"Why do you write?"

(Published in Business Standard, Speaking Volumes, January 02, 2007)

This column is dedicated to all the people who patiently answered the question I asked over and over again in 2006: “So why do you want to be a writer?”

There were so many of them out there. Some had done fruitless rounds of publishers’ offices. Some had been published and watched their dreams die slow deaths as the books drew sparse reviews, a handful of readers, bringing them neither the accolades nor the royalties they had imagined would be their due. Some had always intended to be writers, but had been sidetracked along the way by jobs, rent, families.

Most of them will never finish their books; some will finish the great Indian novel and struggle to find a publisher; only a few will find the satisfaction they’re looking for in the writing life. I wanted to know what made them go on, what they got out of the pursuit of a profession with such high failure rates.

Some offered honest, simple answers. “I love telling stories and having stories told to me,” wrote one woman. “It doesn’t matter if I get published or not. I do this for me.” “I read R K Narayan all through childhood and thought I want to write like this, so now I am trying.” “I love writing poetry, even if it sometimes isn’t so good, for me there is a satisfaction to making something out of words. I am in love with words. Publication [sic] is not that important, if even one or two readers like my poems that is enough.”

These, I think, are the lucky ones, and for them a small prayer: may they never lose the innocent joy in their writing, regardless of whether the work is “good” or “bad”. These are the writers who have not yet lost the pleasure of playing with words, who are still in love with what they do.

Some approached writing in the same way that a previous generation approached the legal profession or a management degree. “Indian literature is selling abroad and so this is a good opportunity for the sharp writer,” wrote one. “There are opportunities,” a young man in his twenties told me, “in so many areas if you position correctly: management fiction like Chetan Bhagat’s books is here to stay, so is chick lit and so many other niche positions. So all you need is some facility with the language, a good attitude to marketing, and you can be a writer.” “If you are lucky, then the pay-off is very high, like book advances and prize money, so it is worth it trying,” wrote one woman disarmingly.

These are the new breed, the ones who represent an India always on the lookout for the right business model, where you can learn how to be a writer in the same way that you can learn how to be a doctor—it’s a question, as an MBA graduate working on his first novel put it, of “acquiring the right skill set”. It’s easy to sneer at them, but I think of the many people in previous generations who never even tried to write because it was not a “respectable” calling. Perhaps they will produce commonplace books; perhaps they will produce the solid stuff—decent biographies, good film books, respectable business books—that any healthy publishing industry needs. And perhaps some of them will sit down to write a formula bestseller and surprise themselves by discovering that they really want to write a different kind of book.

And a few burned with an inner flame. “Sometimes I think I will never write a short story that approaches anything by Chekhov,” wrote a writer who is considered one of the best of his generation of Indians, “and I fall into despair. But I can only write like me; and I cannot help but write. I don’t do it for the money, or for the readers; I do it because I would die if I didn’t. I keep trying. I keep failing. And then to go back to my desk and face the wall and try again, and fail again.”

In 2007, we’ll see all three sorts of writers. The ones who write out of an innocent joy, the ones who write with one eye on the market, and the ones who write because they cannot help it. Readers will reject much of this work, like some of it, and love only a very few, very rare books. But I’m glad they’re out there. All of them.

[Coda: A few months later, I became a publisher, and discovered the slush pile. The rest is silence.]






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