aware of how different types of writing connects for different people.”

And this is a man who knows a thing or two about connecting with his readers. In a world far removed from highbrow Internet literary discussions, the Chetan Bhagat session at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January this year was a huge, unqualified success that ended with the author being mobbed by autograph-seekers outside the hall. Throughout the session Bhagat showed his talent for bonding with the audience in his earthy, unpretentious style. They hung on to every word, applauded enthusiastically when he said things like “Love comes first. If there’s a book priced at Rs 500 and you can have a meal with your girlfriend for that money instead, that’s what you should do – unless it’s a book about how to get new girlfriends!” They shyly ventured suggestions on how he could improve his books – and no, the suggestions weren’t that the writing should be more literary; instead, they wanted him to remove the “bad language” and the passages about pre-marital sex, which made their middle-class parents uncomfortable.

“Critics think my books are so safe, that they don’t challenge anyone at all,” Bhagat said to me afterwards, “but as you can see, these books often shock the small-town people who are their primary readers. Whether you like it or not, you have to take into account the responses and feelings of even the most inexperienced readers.” What he’s essentially saying is that there are many different levels at which people in this country engage with the English language, many hierarchies of reading and writing; and that most literary critics only seem to care about the topmost rung of sophisticated readers.

Whatever you think of Bhagat’s books, his success provides valuable insight into the needs and aspirations of a large base of readers whose engagement with literature is still at a grassroots level. This is what the Chetan Bhagat phenomenon has been about, ever since his first novel Five Point Someone, strategically priced at just Rs 95, sold lakhs of copies in a market where you don’t need to reach even the 10,000-mark to qualify as a bestseller. The book’s success helped open the floodgates for a new movement in Indian writing in English. An increasing number of writers are now reaching out to the “casual reader” – someone who wouldn’t normally list reading among his hobbies but who might pick up a cheaply priced novel because his friends have been talking about it; someone who prefers conversational prose and easily recognizable stories and settings to the rigours of literary fiction. After all, this type of writing isn’t about opening the reader’s mind to new worlds and ideas, which has traditionally been one of the functions of good literature; it’s about reinforcing everything you already know about the world and your place in it, seeking comfort in the fact that there are others who have experienced the same things you have. (Many of Bhagat’s readers are youngsters who have studied in IIT or worked in a call centre, which are things he’s written about. Many of his other readers are people who aspire towards those experiences.) Other writers have been quick to follow this trend, and their books invite different classifications (“Campus Novel”, “Chick Lit”, “Lad Lit”), but they are really all about giving casual readers something they can relate to. As Abhijit Bhaduri, the author of the “MBA novels” Mediocre but Arrogant and Married but Available puts it, “I chose a business-school setting because I was familiar with it and no other story had an Indian business school as a backdrop. The characters are all archetypal – people every batch can identify with. One simply had to spin a story around it.”

“What we’re seeing,” says Neelesh Misra, whose Once Upon a Timezone was about a call-centre employee’s long-distance relationship with a US-based journalist, “is the end of pretension for the publishing industry.” But there’s a pretension of a different sort on view now, accompanied by inverse snobbery: the eagerness to take potshots at “serious writers”, the self-serving assumption that any writer who uses descriptive prose and trades in complex ideas must be a “pseudo-intellectual” catering to the demands of the West. “I can’t understand why anyone would write an 800-page novel or spend six years working on one book,” Tushar Raheja, author of Anything for You, Ma’am: An IITian’s Love Story, wondered aloud to me once. “My life has been so eventful that I can easily write 50 books based on my experiences.” It might bear mentioning that Raheja was all of 22 years old at the time and that his book (the second paragraph of which began with the sentence “So ya, returning to the point”) supplied little evidence of an “eventful life” other than what its title suggests.

Amidst all this bluster, it’s refreshing to talk to Bhagat, who doesn’t have any delusions about what he’s trying to do: “I’m not pushing myself in a literary direction, I’m pushing for reach.” But he does think a great deal about the issues surrounding his writing – about the effect he has on both highbrow critics and inexperienced readers. And though he is known for being unassuming and happy go lucky, he admits to sometimes getting defensive when the criticism becomes too personal. “When you condemn me, you judge my reader,” he says. “Many people don’t understand that my books are read by government-school kids who know they have to learn English if they want to get anywhere in life. My books often provide them with an entry point into that daunting world. They would be scared if they picked up a more literary work and saw intricate sentences in the first paragraph.”

This last remark makes it seem like “mass-market publishing” is only about writing books that are simple, fast-paced reads, but the truth is a little more complicated. There is an army of mass-market writers who use big words and convoluted sentences to impress, in the style of the MBA aspirant who memorizes word-lists for an entrance exam without understanding context, or the thesis writer who uses the thesaurus indiscriminately. The work of these authors gets published – with practically no editing or even copy-editing – by low-investment publishing houses such as Srishti, and some of it makes Bhagat’s novels seem like masterpieces of restraint and subtlety. “No other book will give you as many big words for only a hundred rupees” went a description of Tuhin Sinha's That Thing Called LOVE: An Unusual Romance... and the Mumbai Rain (many of these novels have intriguing sub-heads that will remind you of such Hindi movie titles as Baaz: A Bird in Danger). But ambitiously florid though Sinha’s novel is, its claim is put in the shade by other recent publications like Novoneel Chakraborty's A Thing Beyond Forever, which informs us that its central character has “been taken through a cavalcade of exclusive events”, that she has received “copasetic answers” and that “the brush of her rapturous wishes made a surreal painting of utopia on the canvass of her heart, spraying a déjà senti feeling on her” (sic). Or Pankaj Pandey’s The Saga of LOVE Via Telephone...Tring Tring, which includes gems like “I gradually started spreading my tentacles in love”, “Then, started my saturnine days” and “What will Pankaj do in this perplexed and imbroglio situation?” (sic)

Presumably, the above books are targeted at smart-alecky urban youngsters – the “anyways” generation who are willing to see a book as a fashionable pop commodity and for whom talking the cool talk is more important than an understanding of basic grammar. But then, that’s how large the spectrum of mass-market readership in India is: it includes these city brats as well as the small-town readers who diffidently ask Chetan Bhagat to tone down the gaalis in his books. It includes readers who will never pick up anything other than a Bhagat novel but it also includes at least a few people who will use his books as a stepping stone to more varied reading. Either way, it’s a market that will determine the future of Indian publishing and the literary critic would do well to try and understand it, even if he can’t bring himself to approve of it.

1 comment:

  1. Jai - Excellent post...I was just wondering somebody told me sometime back, the best director is the one who makes the film for himself or for fellow directors. He cited the likes of Luis Bunuel and Satyajit Ray to assert his point. Do we have such writers anymore? Or are they extinct?