The BS Column: The evolving Oriental marketplace

(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.

17 comments

  1. For a long time I've thought of a proxy to judge Indian writing – the circulation of India Today magazine. That magazine used to have a circulation of 450,000 in the early 1990s – I don't know what it is now, but beyond half a million? If so, given the price of the magazine, the target audience it focuses on, and the eagerness of a readership to read the magazine, I'd have thought the most an Indian best-seller could aspire for, in terms of sales, is about 50,000 copies. The fact that only a few of the writers Penguin signed up, who reach that targer (Shobha De being one of them) tells us something. However, too many of our writers don't think of that "India Today reader" as the person who wants to read those stories. India Today here is of course, generic; replace it with Outlook, Open, Tehelka, whatever. But if that becomes the focus – and I think in a sense Amit Varma and Chetan Bhagat are trying to do something similar – then there's scope of more ching-ching at the cash register for the writers. Of course, writers don't *have to* opt for that market: writing for a literary audience – smaller, international – is perfectly fine. Rana Dasgupta doesn't write about "India", nor necessarily for an "Indian audience". Amit Chaudhuri may not be necessarily writing for a pan-Indian audience. But they are necessary in the sky of Indian writing. I think the rise of Bhagat, Varma, and other similar writers can only be a good thing, in spreading the engagement with the printed word, and with the tradition of story-telling. Not to belittle either, but think of the Gulshan Nanda phenomenon in Hindi fiction. I recall what Shankar said at the Crossword nominations in Delhi – when he told his publishers about his translations in English and the award and recognition, the Calcutta-based publisher said – but I already sell 200,000 copies of your novels without any fanfare. What that should not lead to, is the crowding out of serious literary fiction. Oddly – and without any rationale to justify it – I don't worry about that; don't see that as happening.Salil

  2. Three things.1. I fully agree with everything you say!2. To your "supporting infrastructure" list, perhaps you can add "basic language skills"? The number of people who write for a living and can put together a grammatical paragraph seems abysmal: just look at the daily newspaper. So putting together a readable novel seems a tall ask. You are one of the very few Indian columnists whose language flows naturally and makes the reader smile: most Indian "humorists" make me cringe.3. Any words for Indian poets?

  3. "writers like Amit Varma now pay attention to the demand from Indian readers that they be entertained, but not condescended to"It's interesting you say that, because I can think of few things more condescending than the attitude that Indian readers aren't sophisticated enough to appreciate or be entertained by fluent prose / subtlety of plot or characterization, and therefore need books that speak to their level – which, it seems to me, is precisely what Bhagat & co. are saying. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any writers who are condescending to their audience. Most writers I know have a clear idea of the kind of work they want and are able to produce and are trying to do the best they can within that. If what they produce happens to match popular taste, so much the better (and if they're smart they'll position this as a 'choice'); but if it doesn't they're reluctant to compromise their craft for the sake of higher sales. As for why we don't have more Chetan Bhagats – I suspect part of the answer is natural monopoly. There are only so many Chetan Bhagats that the market can take (how many books / year does Bhagat's target demographic consume? what proportion of their demand is already being met by Bhagat himself?). It's not like there's been a lack of IIT / IIM types trying to emulate the Bhagat model (full disclosure: I attended an IIM myself), there just haven't been many successful ones, largely, I suspect, because Bhagat, being the first mover, pretty much dominates that segment of the market.

  4. It's interesting you say that, because I can think of few things more condescending than the attitude that Indian readers aren't sophisticated enough…I can think of a few, but let that pass.I think I know what Nilanjana means by "condescending": I see that a lot in Indian children's literature (there's the idea that every story must have a moral, and more often than not it ends up sounding preachy). Nevertheless, I'm sure Nilanjana knows what she's talking about: she's worked in a publishing house and, I'm sure, seen lots of rejected manuscripts.The larger point is not about the condescension or otherwise of the less "literary" Indian writers, but about their existence. And it's not the IIT/IIM types alone (in that category one should also mention Amitabha Bagchi): where are the Sidney Sheldons, Jackie Collinses, Alistair Macleans, Michael Crichtons, and other mass-market writers? Other than a rare Ashok Banker or Shobha De, they don't exist in Indian English writing.Any art form encompasses a spectrum, from the mass-market to the carefully artistic. These need not be exclusive. Rushdie collaborated with Bono. Nigel Kennedy played with The Who. In Indian cinema, we have everything from Adoor to David Dhawan. In Indian music, everything from Daler Mehndi to A R Rahman to U Srinivas to Bhimsen Joshi. In many Indian regional languages, there is a similar spectrum; but not in English.The reason could partly be what you seem to be saying in your post: the Indian English-speaking literati seem to think that mass-market fiction has no right to exist. (If you want an example of condescension, look up reviews of Ashok Banker.) I don't see that attitude in the other arts in India, or in literature abroad.It's not like writing a bestseller is easy. Alistair MacLean couldn't have written "Midnight's Children", but nor could Salman Rushdie have written "The Guns of Navarone". Nor can one judge the value of a book at the time of publication. Lots of older mass-market literature, from Wilkie Collins to Sherlock Holmes to Edgar Wallace's "The Four Just Men", is regarded very seriously today.

  5. Well it is pretty condescending to assume that readers like Bhagat because he's so 'simple', when by simple one means inept. In any case, as a general principle, good writing is easy reading. So in fact, if Bhagat was a more artistic, more powerful, more fluent writer, his books would probably go down a lot easier too. Plus he's not _that_ simple. I think anyone who has the linguistic capacity to read one of his books has the linguistic capacity to read most books. So it's an interesting question, why he stands on his own in terms of readership. I think a big part of the answer might be that his books actually, physically, reach readers that nobody else's do. They're printed in numbers and they're easy to access. Bhagat had the initial, unplanned success with the first book- I guess because IIT was such a uniquely hot topic- and so having once proved his popularity he then received the publishing and marketing backing to capitalize on it. But his start was somewhat flukish and accidental, it isn't a prototype for all Indian English writers. So for the industry as a whole to grow, I'd say publishers have to invest in reaching out to readers _without_ the assurance that they've already got them. (Otherwise, it doesn't matter how good the books are. I saw a nice line by Frank Sinatra, which is interesting for writers and publishers both: 'You can be the most artistically perfect performer in the world, but an audience is like a broad. If you're indifferent- Endsville.') So the condescending assumption also seems dangerous. If Bhagat's sales are proof that readers for Indian English writing do exist, and if you choose to ignore them as the 'dumb' crowd, then not only are you wrong you're also doing yourself no favours.

  6. Thanks for all the comments–every time I've intended to respond, one of you has commented before I could write and usually made the same points.Rahul, that emphasis on language skills is crucial and often overlooked; we have great functional English as a country, but not that many who use English naturally, or who would be comfortable creating a real Indian English–think of how Junot Diaz brings a Dominican flavor into his language without needing to use accents or tortured syntax. Salil, the numbers for bestsellers are interesting: GOST sold about as much as Chetan Bhagat (4 lakh copies over a year), and was perhaps the first real indication of the potential, untapped size of the market. (GOST may have been "literary", Bhagat may be seen as more "mass market", but it's noteworthy to me that they appeal to the same readership–as did, in smaller numbers, Blaft's Tamil Pulp Fiction.)Falstaff, I had grounds for making the remark about the condescension of *some* Indian writers, and I would say most of us who read would recognise that kind of deliberately–or haplessly–pretentious writing. Rahul addressed most of your points better than I could, but my point is that there's a difference between good literary writing–even if it makes the reader work–and pretentious literary writing, and I've seen too much of the latter. Aditya, I wouldn't make the argument that Bhagat appeals to Indian audiences just because he's a "simple" writer. He is easy to read, deliberately so; he uses short sentences that would pass the Flesch-Kincaid Test, he sticks to an easy vocabulary, he has tremendous clarity and his plots are fast-paced and easy to understand. I like a lot of good pulp and mass-market fiction myself, and I don't think any of these qualities are drawbacks in a writer–my quibble with Bhagat is that he could do what he's doing better, with tighter editing. His appeal for many Indian readers, though, comes from the fact that they recognise the world he's set his stories in, they see the resonance with their lives–he's an Indian Jeffrey Archer in embryo. I know readers I'd consider very intelligent who might well read their Vargas Llosas and Toibins, but who'd prefer to read Bhagat over many Indian literary writers, because he guarantees them a good story at the very least, and in their opinion (not always shared by me), Indian writers have failed on this count.I am curious about why there aren't more Bhagats, and I think an interesting pointer is that most of his imitators have been from the IIT-IIM background, not from the Eng Lit background. It's as though we've decided to specialise. Arundhati Roy and Rushdie spawned one school of imitators–most of them not good enough to be published–who tried to write a certain kind of literary novel. Not to diss the IIT-IIM crew, but why don't more aspiring Indian literary writers aspire to be a P D James, or a Stephen King, or an Iain Banks? I wish more writers would find out what it is that they really want to write, rather than let the market dictate it to them, or rather than set their benchmarks by the Booker.

  7. Nilanjana / Rahul: My point is that pretentious literary writing and shoddy popular writing are two sides of the same coin. I agree completely that a book can be both popular and well-written – I'd go so far as to say that it should be – and I think the Bhagat & co. claim to writing for the people, while an extraordinarily clever marketing strategy, ends up shortchanging the average reader by depriving him or her of the full range of what fiction is capable of. If some writers are able to justify their wooden pretentiousness in the name of being literary, Bhagat & co. are complicit in allowing that, because it's in their best interest to spread the notion that literary = inaccessible. And conversely, if Bhagat & co. are getting away with shoddy writing in the name of populism, the fact that so much of literary writing is so wooden is enabling that. So let's not pretend that Bhagat & co. are any less condescending than the pretentious literary writers.On your larger point – I think part of the answer may be that there's little or no home advantage in writing other kinds of fiction. If you're writing a crime thriller or a sci-fi novel I'm not sure you're getting much mileage out of using Indian settings / characters, which means you're effectively competing globally, not locally. And that's obviously a higher bar. So you end up with a lot of writing in the segments of the market that are 'protected' – novels about call centres, and IIT / IIMs and quasi-autobiographical accounts of growing up in small-town India, etc. Basically anything where your only competition is other Indian writers. Which, of course, is also why the writing that does get produced is often so mediocre.

  8. P.S. One other thing – bad / pretentious literary writing is not, by itself, evidence of condescension. That's an unsupported attribution. Are these writers you've seen so much of writing bad pretentious books because they're deliberately trying to condescend to the lay reader, or because they just don't know any better and have neither the judgment to see that they're writing badly nor the talent to fix it? If anything, I would argue the latter is more likely than the former.

  9. Falstaff – I agree with your last point. (Why am I being so agreeable today? Odd.) Pretentiousness isn't condescension. But — this is not really a remark about fiction, I can't think of fiction examples — pretentious people generally do come across as condescending too. Pretentious people, and pretentious writers, are trying to be something that they're not; and they often feel they have to show off their self-perceived superiority.I admit I haven't read Chetan Bhagat, but no doubt his writing is as bad as you say. But is he being deliberately lowbrow, or is he not capable of doing better? I have read Dan Brown and in terms of language he's dreadful — but I don't think he knows to do better. Can crime fiction work with an Indian setting? It worked for HRF Keating, so why not Indian writers? But why should we ask for crime fiction? Why not a potboiler novel based on the standard Bollywood themes — love, class conflicts, parental opposition, all ending well? Why not domestic melodramas like so many TV soaps? Why not science fiction? In fact, all these genres, including crime fiction, exist in regional languages…

  10. Rahul: First, coming across as condescending is not the same thing as being condescending. The former is perception, the latter intent. But that's not the important point. It's quite possible that some of these bad 'pretentious' writers are indeed being condescending. What we can't afford, however, is to let the canard that anyone who tries to write challenging or literary fiction is just trying to be condescending or elitist. I think there's a real danger that all these people who are being brought into the fold of fiction by the Chetan Bhagats of the world are coming away with the impression that fiction is just about easy entertainment and that anyone who tries to challenge the reader in any way is just doing it to show off. That's clearly not true – as Nilanjana says – there's a place for the challenging in literature (whether or not the current crop of Indian writers are meeting that bar) – and I think it's important that new readers realize that fiction can do more than entertain – that it can excite and move and inform. And that writers who try to challenge their readers aren't just doing it to be difficult or condescending, they are doing it (or may be doing it) because they want their readers to have a superior experience. And the question is not can crime fiction work with an Indian setting – obviously, it can. The question is, does the Indian setting add enough for the Indian reader to give a writer a competitive advantage and enable him / her to overcome his / her limitations as a writer. You can get away with a lot if you're writing a coming-of-age-in-smalltown-India story, because you don't have competition. But if you're writing sci fi or crime fiction you're competing with the rest of the world, and that makes things harder. Of course, regional languages don't have that problem.

  11. Falstaff – "What we can't afford, however, is to let the canard that anyone who tries to write challenging or literary fiction is just trying to be condescending or elitist."I don't think anyone is saying that. The claim is that some people are doing that. Being literary doesn't mean being obscure or difficult to read.I think it is condescending to think that people whose first English-language novel is by Chetan Bhagat will naturally assume that his works are the pinnacle of English literature. Many of his readers may not be as comfortable in the language as us, but will read more challenging books as time goes by. If you were learning French, you wouldn't choose Sartre or Houellebecq novels as your first book. But if you choose to start with Simenon's Maigret detective stories, it doesn't mean you will never want to read anything more challenging.Lots of stories other than crime fiction will work better in an Indian setting. Even crime fiction would be more appealing to many Indians if localised, unless it is a purely intellectual whodunit like Agatha Christie (and most crime fiction is not, even in the west). Foreign "competition" sounds an unlikely excuse.

  12. "I don't think anyone is saying that"from India Uncut, August 20th 2009:"The most common mistake an aspiring writer can make is to show off his writing skills. Do not do this. Writing is merely a means to an end: people write to tell stories, express points of view, and so on. It should be as simple as possible. If a reader actually notices your writing and says, ‘Wow, this is so well written,’ then you are not writing well."Amit Varma, the person Nilanjana cites in her article, is on record as saying that any deviation from language that's as simple as possible is 'showing off'. All I'm saying is that's a species of propaganda we need to discredit. Precisely so that the initial interest of people in novels can be transformed into an interest in something more challenging. As for foreign competition being unlikely – you're welcome to your opinion. In the absence of an alternate explanation I'm sticking to the one coherent theory that fits the known facts.

  13. Amit Varma was addressing himself to beginners, and it is entirely sound advice. When you're learning piano you don't start with Rachmaninov. A writer should master the basic language before attempting more florid things. Otherwise one risks ending up like Nirmal Shekar.My alternat explanation for the dearth of Indian popular fiction is simply the dearth of language skills — as I said above.

  14. If being "far closer to the pulse of the Indian reader" is important for a writer then such writers are not so very different from advertising copy writers or those who write ad jingles for a specific target audience in order to make a profit. It's calculated writing that is slick, easy, clever and, of course, very readable. I suspect, however, that both Chetan Bhagat and Amit Varma write the kind of books they write not because they've necessarily calculated the advantages but because that's the only kind of writing they are capable of.

  15. "My alternat explanation for the dearth of Indian popular fiction is simply the dearth of language skills — as I said above." Right. Because the lack of language skills doesn't cause people to self-select out of trying to write literary fiction, but they keep people from trying to write popular fiction; because, presumably, language skills are so much more important in writing crime thrillers. I give up. There's just no point arguing with someone this incapable of basic logic.

  16. By the way, Amit Varma's quote sounded very familiar; googling, I see that many others have said similar things, and I am pretty sure I have seen it in print somewhere.I remember an essay by Isaac Asimov where he compares two styles of writing to "mosaic" and "plate glass". In the former, the writing is beautiful for its own sake, but it is hard to see through it. In the other, the writing is ordinary, but it is easy to understand. Now, I think good writing is about something other than verbal flourishes and opaque metaphors: it is about style, and one can be both clear and elegant. For example, Evelyn Waugh, whose earlier works in particular are masterpieces of verbal economy. (One can also be opaque and ugly. And that is the sin Nilanjana has been complaining about.)Asimov also relates a story from his youth: when he turned in a piece of florid prose to his English professor, the professor asked: "Isaac, do you know how Hemingway wrote 'The sun rose the next morning?'" Asimov said he didn't know. The professor said "Hemingway wrote, 'The sun rose the next morning.'" Asimov got the message. It is a useful message to all beginning writers.

  17. Just saw this. Falstaff, that advice is from an article written not just for beginners, but for children. And Rahul is right, it's hardly a new pov — the likes of Hemingway and Simenon have given pretty much the same advice to aspiring writers. I think it's pretty sound, and I wish more Indian 'literary' writers shared the view that style should be a slave to substance.Btw, I share your condemnation of both pretentious literary writing and shoddy popular writing. I think there's a distinct lack of quality popular writing in India, and I hope novelists like you and me can fill that space. That will render all these arguments moot.

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