Recently, as the publication of Amish Tripathi’s final installment of the Shiva trilogy spread euphoria among the masses, I happened to read this quaint little grumble by the Scottish writer, A.L. Kennedy (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2013/mar/05/writing-love-money-al-kennedy). With her signature wit, Kennedy takes on what must be one of the most ancient, and by now tedious, questions in literary history. “Why do we write?” she asks. “Why do we choose to work in forms like the short story, the literary novel, the essay, the sonnet—forms which have very little commercial value?”
The short answer, to which Kennedy eventually gets after a delightful anecdotal romp, is love. It’s only love, that most irrational of emotions, that can make people lock themselves up in a room so that they can scribble words onto pages, or type them on a computer screen, in peace, when they could have been doing something far more useful or fun. It helps of course if a bit of money can be made in the process—even writers need to pay bills and, anyway, there should be some compensation for forgoing so much of real life and spending time and energy on making up stories.
It’s quite another thing when money becomes the chief marker of success and critical acclaim. Over the last few years, commercial fiction in India has been on a heady rise. A new generation of writers, who can reduce the aam admi into a puddle of tears (usually of sorrow, followed by joy), has invaded the bestseller lists, much to the horror of the genteel reader of literary books. These young men and women, the “Lo-Cal Literati”, as Sheela Reddy calls them http://outlookindia.com/article.aspx?277582, sell in lakhs, earn staggering advance and royalty figures, and are adored and feted by the public in a way that has so far been the exclusive reserve of filmstars.
In spite of a volley of snarky reviews, repeated expression of shock and awe at the appalling standards of editing, and relentless sniggering at the cheesiness of the subject matter (usually revolving around love, heartbreak, money and matrimony, not necessarily all at once or in that order), these ‘quickies’ remain hot favourites across Middle India. It’s useless to fret over why and how these books manage to have the kind of impact they do on the masses. More worrying perhaps is the rhetoric that’s used to pitch this genre of writing against the so-called “literary” (read boring) stuff, and vice versa.
There will never be any real winner in this perceived battle between quality and quantity, elitist and egalitarian writers. Books, profound or plebian, will always seek out their own readers. And it’s also no big deal to write for money. For most of his life, Shakespeare wrote out of mercenary reasons—though, of course, we are not talking about anyone remotely Shakespearean in this context. Unfortunately, the real problem starts when sales figures and profit margins begin to connote excellence in people’s mind and are used to undermine everything that so-called “serious” writing stands for.
This fortnightly column, which appears on Mondays, will talk about readers, writers and publishers of the past, present and future.