The Unprivate Lives of Authors

(Two linked columns, published in August/ September 2012 in the Business Standard.)

The faint sense that Shashi Tharoor had been cloned by his publishing house last week was inescapable. There was Mr Tharoor at the launch of his own book, Pax Indica; presiding over the launch of Chetan Bhagat’s book; in conversation with several authors, from Shehan Karunatilake to Yasmeen Premji.

Mr Tharoor’s ubiquity is unremarkable. As one of the few genuine literary superstars left from his generation, it would have been far more unusual if he had been restricted to just his own launch. For authors like him, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth and a few others, the relentless publicity blitz is the price they pay in return for the privilege of being left in peace to write for the rest of the year.

And Mr Tharoor’s life in politics has left him better prepared than most for the curious contradiction at the heart of the writer’s life: the necessity of drumming up a public performance from the most private of the arts. Early storytellers were, in truth, performers—the telling of a story was as important as making it up in the first place in the age of the spoken word. But the shift to print changed the nature of authorship. A storyteller had to address his or her audience directly; a writer could, for a brief while, push the book out there and let it do the talking instead.

In 1989, when Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel came out, the book launch hadn’t acquired the ceremonial importance it holds today. A smattering of book discussions at the Sahitya Akademi or the India International Centre offered the humble incentive of chai and biscuits. (The importance of the speaker could be gauged by whether the evening ran to chocolate or jam biscuits rather than plain Glucose or Marie biscoot.) Vikram Seth read to packed halls at JNU, Shashi Tharoor was welcomed at his old college, St Stephen’s, but even when the first few launches began to push authors into the public eye, the five-star hotel launch was a long distance away.

Today’s launches are like the sangeet and the mehendi at weddings: completely inessential and utterly inescapable.Most publishers don’t think launches do anything to promote books, but they can’t stop the practice without upsetting their authors and worse, disturbing the delicate ecology of the literary world, for whom book launches are the equivalent of the coffeehouse adda. Authors may be aware that a book launch, however entertaining and well-executed, is basically a bald call to The Public, asking them to please buy your book, but few would skip the launch all together.

Some do, explaining as I Allan Sealy memorably did, that they would much rather be back home doing the gardening. Sealy did one or two rounds of author interviews, book launches and festivals before retreating to Dehradun where, as he had threatened, he occupies himself with the writing and the gardening, and emerges only rarely into the public eye. But few authors would be comfortable with Sealy’s choice, or as happy to walk away from the limelight. As another writer friend said, only 50 per cent of your work as a writer has to do with the writing. The other 50 per cent is, depending on one’s perspective, about accepting the need to market your book, or about being gracious enough to thank your readers for the time and money they’ve invested in you.

For a lucky few, the public life of a writer doesn’t have to be a burden. The happiest writers seem to be the ones who don’t measure their festival appearances in the number of books sold—the missionary approach to writing, which sees all readers as potential converts. Instead, they see the public life as a necessary balance to the essentially private, solitary, quiet act of writing; the festivals and launches are ways of introducing you to your creative community.

In an essay on Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf reflected how close the other author had come to losing her obscurity—Austen was so close to becoming famous, at the time of her death. “She would have stayed in London, dined out, lunched out, met famous people, made new friends, read, travelled, and carried back to the quiet country cottage a hoard of observations to feast upon at leisure.”

Woolf was not thinking of fame as we define it for writers these days—photographs in the paper, Amazon sales ranks—but as the passport to a life with a broader margin. “Her sense of security,” she writes of Austen, “would have been shaken.” The launches are mere ritual; the real gift that a public life might offer a writer is richer experiences, and a useful sense of uncertainty.

II (published the week after Part One)

Anthony Bourdain’s pastry chef gave the world an immortal line. Adam Real-Last-Name-Unknown, psychotic bread baker, would call Bourdain and random chefs at unexpected hours of the day, and they’d hear a voice rasp: “Feed the bitch! Feed the bitch or she’ll die!”

What he wanted them to do was to maintain his starter for the dough—“a massive, foaming, barely contained heap of fermenting grapes, flour, water, sugar or yeast…” which had to be “fed” with a mix of warm water, fresh flour and yeast at regular intervals. It was a messy, time-consuming, laborious job, and it was mandatory if there was to be any bread at all.

This part of the life of a writer, feeding the bitch, is not something that writers like talking about. It ruins the pleasant myth that books sell themselves, spread from reader to reader without any actual manipulation on the part of the dark forces of the marketplace.

But it’s necessary, even for the recluses, who fall into two camps. Some suffer for their belief that authors are, separated from their writing, inarticulate people best left alone; they retreat into doing just the writing, and are swiftly forgotten—even if their work is important. (Manohar Malgonkar, GV Desani, Aubrey Menen—the list of neglected and now dead writers in India makes for sad reading.)

A few are already celebrities, famous enough to get away with being reclusive, though they bring up the Pynchon Question: if a Pynchon or a Salinger was writing today, would they be able to hold on to their privacy, or would they never have found a publisher at all?

Some writers and artists dissect what the media wants with ruthless clarity, and give it to them. Yoko Ono, on a recent visit to India, gave of her time in 10 minute segments–sliced down to 3-5 minutes in practice. (The best use of that interview was made by the writer and artist Manjula Padmanabhan, who asked to spend five minutes with Yoko Ono in silence.) As Salman Rushdie prepares to release Joseph Anton, the word in the media is that few journalists will get more than 15 minutes of his time, during which they can ask three questions.

This is not arrogance on the part of the writer/ artist, just an acknowledgement of the form that the modern interview has taken. It’s no use complaining that journalists don’t read the book they’re covering; most “interviews”, especially in India, are short space-fillers. That gives the journalist just enough room for three quotes, setting aside the peculiarly human need for the personal, face-to-face meeting.

For writers like Ian McEwan, Rushdie or artists like Yoko Ono, you’d need a Paris Review-length interview to do justice to their long careers. Three questions are enough for most 600-word profiles, even if what’s happening is a simulacrum of an interview—awkward performance art.

If the old-school interview—a conversation, really, a dialogue which assumes give-and-take—survives anywhere, it’s online. There are fewer space constraints, for one. The only sensible way out seems to be for authors to commit a short span of time to the circus, hope to have at least a few interesting encounters, and get back to the desk.

The speed at which India’s reading habits are going online could change that, though. Amazon’s Kindle store in India opened last month, allowing Indian readers to buy books in rupees. Their prices are competitive, and they’re walking into a market that’s already warmed up to buying books (virtual or paper) online, thanks to Flipkart. Many readers—especially business readers—had switched comfortably to reading on their tablets, and the availability of the Kindle makes it likelier that more and more people will read ebooks.

With the growth of online bookstores—and with their ability to create readers’ communities—many writers will be lured by the idea of unfenced conversations with readers. But as writers elsewhere have discovered, there are pitfalls. Some grow addicted to watching their Amazon sales rank swoop or dive; some become obsessed with unfavourable reviews; a few unhappy souls created their own fictitious accounts and praised their books, and were rapidly (and ignominiously) found out.

Amazon might have its hands full with troll wars, too. (A troll is, briefly, someone who posts inflammatory, often bitter or abusive messages online.) Indian trolls are among the worst in the world, and the thought of Chetan Bhagat’s followers battling it out with Ravinder Singh loyalists is curiously dismaying.

The virtue of online bookstores is that they often flag books that might have slipped under the radar, or create loyal communities of readers with similar interests, and it remains to be seen where India’s online reading experience will go. Most authors will have to find a balance between using the Internet to interact directly with readers, and not getting dangerously obsessive about curating their Net presence. In both cases, offline media interviews and online reader communities, less might be more.






2 responses to “The Unprivate Lives of Authors”

  1. madhu trehan Avatar

    love the lin “useful sense of uncertainty”

  2. Rachit Khator Avatar

    Loved the connect of ‘behind the scenes’ of authors lives. I am amazed by your writing technique. Its lucid, effective and important between the lines.

    Keep up the good work.

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