The BS Column: Legacy publishing and the new game

(Published in the Business Standard, November 27, 2012)

Pink-Eye of Sauron

There’s a scene in any self-respecting adventure film where the good guys, horribly outnumbered, merge forces to make one last, brave, desperate stand against the arch-villain.

The outcome depends on whether you’re watching Lord of the Rings (good triumphs, the world will not be ruled by a giant conjunctivitis-stricken eye), or A Bridge Too Far (evil has more ammo, sorry). The publishing industry, contemplating another big merger in the wake of the Penguin-Random House merger, hasn’t yet written the end to its own story.

As rumours suggest that HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster might be the next giant conglomerate created by this season’s enthusiasm for mergers, it seems unlikely that any of these partnerships will be enough to take on Amazon. Though the bookselling business is no longer the online retail giant’s mainstay, it is a formidable player, dominating the ebook marketplace and using its massive marketshare to dictate pricing structures.

The Author’s Guild in the US has expressed concerns about whether the mergers will work well for writers. “Survival of the largest appears to be the message here. A mega-publisher would have additional negotiating leverage with the bookselling giants, but that leverage would come at a high cost for the literary market and therefore for readers,” warned Scott Turow, bestselling author and president of the Guild.

The Indian market has been insulated from much of the last decade’s discussion about Amazon’s dominance, but that is likely to change, now that our own ebooks market is opening up, at least in English language publishing. Mergers have had a less direct impact on authors here—one of the few advantages of being in modern-day colonies is that it takes a while for the ripples from the Empire to reach its outposts.

In terms of trade publishing, several international companies (Penguin, Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, Picador, Bloomsbury) are either big players in the Indian market, or have made recent entries. Local publishing houses include Rupa/ Aleph, Roli and Westland among others, not counting academic presses and indies. Most Indian authors writing in English don’t question the importance of the Western marketplace; selling to a publisher in the UK, the US, Canada and Europe is seen as desirable, and in the absence of the necessary infrastructure, few authors consider the possibility of selling their books to the equally large potential markets of, say, China and Russia.

How the new, large conglomerates will fare is a complex question, and the answers will only become apparent over a period of time. But the mergers underline the growing divide between old and new publishing. The differences between the two are sharp, something Indian authors will have to consider over the next few years.

Old publishing has been dependent on bricks-and-mortar bookstores and libraries, and is vulnerable when these either disappear (as in the West) or don’t exist in quantity, as is the case with libraries in countries like India. New publishing, which includes some indie publishers, many science-fiction and genre publishers, and some self-publishers, tends to exploit the versatility of ebooks and understands that we now have at least one generation of readers who have grown up reading on screens, not on the page.

Old publishing used to prioritise authors, and many of the old school publishing firms focused for years on the excellence and high quality of the literature they published. Old publishing has found it increasingly difficult to continue supporting some kinds of writing—non-fiction books that demand long gestation periods, experimental fiction that requires nurturing—given the easy availability of pulp fiction and bestsellers, especially in the self-help, spiritual and religious markets and in romance/ horror fiction.

New publishing doesn’t treat authors as brands so much as it treats them like memes. Self-publishing has a much higher failure rate than conventional publishing does, but it also allows many more authors to get into the publishing game. Every so often, some authors become the literary equivalent of a Gangnam-style video, making it to the top and spawning copycat successes. In both old and new publishing, mid-list authors are unlikely to do well—they are lost on a larger publishing house’s list, and often have to work hard to find their audiences even if they’re being supported by a good genre or indie publisher.

While the challenges ahead of publishers are daunting, especially in terms of handling brutal squeezes on their pricing from large bookstores and retailers including Amazon, many of the other problems publishing faces comes from the industry’s slow, lumbering approach to change.

For authors, the challenge is sharply different. Except for a handful of indie publishing houses, the industry has begun to treat authors, even well-established ones, as content creators rather than creative stars, useful stocks in the publisher or retailer’s portfolio. Google—which has its own, controversial book publishing programme—has an interesting approach, offering authors the ability to curate all of their writings with their new Google Author Rank programme. If authors want visibility, independence and some clout, they’ll have to use tools like these to make their own way.

Journal: Indira Goswami

The Journey, by Indira Goswami:

But my mind was elsewhere and I did not pay any attention to the talks of the guns and terrorists. I was watching the forest flit past outside the car window. I saw the grand veloe trees draped in moss that grew like hair on the legs of long-tailed monkeys. There were many different trees, some with wild creepers twining themselves around trunks of muga silk. Some trees looked like majestic ruins dressed in shimmering gossamer. All around was monochromatic green, ranging from the richly succulent to those that reminded me of puthi, the tiny fish. Some leaves were round, like the heavy silver coins with Queen Victoria emblazoned on them. And the birina trees were smothered in white blossoms that looked like clouds flirting with the earth.

(Indira Goswami, died November 29, 2011)

Journal: Nirad C Chaudhuri

Ian Jack, from the Introduction to Autobiography of an Unknown Indian.

I knew him during his last two decades, as many others knew
him at that time, as a deeply mischievous and superbly entertain-
ing egoist. It is impossible to exaggerate these aspects of his char-
acter, which are also fully present in his writing. The word “ego”
held no shame or fear for him. As he sometimes said, it was the
brute power of his ego that had driven him onwards and upwards.
How else would he have lived so long and productively? His
physique had nothing to do with it. He was always frail, with the
bustling energy of a small bird, and never stood much more than
five feet tall or weighed more than ninety-five pounds. His early
circumstances were not promising. Birth and childhood in an ob-
scure deltaic town in Bengal usually guaranteed the opposite of
Western standards of longevity, nor did they offer any obvious
route to a literary career in the English language. “I am a striking
illustration of the survival of the unfittest,” Chaudhuri would say.
“It comes from self-assertion through writing. Otherwise I should
be dead, or living on a clerk’s pension in some foul Calcutta slum.”

(Nirad C Chaudhuri was born on 23 November, 1897)

The BS Column: Sacco’s wars

(Published in the Business Standard, November 20, 2012)

The @IDFSpokesperson account on Twitter has over 179,091 followers, and is credited with having brought war to social media. Over last week, thousands watched the war unfold in Gaza, tweet by tweet.

Many were horrified at the cold-blooded way in which the Israeli Defence Forces laid out their defence: “Thanks to our followers worldwide for sharing our infographics. Let’s see how many RTs you can get for this one…” One tweet, “Our goal is one: improving the reality of life for Israeli civilians#IsraelUnderFire”, came out the day after photographs were published of a Palestinian family, three children and their mother, killed by Israeli fire.

Both fiction and journalism will attempt, at some point, to make sense of what is playing out in Gaza today, just as novelists and journalists have attempted to make sense of Bosnia, or the Chechen Wars, or a score of other contemporary conflicts. But if there is one contemporary author who has the most useful perspective, the sharpest pen, it would be Joe Sacco.

I was reading his new collection, Journalism, just before Israel began its offensive. Sacco’s early graphic novel, Palestine, was the first in a series of unconventional journalism, where the Maltese-American cartoonist used his pen to capture the stories of those he met, travelling from Gaza to Sarajevo, from Bosnia to Iraq. In the 1990s and most of the 2000s, Sacco’s voice grew stronger as he explored the landscape of conflict, always asking the big, human questions, lingering where a conventional reporter would have got his or her story and left. His graphic novels rank among the greatest literary achievements of the last two decades.

Interviewed by The Believer in 2011, Sacco said: “When you draw, you can always capture… that exact, precise moment when someone’s got the club raised, when someone’s going down. I realize now there’s a lot of power in that… You have to put yourself in everyone’s shoes that you draw, whether it’s a soldier or a civilian.”

As @idfSpokesperson updates their Twitter feed with today’s “game score”, I’m reading Sacco’s Gaza portfolio; bulldozers taking down houses in the Palestinian refugee camp of Rafah, the IDF justifying its home-demolition campaign. His drawings provides the background that is so often missing from the quick news clip, the news journalist’s objective story, and indeed, Sacco questions “objectivity”, in the Manifesto that opens Journalism. “I’ve picked the stories I wanted to tell, and by those selections, my sympathies should be clear,” he writes. “I chiefly concern myself with those who don’t get a hearing, and I don’t feel it is incumbent on me to balance their voices with the well-crafted apologetics of the powerful.”

In story after story, what Sacco brings back to the frame is the humanity of the people he meets. Women in Chechnya, pawns in a game of Hide-the-Refugee, living in disused cowsheds, in still-operating cement plants; the confusion among Iraqis who have signed on to be guardsmen with the Americans, but who can’t understand them; the steady dehumanization of migrants in his native Malta.

When he writes about the Dalits who live in Kushinagar, the Musahars who are “hanging on to the planet by their fingernails”, his outsider’s eyes see everything that Indian insiders have been trained to skip over, the empty chairs that the Dalits won’t sit on in the presence of upper caste visitors or a white man.

Kushinagar ends, like so much of Sacco’s compassionate, self-aware and never self-indulgent journalism, with no resolution. By the end of his time in Kushinagar, he knows as much about the apathy or corruption of the officials of the state and the deeply entrenched divisions of caste in smooth operation, as any journalist or insider to the area could tell you.

In every panel that he draws, Sacco pays particular attention to the faces of the people he speaks to, the people who trust him with their stories, from the displaced refugees simmering in the rage and hopelessness of those for whom there is no place in Malta or in Chechnya.

The Dalits of Kushinagar emerge in his drawings as individuals, not as faceless representations of poverty, and though he never completes his interviews—they are interrupted, he is asked to leave—he attempts to have a conversation that is not an interrogation. In all of his stories, he is there, not intrusive, but not edited out either. “I mean to signal to the reader that journalism is a process with seams and imperfections practiced by a human being—it is not a cold science carried out behind Plexiglas by a robot,” Sacco writes.

In a slightly different context, Janet Malcolm writes of one of the experiences that came her way through her journalism: “ It took me out of a sheltered place and threw me into bracingly icy water. What more could a writer want?” Sacco’s journalism does that for readers, removing them from shelter, and allowing them to take that plunge through his powerful, humane words and images.

Journal: James Tod

From the Introduction to Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan:

Is it to be imagined that a nation so highly civilized as the Hindus, amongst whom the exact sciences flourished in perfection, by whom the fine arts [ix], architecture, sculpture, poetry, music, were not only cultivated, but taught and defined by the nicest and most elaborate rules, were totally unacquainted with the simple art of recording the events of their history, the characters of their princes, and the acts of their reigns ? Where such traces of mind exist, we can hardly believe that there was a want of competent recorders of events, which synchronical authorities tell us were worthy of commemoration. The cities of Hastinapur and Indraprastha, of Anhilwara and Somanatha, the triumphal columns of Delhi and Chitpr, the shrines of Abu and Girnar, the cave-temples of Elephanta and Ellora, are so many attestations of the same fact; nor can we imagine that the age in which these works were erected was without an historian. Yet from the Mahabharata or Great War, to Alexander’s invasion, and from that grand event to the era of Mahmud of Ghazni, scarcely a paragraph of pure native Hindu history (except as before stated) has hitherto been revealed to the curiosity of Western scholars.

(On 18 November 1935, James Tod dies)

Journal: Tahir Shah

From In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams:

The torture room was ready for use. There were harnesses for hanging the prisoners upside down, rows of sharp-edged batons, and smelling salts, used syringes filled with dark liquids and worn leather straps, tourniquets, clamps, pliers, and equipment for smashing the feet. On the floor there was a central drain, and on the walls and every surface, dried blood–plenty of it. I was manacled, hands pushed high up my back, stripped almost naked, with a military-issue blindfold tight over my face. I had been in the torture chamber every night for a week, interrogated hour after hour on why I had come to Pakistan…

…The only hope of staying sane was to think of my life, the life that had become separated from me, and to imagine that I was stepping into it again . . . into the dream that, until so recently, had been my reality.
The white walls of my cell were a kind of silver screen on which I projected the Paradise to which I longed to return. The love for that home and all within washed out the white walls, the blood-graffiti, and the stink of fear. And the more I feared, the more I forced myself to think of my adopted Moroccan home, Dar Khalifa, the Caliph’s House.

(Tahir Shah, born on 16 November, 1966)

The BS column: Anita Desai’s world

(Published in the Business Standard, November 12, 2012)

There is a clear division in the minds of most readers between writers who write guidebook-fiction, and writers who write to understand their world, and end by changing yours.

Fiction-as-guidebook writers are often technically dazzling—Jonathan Lethem, Philip Roth—but in essence, they do not write to understand their world, but to explain it to others. Anita Desai is the other kind of writer, lining up with an Alice Munro or a Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Their books start by exploring what is already familiar, and grow far beyond the bounds of autobiography.

Few writers have come so close to capturing the truth of what it means to live a perfectly ordinary—and implicitly extraordinary—life as Desai has, and few writers have looked as keenly as she has at the human condition. She doesn’t eschew publicity as much as she sidesteps the circus, preferring to get on with her life and her writing rather than go through the performance of being a Writer, unlike so many of her contemporaries.

And that might add an extra layer of warmth when she receives the lifetime achievement award at the Times of India literature festival next month in Bombay: her admirers know more about the work than the writer, a welcome rarity today.

The sweep of the work and its continued power over the decades is dazzling, even when you consider the “23 changes of address” in Anita Desai’s life. The first novel (Cry, The Peacock, 1963) is revealing: a novel ostensibly about marriage follows the protagonist’s flight into madness. Never trust the surface of things in Desai’s fiction; nine-tenths of what is important happens just below.

Bye, Bye Blackbird, often read as a semi-autobiographical immigrant novel, for instance, explores a London “imprinted imperially” on the mind of one character by Dickens and Lamb, Addison and Boswell, who in turn might be seen as yet another brown face in a city of “filthy Asian immigrants”. The Clear Light of Day (1980) was perhaps her last autobiographical novel; while she would continue to return to the past to understand the present, it was the past of fictional strangers that would occupy her most.

Many years ago, I was told that Anita Desai was a “woman’s writer”, a lazy label. In the case of Desai, it meant that she wrote with a deceptive quietness, her prose rich and layered but never flamboyant. Or perhaps it meant that she wrote often about women and families, treating them as subjects of equal seriousness as, say, the changing environment, or the life of a Berlin Jew trying to find a way out of the past into the present in Bombay, or the blurred lines between the truly creative and their accompanists.

Either way, it seems an inadequate label for a writer known for her broad, wide-ranging explorations steered by a subtle mind. In a conversation with her daughter, the novelist Kiran Desai, she says: “My early books belonged to one world. Then the world widened, became more scattered, and dispersed.”

If you had to pick three of her most memorable characters, the breadth of Anita Desai’s world becomes immediately apparent. From the early short stories, there was the accompanist: the tanpura player, always in the background, in thrall to the great musician who is his creative superior. (There’s an echo of the same themes in The Artist of Disappearance, where Prema Joshi believes that “the act of translation” brings her and the author whose work she translates together “as if we were one, two compatible halves of one writer”.)

From the novels of the 1980s steps the refugee figure of Baumgartner, with the habits of a hermit growing upon him as he looks after his cats, far from Berlin, far from the concentration camps, adrift in Bombay and Calcutta. (Animals are a natural part of Desai’s stories, from the cat in Clear Light of Day—“black and bitter at being stranded” in a tree—to the poisoned dog who trails through The Village By The Sea, a canine casualty in a human skirmish, just as much as the landscape might be for another writer.) There were many others, from ordinary, dull, trapped Uma in Fasting, Feasting to Dona Vera, Queen of the Sierra in Mexico in The Zigzag Way. But perhaps the most interesting of them all is the poet Nur, his grandeur crumbling and changing as swiftly as the city of Delhi itself, too drunk to preserve his own legend for posterity.

Some years ago, when Anita Desai’s books were released in new editions, it seemed appropriate that the introductions to them were written by her peers, and by the generation that followed her, from MG Vassanji to Rana Dasgupta. There’s a reason why writers—and anyone who wants to be a writer—reads Desai’s fiction. As a character says in The Museum of Final Journeys in another context, “whole worlds are encrypted here”.

Journal: Mohammed Hanif

From Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes:

Look at the arrangement of fruit salad on my tormentor’s chest, above the left pocket of his uniform shirt, and you can read his whole biography. A faded paratrooper’s badge is the only thing that he had to leave his barracks to earn. The medals in the first row just came and pinned themselves to his chest. He got them because he was there. The Fortieth Independence Day medal. The Squadron Anniversary medal. Today-I-did-not-[expletive] medal. Then the second row, fruits of his own hard labour and leadership. One for organising a squash tournament, another for the great battle that was tree-plantation week. The leader with his mouth to my ear and my mother on his mind has had a freebie to Mecca and is wearing a haj medal, too.
As Obaid used to say, “God’s glory. God’s glory. For every monkey there is a houri.”