Change being a constant, we have been ad nauseam told for some time now that this is the post-CB age, the age of the new writer and the new reader. Commercial fiction has won the day, we are told. Names like Ravinder Singh, Durjoy Datta and Anand Neelakantan are thrown at us. They are writers who write prodigiously and make prodigious amounts of money doing so, we are told. Indeed, we reply, even as we make a mental note to order the new Amitav Ghosh book that is due out next week. Well, even as the world is changing, we are changing too. We no longer head out to bookstores (at least not as often as used to) to browse, we now buy books with the click of a mouse.
However, the nature of this change was brought home forcibly to me a while ago at a well-attended lit fest. One panel pitted (and I use that word advisedly) a well-known and consistently good writer against another whose clutch of fiction has consistently made it to the top of Indian bestseller lists. Despite the best efforts of the moderator, someone who himself straddles the commercial-literary divide quite adroitly, the discussion quickly became a heated argument whether sustained good writing defined good literature. Of course it does, said the good writer. Of course it doesn’t, argued the bestselling writer; who sells the most, wins the day. At some point, the Constant Gardener of Words clenched her teeth and gracefully withdrew from the argument. The portly bestseller writer almost pumped his fists in the air even as he crowed gleefully. I looked about me. The audience was to a man/woman highly entertained. No one was horrified.
Another lit fest, another session and this time I watched Amish effortlessly charming a hall full of people. I did some scouting after the session. Not too many of them were readers; they were religious people, though, who had come to see or hear the man who had written about Shiva and Ram. Some of them would buy one of the Shiva series (just one, they were exercising caution) or the Ramachandra book, they told me. The others laughed at my question. I am not a reader, they said, garv se. And that was that.
Even as publishers are riding the crest of the formidable wave of Indian writing in English or whatever it is called these days, the smaller tsunami of commercial has effortlessly swept literary fiction to the rocky shores of writing. And before you lift a disdainful eyebrow and say something to the tune of `tectonic shift to the mediocre, Chetan Bhagat vs Amit Chaudhuri’, I’d suggest you pause and reflect. Because that old chestnut holds true: Chaudhuri will always have a loyal fan following and it will be the kind Bhagat may never be able to muster. The former`s fans know just what to expect from him, they hold the bar at whatever level it has been set. Bhagat`s humungous fan following, now, are a more fickle lot. They have read him, they know his work but should a Mona Ram or Sunny Shekawat come along with more racy matter, a simpler style and lots of exciting Hinglish swear words, bingo! They will switch loyalties.
And you know what? They have every right to. This lot read what they read for pure entertainment. Tell them books can also educate and they will drawl: yeah right. In their minds, education has to do with a certain Charles (D), William (S) or you know, whatsisname, that fellow who wrote about animals on a farm? Foreigners, see?
So. Shakespeare moved from texts to the park and then, onto Twitter. A new age retelling of Kiran Nagarkar`s Cuckold would run like this: Meerabai`s tale. Told by her husband. Who is not the evil monster he is made out to be. This would fetch you outrage and indignation for your pains, if you are lucky; protest marches and worse if you aren`t lucky. You see, it`s all about bestselling, not about the best.
There is no getting around it. Today India`s bestselling authors may never make it to the Man Booker, the Shakti Bhatt, the Edasseri Award, the DSC (or whatever it is called now) shortlists. But they sell and boy, do they sell. Bestselling has replaced best.
What`s more, the argument is anything but a friendly natter now. I’m not for a moment running down the money angle to writing and publishing books. But does it have to surpass all else?
The commercial successes go about things differently, too. Some self-publish. Others, lacking, in many cases, a PR agent or a publisher willing to throw a wine and cheese launch (if they still do that), set to creating the buzz all by themselves. They flood social media with snapshot of possible book jackets, followed by the final choice. They release pre-launch videos. They post Save- the- Date messages with all the fervour of a glowing bride or groom. They stalk festival organizers, throwing bushels of pleas and prayers at them, the option of a tidy sum of ‘donations’, delectable options like discounted rates on hotel rooms for the delegates at their cousin’s hotel, the works. They send heartrendingly piteous mails to the book section editors of periodicals.
Once the book is launched, they talk up the interest and they do it expertly, wittily, consummately. They tell you the Biggest Author loved it. They tell you CB recommended it to his dance group. They tell you that Odisha filmmaker who makes deep, dark films may option the book. They tell you that book clubs from the Akita prefecture to Binan in the Philippines and Council Bluffs in Iowa held readings of the book. (All foreign cities, see?).
Maybe it works. Maybe a few hundred more of their books sell. Who knows?
Back to you, disdainful reader. Before you consign all these new writings to the dumbed-down heap, you need to pause and reflect. Again. Like Mani Ratnam crossed the divide between arthouse and mainstream cinema, some writers are doing the same in the field of literature, writing good books that sell very well. Writers like Ashok Banker, Anuja Chauhan, Ravi Subramanian, Ashwin Sanghi, Devdutt Pattanaik… the list is an impressively long one.
So, in the end it all boils down to this. Amitav Ghosh or Anuradha Roy will sell, of course they will sell, as long as there are people out there who like a good story well told. But will they trend and keep trending? Doubtful.
And in the meantime, Khushwant Singh`s new (!) books are still appearing with clockwork regularity and what`s more, are selling very well. That`s crossover work for you.