(Published in the Business Standard, October 6, 2009)
This is prize season as the winners of both the Booker and the Nobel are to be announced this week. India has a strong, though not entirely healthy, fascination with both the prizes, slightly dimmed this year because we don’t have a horse in the Booker race.
The two hottest contenders for the Booker, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and J M Coetzee’s Summertime, are doing well in bookshops. There’s mild speculation—against long odds—that Mahasweta Debi or Salman Rushdie might get the Nobel nod. But if you ask the average Indian what s/he’s most interested in this week, the answer would be Chetan Bhagat’s 2 States-The Story of a Marriage, already a bestseller before it has reached the bookshops.
There are some interesting factors at work in the current situation. As a country, we suffer from massive performance anxiety on the literary front, as on most other fronts. Each Booker winner of Indian origin is hailed as an A+ on the report card some invisible committee is keeping on us. A Pulitzer win by Jhumpa Lahiri spikes a brief but fading interest in the US literary prize. The presence of a Rushdie or a Mahasweta Debi in the discussion of possible Nobel laureates is a reassuring reminder that we once won the Nobel, courtesy Tagore.
Any discussion on prize-winning books by authors of Indian origin often follows a completely different and parallel track—we applaud their achievements even as we dissect, or ignore, or argue with their work. We compartmentalise our applause as proud Indians; it’s separate from our reaction as Indian readers. Perhaps that’s why many Indians will buy a book such as Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger, feel free to dismiss it or call its authenticity into question—and then buy more copies for friends.
What do we really want to read, though? A Chetan Bhagat who says he’s in the entertainment, not the literary, business, is far closer to the pulse of the Indian reader than his more feted literary peers; and writers like Amit Varma now pay attention to the demand from Indian readers that they be entertained, but not condescended to.
Keep the focus on the marketplace for literature—it’s more powerful than we might wish to acknowledge—rather than writers and writing, and what emerges in the Indian context is wonderfully strange. (This will be a paragraph of broad generalisations; bear with me.)
The working models for publishing have been the European and the US marketplaces—large, beleagured but still vibrant, often closed to authors in translation, attempting to market the products of a glut of writers in both continents. It is fiercely competitive, but hobbled by many imperfections.
Africa and Russia are illustrations of how a dying, or troubled, marketplace has a direct negative effect on literary productivity.
There are fewer Achebes, Soyinkas, Solzhenitsyns and Dostoevskys today, because the markets in both territories have been rocky for the last four to five decades.
Japan and China have thriving internal publishing markets, and both have evolved their own blend of genres and a national literature—hampered by censorship, in China’s case, but still alive.
Both export, so to speak, some of their writers, but most of them have a thriving readership in their home territories and aren’t dependent on the export market.
Australia and India are outliers, comparable in terms of size and historical background of their English-language publishing industries.
India has a thriving but deeply insular smorgasbord of regional markets, where cross-translation exists but is not the norm, and where most writers do not produce works for export. (This doesn’t mean that they don’t produce quality writing. It’s just not export-oriented.)
The Indian market in English-language writing has, as in Australia, produced a few contenders for the Great Novel title, and then got back to the delicate process of evolving a national literature.
Many writers, in both countries, have to balance the need to produce work that’s export-oriented, while still remaining true to their need to tell the stories they find compelling. There isn’t always a market abroad for the latter, and it’s telling that Indian writers feel less pressured to produce the great Indian novel these days. There’s a willingness to experiment within genres, or to tell quieter and apparently less “important” stories.
The real question is not why we haven’t produced more Rushdies, but why we haven’t produced more Chetan Bhagats. The answer might lie in the fact that we’re not just a post-colonial market—we are an evolving, under-developed literary market, where the supporting infrastructure (creative writing courses, literary magazines, demanding editorial standards) is only just coming into being.
We don’t control the international literary markets; we haven’t yet evolved a robust domestic market of our own. Until one or the other of these comes to pass, our writers will continue to write for export, or for a very small, patient audience. And we’ll continue to need the ratification of the odd Booker win and the occasional nod from the Nobel.