Commercial success, a diving force for writers today

Wednesday, 14 December 2011 - 2:59pm IST | Place: Bangalore | Agency: DNA
Commercial success, might seem to be the driving factor for today’s young writers. Author Vikram Sampath rues the current trends but is hopeful of a future where books will be written for the sheer love of writing...

I want to write a best-seller,” declared a 20-something wannabe author who called me up for ‘tips’ on how to get published. Having heard this many times in the past from several others, I was neither surprised nor amused but asked this best-seller aspirant, if she had a story in mind for the book which she dreams everyone in India would be buying. “Oh! That is incidental,” she mumbled nonchalantly, “I will just read what is selling currently and cull out something from them all.” Ok! Now, THIS certainly shocked me!

Welcome to the world of the authors of youngistan! Becoming an author has never been this easy in a world where blogs transform into books overnight. It is within everyone’s reach and the awe associated with being a writer has suddenly been stripped off. In the process story lines, themes, fleshing out realistic characters, research, reading classics and soaking in—everything can be given short shrift. What ultimately matters is how many copies sold, who launched your book and did the ubiquitous media cover the event!

I was to realise in the course of my conversation with this budding genius that she was not keen on knowing the secrets of the publishing world from me but how to “handle the media” and “which event management company to hire for arranging the launches.” Speak of worrying about your child’s post-grad degree even before it is conceived?

“I want to beat Chetan Bhagat’s record!” screeched another hopeful in his conversation with me. At the risk of supreme generalisation, the aspiration of several, if not all, budding authors is precisely this — emulate Mr Bhagat. I really have nothing against this man who is being touted as a ‘publishing phenomenon’ and frankly think my fellow-authors who love to bitch about him in all Lit Fests and social gatherings are plain jealous of his monetary success.

But the greatest disservice that I feel he has done to Indian writing is in creating this vast pool of youngsters who want to be like him! Making the lowest common denominator as an aspirational benchmark for both writers and readers not only feeds, but also celebrates mediocrity! No surprise then that a very eminent and erudite author in his ‘diplomatic’ review of Chetan’s latest book commented tongue-in-cheek that while his style might be ‘pedestrian,’ ‘careless’ and ‘awkward’, the author’s ‘ultimate vindication’ is the number of copies his book sells and hence he must be read! Bananas sell too, I thought! So what is the point?

And thus we have this whole brigade of authors mushrooming everywhere with stories of their days at IIT/IIM, their college romance, teenage romance, school romance, neighbourhood romance and what nots. While this in itself might not be a bad thing and we get to hear new voices, isn’t it a waste of a lot of possible talent, which if channelised better might have given rise to something less puerile? Social media becomes the best tool to market oneself. Overnight fan pages get created, a million ‘Likes’ are supposed to translate to at least a million sales and books are marketed on Facebook even before they are written! Honesty towards one’s work and writing for the sheer joy of it seem like some medieval virtue.

This complete submission to market forces, in what I still consider as an art, is shocking, to say the least. I have often wondered where someone like an R K Narayan, whose works set in mystical Malgudi epitomised the quintessential Indian way of life like no other, would fit in today’s world of chartbusters. I guess his books would not even make it to the top 100!

Speaking of RK Narayan, his ire with Bollywood’s distortion of his novel is legendary. That brings to question the other vexed issue: does our film-world really care a damn for authors and realise or respect the enormous hard work that goes behind a book? In the absence of strict laws, books can happily get plagiarised by filmmakers. As it is authors seldom get their due in terms of financial returns from cinema, even credit is now sought to be taken away. While in the West it is considered a prestige to base one’s film on a work of literature, in India, our film-makers would love to play writers, researchers, historians, thinkers, philosophers, producers and directors — all rolled into one!

The results are there for all to see. Very few films get made based on good works of literature. I have always felt let down by films based on books I have read because the original essence seems lost in most cases. In cinema everything needs to be overemphasised and clarified, while an author enjoys the luxury of subtlety and leaving things open to the readers’ imaginations. The Indian reader too is a complex, heterogeneous species whose tastes are so difficult to predict.

As someone who loves to devour biographies and also loves writing them, I am sometimes saddened that we in India haven’t come of age when it comes to this genre. Biographies, especially of eminences, still run the risk of becoming hagiographies. It is a tough task for a biographer to play a moral eunuch and take a neutral stand vis-a-vis one’s subject whom one begins to fall in love with, in the course of it all. The subject tends to be put on a pedestal and canonised; not viewed as a human being, with faults, warts and all. The Indian apathy for documentation makes lives, especially of characters of the distant past, all the more obscure. Alongside this, the extreme reactions and violent protests that biographies of several historical figures have spawned confirm the belief that we Indians have not yet woken up to this genre.

But I am an optimist. I dream of a tomorrow where young authors would pick up fascinating and non-stereotypical tales from different parts of India. Our country is one of story-tellers and every nook is teeming with fascinating fables waiting to be told. I dream of fantastic bio-pics on celluloid based on these books. I dream of a tomorrow where the word ‘Best-seller’ gets banned and where writers don’t have presumptions of becoming ‘change-agents’ just because someone in a tribal hamlet read their book. I dream of a less market-driven and less media-centric publishing world where writing is a joy, a discovery, an art. I am sure that into that heaven of freedom, my country will awake. Someday!  

Vikram Sampath is the author of My Name is Gauhar Jaan!  and
Splendours Of Royal Mysore: the Untold Story of the Wodeyars

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