“Reading literature and having a damn good time had become quietly but decidedly uncoupled,” writes Lev Grossman in an essay on the rise of the trashy hybrid novel. He could have been writing about India, where the rise of imitation pulp fiction—the Third World version of Eric Segal, not even the Third World version of Stephen King—and the growth of worshippers at the broad church of illiterature is an alarming, but persistent, trend. These are four things I’d love to see changing about the Indian literary scene in the next decade.
The Booker: It’s so tempting to pin the Indian obsession with the Booker on Arundhati Roy, whose win in 1997 for God of Small Things sparked off the great Indian Booker gold rush. (Blaming Arundhati is now a small cottage industry in its own right, so she may as well take the rap for the Booker. It’s a more interesting crime than hating on the US, sympathizing with the Maoists and never writing a sentence if she can get away with a paragraph.)
But the truth is it’s our fault. If we’re losing interest in the Booker this year because Rushdie didn’t make it to the longlist and there isn’t another Indian/ Asian contender, perhaps we need to ask when we became such insular readers. A century ago, the first Indian writers to claim English as one of their own languages read broadly; their imaginations were fired by their counterparts in Russia, Europe and America. A generation ago, Amitav Ghosh chronicled the practice of using the list of Nobel literature laureates as a kind of reader’s guide—a dreary but worthy way of inviting the world onto one’s bookshelves. What we’re seeing today isn’t just a preoccupation with literary success; it’s an unhealthy self-obsession.
Raise the bar already: One of the reasons why the US and much of Europe consistently produce better literary fiction—more interesting debut novels, more polished short story and essay collections, stellar non-fiction—is that it’s not that easy to get published.
About a decade ago, the hegemony of Penguin India in mainstream publishing gave way to intense competition as four or five publishing houses came up in its wake. This should have led to better work, and better edited books, but what it unleashed instead was a flood of superficial writing that might best be called fake literature, as editors struggled to meet their commissioning quotas.
I’m just as guilty as anyone else in publishing; in my stint at a major publishing house, we played the volumes versus quality game, and as with most other houses, quality sometimes lost. It’s time for publishers to start being gatekeepers again, to step away from the mediocre, the easy successes, the frozen-pizza school of writing—easy to sell, easy to consume, of no nutritional value whatsoever.
Missing: the under-40 “bhasha” generation: (I apologise for using the term bhasha to indicate Indian writers working in languages other than English—it’s terrible but useful shorthand.) Indian writing in English currently suffers from an imbalance—a flurry of literary prizes, the most recent being the Hindu Literary Review prize—without sufficient infrastructure in the way of creative writing courses and writing residencies.
Consider the wealth of Indian languages outside the narrow bandwidth of English—and consider the fact that the two most prominent literary prizes, the Sahitya Akademi awards and the Jnanpith, are reserved for writers in the autumn of their lives. When Ravindra Kelekar received his Jnanpith this week, he spoke of the neglect of Indian-language literature, and of his sense that English crowded out the rest. But in all these decades of complaining about the imbalance, the bhasha literary establishment has done little to encourage young writers, to offer them the early recognition and wider readership that a good first book prize could bring in its wake.
The invisible India: One of the annoying side-effects of living in a world where English is the link language, and where your publishing souks are based in the West, is living with the fact that every now and then, the UK and the US media will discover the obvious.
The success of the Bengali writer Sankar in translation a few years ago offered readers outside India a tiny sliver of what they were missing by reading only Indian writing in English, not Indian writing in translation—akin to reading only Portuguese literature and assuming it stands for all of European literature. It’s been a long time since Adil Jussawalla’s monumental anthology, New Writing in India, or Amit Chaudhuri’s Picador anthology of Indian writing—an updated anthology of Indian writing is overdue.
This year has seen the discovery by the UK media of Dalit writing, and perhaps similar discoveries, even if they seem obvious to those of us who live and work here, will open up the invisible India for the West. If Indian publishers were able to sponsor and aggressively market really good translations, they could change the game.
(Published in the Business Standard, August 2010)