(Published in the Business Standard, May 7, 2007)
One of the most touching love stories of our times has to be the one between the publishing industry and debutant authors. It isn’t, admittedly, easy on the debutant authors, who can find themselves loved, cherished, seduced and then cast aside on the remainder heap as the industry rushes off in pursuit of the next hot young writer, but it is, as the blurbs have it, A True Heartwarming Love Story.
Editors love debut writers because they come with no history—read no negative sales record or YouTube video clips of the time they barfed on a Nobel Prize winner—and are therefore acceptable to both the marketing and the publicity department. Marketing and publicity departments love debut writers because they rarely read the fine print in contracts. Literary agents love debut writers because a Fresh New Discovery is worth its weight in gold, in terms of the other writers and editors who will then flock to the agent and not argue overmuch over mere trifles like percentage points when it comes to the agent’s cut.
Readers seldom love debut writers, and with good reason. Every literary season brings along a clutch of writers whom you’re supposed to have read. And it’s increasingly hard to tell whether you should read “the new Nabokov” or “the new Rushdie” or even “the new J K Rowlings”. If you add the plethora of helpful forced marriages to this—“the O C meets James Joyce”, “a cross between Jane Eyre and Jane Goodall” etc—it’s hard for the honest reader not to suspect that the really talented, brilliant debut writer is a mythical beast.
This summer, though, four previously unpublished writers restored my faith in the mirage of the truly good debut writer. Five if you count Ambarish Satwik, whose new novel Perineum is a splendidly ribald exploration of “the nether parts of Empire”—for once, the blurb that calls this an “original and brilliant debut” is spot on.
The other four, like Satwik, take established genres and break the mould, which is what makes reading them so much fun.
Yiyun Li learned English for the first time only six years before she wrote a collection of short stories called A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. In the title story, Mr Shi, the father of a young Chinese-American woman, accuses his daughter of talking over the phone with “immodesty”, of laughing “like a prostitute”.
“…We talk in English and it’s easier. I don’t talk well in Chinese,” the young woman replies. “… Baba, if you grew up in a language that you never used to express your feelings, it would be easier to take up another language and talk in that language. It makes you a new person.”
Perhaps the most haunting of Yiyun Li’s characters is a young man hired as an impersonator for the close resemblance he bears to the dictator of that time, but all her characters break down the wall between the old, romantic China and the country of today’s headlines.
Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a much gentler novel. Torday is a fisherman himself, and that knowledge and love of the sport of angling comes through in this whimsical book about a UK government-sponsored project to get salmon running through the waters of Yemen. The project has unexpected, even dark, consequences, but Torday’s kindly vision draws us beyond the expected parodies into trickier spaces.
Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics may be the most consistently incorrectly-shelved book in history since Hunter Thomson made it to the Wildlife section in a few Indian bookstores. It’s a knowing, sassy, irreverent take on the death-onna-campus novel, and is redeemed from an overdose of uber-coolness by the character of its narrator, Blue van Meer. In blurbspeak, cross The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, with its portrait of an obsessive and compelling teacher, with a riveting new-age mystery, add in noir humour, and you have one of the most enjoyable reads of 2007. It brings you all the joys of watching mindless TV soaps from a position of superiority, where you can joke about the silly plot twists and turns while referencing Aeschylus.
Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts initially feels like a mashup of all the clever “missing memory” movies and a literary thriller, until you realize that this debut author is deeply, and obsessively, in love with the trashy B-grade film, Jaws. Hall throws in every David Foster Wallace device ever invented—the clever text-within-text references, the shark created out of lines of type, the throwaway literary allusions. But at its heart, this is a beautifully imagined remake of the film that made us worry about whether we would ever get in, or out, of the water, without hearing that mind-numbing da-da-da-da-da theme. Hall’s bet, in between a moving elegy to love, loss and moving on, is we won’t, and I’m with him.