When you pick up the latest book by Roth or Rushdie (or Ghosh or Auster), there’s always that comfort factor of knowing what you’re going to get. The backstory—your admiration for the author’s body of work—is already in place.
If it’s a Cormac McCarthy novel, you know it’s going to be a bleak ride through an even bleaker, poverty-stricken landscape. If it’s Philip Roth, there will always be younger women and sentences sharper than any thought you’ve ever had in your entire life.
If you’re like me, you’ve been tracking the book’s release date, thinking: “What a guy, I can’t believe he’s written his 25th book. What am I doing with my life?”
Love quotient: Rushdie is 10 books old. Bloomberg
And if The New York Times book reviewer gets it before you and trashes it like he did Rushdie’s 2008 release The Enchantress of Florence, it doesn’t really matter. You’re still going to read it to find out a) if it’s actually “a standard kitchy-koo cliffhanger”, b) what’s the Rushdie version of a standard kitchy-koo cliffhanger, c) if you can spot what the reviewer missed.
And even if the new book is unlikely to replace any of your old favourites by the same author, it doesn’t really matter because you’ve been reading him for years, you have a long-term relationship with the gent and hey, you enjoy entering his head and riding the waves of his imagination.
Some writers such as Rohinton Mistry manage to create that comfort zone which comes from reading a writer’s body of work in just three novels.
It’s the same with movies. You know what to expect from an Aamir Khan performance. If you love Steven Spielberg, you’ll happily tag on to his current fascination, even if it’s a giant ape. If you like Anurag Kashyap, you’ve been waiting for this weekend to watch his latest, Gulaal.
Which is what makes new authors/movies so scary and exciting. You never know what you’re going to get.
Prizes for first books are brilliant for the publisher (and maybe for the author too, though then there’s all that performance anxiety when you’re writing your second book), but if you’re a reader, prizes are no guarantee the new author is going to be anything more than a one-night stand.
I never read Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s first book, The Last Song of Dusk, which won a prestigious UK award for debut novels and which made The Times, London, call him the next big thing after Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth, but after reading his second book, The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay (which would also be his last, he said in an interview), I know I’ll never get into bed with him again.
It’s tougher (or easier) to encounter an amazing debut novel these days because everybody’s writing a first book. Hell, even my oldest friend’s husband’s sister who’s a doctor wrote a book recently.
I’ve always believed that everyone has one book within him or her—but creating a body of work is what differentiates the men from the boys. After all, how many authors do you know whose second book ended up being Midnight’s Children?
I just completed Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, a brilliant collection of linked short stories from Pakistan. Author William Dalrymple recently called it a masterpiece. Finally, Dalrymple said, Pakistan had its Midnight’s Children.
But the real excitement of reading Mueenuddin’s book comes with knowing that he’s just getting warmed up. In a recent interview with The New Yorker, he said: “When I began writing the stories, I was very conscious of the fact that I was trying to people a whole world. I wanted to make a large canvas, and the novel that I am writing now will also be part of that canvas. Someday I want to create an entire world.”
Now that’s a man you can have a relationship with.
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