Sunday, June 29, 2008

Perish before you publish

Book industry is now at an all-time low. Real writers have a very tough time publishing their books. In fact, their odds increase everyday with the already dumbed-down publishing houses now targeting the lowest common denominator.

"Publishing is in a well documented state of economic and structural chaos and worried about whether its physical end-product will even exist in the future. In short, it's now dealing with the problems that my own industry - magazines - faced seven years ago. Sadly, the book industry seems to be responding in the same way - by retreating into safe, middle of the road ideas and a particularly stubborn intransigence.

It didn't work for magazines - dumbing down content and aiming for the lowest common denominator didn't boost any existing title's ABC - and it won't work for books either. The good titles that do get published are too often lost in an attempt to make them look unthreateningly "mainstream"."

Read the whole article at Justin Quirk's blog

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

So What if Chetan Bhagat's not a real writer?

Chetan Bhagat’s latest novel – his third in a row – has reportedly sold 5,00,000 copies since its release last month(Over-hype? One source says only 60,000 copies of the book have been printed till now). He’s being touted variously as people’s writer, a publishing phenomenon, and young voice of India. His publisher is now sending boxes of candy to media offices to celebrate the huge success of the book. Chetan, on his part, is taking a well-earned sabbatical before he begins working on his next novel. Meanwhile, the Bollywood has decided to film two of his books.

All very nice for Chetan and his publisher, but many people (even some of his fans) have now started complaining. Here is a list:

 His work lacks literary merit.

 His writing style is clunky.

 He cranks out ‘read and throw’ stuff.

 He has little life-experience.

 His books have silly titles (e.g, Three Mistakes of My Life, One Night@ the Call Centre)

 He has no world-view.

 His social critiquing is random and unfocussed.

 He has chutzpah!

Of course, these things suck. But then people should know Chetan is no real writer. He’s simply a pulp-fictioneer with Luck. How can you expect real writing from him?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Why I'm a Shalom Auslander Fan

The thing is, you get fewer and fewer real writers these days.

I discovered Shalom Auslander quite by chance. Caught in a bad mood, I was frantically browsing the net one day when I stumbled upon his columnA Terrible Experience. I wanted to read just the first paragraph, but I was gripped. It had so much funny kind of punch that I found myself reading through it. And I loved the piece absolutely. Here was a writer who wrote what he exactly wanted to write!

That's how I became his fan.

I like Shalom's attitude, his style. He reminds me of Mark Twain, but only faintly.

Shalom is crazy, intelligent, irreverent, believer, hilarious and gloomy - all at the same time. He does not care about political correctness. He has always something to say, and he says it like it is - without worrying the least about the repercussions. Who would not love such a natural and real writer?

Shalom has a book called Beware of God . All the stories of this book revolve around the idea of God. "I have a 'Beware of Dogs' sign on my house," says he,"I feel the same way about God." If it seems like blasphemy, he does not really mean it. Does he believe in God? "Yes, I do because I want to not," he said in an interview.

"Sadness and tears have never been the goals of my reading, or my writing, and I can't imagine why they would be. I thought that was the goal of the Drudge Report, of the Evening News: “Now With TWICE the Misery.” Murder, war, rape, global warming, global cooling. Then the five-second clip of the squirrel waterskiing. Tears in the writer? Tears in the reader? This is some kind of victory? Catharsis, I know. No amount of dragging a reader over the miserable coals of a writer's miserable imagination can’t be excused by catharsis, by the waterskiing squirrel: The lovers live on, only without legs, a home, or a future. Oh, and she'll get raped. Him, too. But they LIVE, damn it, they LIVE. Mother, father, and children are burned to death in a house fire, but a rat in hole somewhere has learned an important lesson about life. I'm not buying it. I purchase more novels than I can possibly write off as expenses (trust me, I've tried), and put most of them down before I'm a third of the way through. Call it laziness if you like. I call it prudence: I can only kill myself once, and I'd like the book that makes me do so to be really worth it. I've read enough of them through, though, to know that if there's a baby, it will die. If there's a dog, it will be shot. A heart, broken. A family, torn apart. A city, demolished. A tire, flattened. A toe, stubbed. A nail, bent. A cup of tea, spilled. But cathartic, always cathartic."

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A real writer first and foremost

The Wall Street Journal has published an interview - in an odd format, though - with Salman Rushdie. A question and answer format would be more appropriate. In such interviews, we like to read what a writer says -in the exact, unedited version - without any commentary from the interviewer

"There was a number of ways in which such an event could cripple a writer," Mr. Rushdie says of the death sentence that lasted until 1998, when the Iranian government withdrew support for it. "One way was that it would frighten you into innocuousness – that you would suddenly try and avoid writing anything that could in any way upset anyone. Which would essentially mean you couldn't write anything. Or, it could provoke you into vindictive writing. Kind-of revenge fiction. And I thought both of those things would destroy me, because they would turn me into a creature of the attack."

Read the whole interview A Writer, Not a Martyr

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

When J.K.Rowling delivers like a real writer

Let me confess: I've never been able to bring myself to like J.K.Rowling's work. But her background and struggle fascinate me. Below is her Harvard University Convocation address, which I truly liked. Why did'nt she go in for some real writing alongside/instead of her usual, no-brainer stuff? In this speech, she sounded just like a real writer should. Thanks to my friend
V.Ramaswamy, who has an interesting habit of sharing with me whatever he reads and likes

President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents, and, above
all, graduates,

The first thing I would like to say is 'thank you.' Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honour, but the weeks of fear and nausea I've experienced at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and fool myself into believing I am at the world's best-educated Harry Potter convention.

Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing this one, because it turns out that I can't remember a single word she said. This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.

You see? If all you remember in years to come is the 'gay wizard' joke, I've still come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step towards personal improvement.

Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that has expired between that day and this.
I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called 'real life', I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.

These might seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but please bear with me.

Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is a slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that she has become. Half my lifetime ago, I was striking an uneasy balance between the ambition I had for myself, and what those closest to me expected of me.

I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was to write novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that could never pay a mortgage, or secure a pension.

They had hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English Literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern Languages. Hardly had my parents' car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.

I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.

I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you. What is more, I cannot criticise my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticised only by fools.

What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.

At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at university, where I had spent far too long in the coffee bar writing stories, and far too little time at lectures, I had a knack for passing examinations, and that, for years, had been the measure of success in my life and that of my peers.

I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.

However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person's idea of success, so high have you already flown academically.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned.

Given a time machine or a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone's total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

You might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. This revelation came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working in the research department at Amnesty International's headquarters in London.
There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes.

Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to think independently of their government. Visitors to our office included those who had come to give information, or to try and find out what had happened to those they had been forced to leave behind.

I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting him to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.

And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just given him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country's regime, his mother had been seized and executed.

Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.

Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard and read.

And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.

Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people's minds, imagine themselves into other people's places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces can lead to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

What is more, those who choose not to empathise may enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.

One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people's lives simply by existing.

But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people's lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world's only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.

I am nearly finished. I have one last hope for you, which is something that I already had at 21. The friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life. They are my children's godparents, the people to whom I've been able to turn in times of trouble, friends who have been kind enough not to sue me when I've used their names for Death Eaters. At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience of a time that could never come again, and, of course, by the knowledge that we held certain photographic evidence that would be exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for Prime Minister.

So today, I can wish you nothing better than similar friendships. And tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom:

As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.

I wish you all very good lives.

Thank you very much.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Big Events and Real Writers/3

Like all epochal events, Nandigram offers a lot of fodder for a real writer. You may have noticed stories – especially in Bengali for its proximity to the land – centering on it in many literary magazines. I have read some of them, and not all of them are bad. A novel based on the turmoil, again in Bengali, is now in circulation. I don’t want to comment on it because I’ve not read it. But from the hype, it seems like a quick rehash of things you already read in the newspapers.

For real writing, you need a little distance from real time and space. But the thing is, big events are irresistible for writers. Just find out how many novels – even by well-known authors - have appeared on 9/11 and you’ll see most are crap. The sole purpose of the publishers of these books is to quickly cash in on the big event.

Do you see any novel on America’s Iraq war? There has been a crop of non-fiction books on it. But I have yet to come across any story or novel on it. Perhaps some real writer in Iraq is working on it in the solitude of his damaged home amid occasional bomb and mortar bursts.

Can one write a novel simply by visiting the region, and staying a couple of weeks talking to people and getting a feel – otherwise doing research on the subject? This is the standard method for fiction writers today. This is also the reason why you feel bored reading most of the novels in these times. It’s like writing novel with software. How can you expect verve and nuances from a writer who has not lived by and with his subject for long enough? Not even a writing geek is expected to perform it.

So, hopefully, someone some day will come up with a magnum opus based on Nandigram. The big event has thrown a challenge to the powers-that-be. It has sent an alert to those who care about human race and civilization. It may have inspired those in the lower economic stratum of society all across the world. May be it’s a turning point in history, and a harbinger of bigger things to come.

It’s huge challenge for a real writer, and a writing geek to convert all these into his fiction. But then real writing is always a lot of hard work and sweating it out.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Big Events and Real Writers/2

Any epochal event is hot stuff for non-fiction writers, and you find a lot of them come up with tomes, mostly garbage, to cash in quickly on it. Some fiction-writers also would churn out stories/novels in a similar fashion. But they are all hacks, not real writers.

For a real writer, a big event is a boon in that there is enough of material for him to write about. But he’s not a reporter or a media commentator or any such hack. He simply faces it. He watches and feels the churning without being carried away by any emotion. He experiences the place and people reeling under the impact of the event. Now he thinks outside the box and places everything in larger political and economic perspective. Finally, he organizes his storyline and characters with insight and vision. No easy job.

A real writer would never deliver it hot. He has to live with his material for a while before he starts writing. If he tries to make it quick, he might be responsible for a bad book. Remember Maxim Gorky’s Mother? It was a hugely publicized book back then, and many devoured it. But it was propaganda literature, no real novel. No discerning reader would want to read the book now.

A real writer always comes up with original and quality content. The content may be a bit dark, dull at times, even not entertaining enough, but a distilled thing nevertheless bearing the hallmark of an enlightened mind. It’s something edifying, and transcends the reader to a new level.

Take for instance Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. I don’t know how long he had taken to write this novel, but he was definitely seized by the cataclysm of Indo-Pak subcontinent after independence. He got Saleem Sinai to experience all the good, bad and ugly things of the time. It was history, literature and sociology rolled into one. A marvellous book.

Few books can match its real writing.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Big Events and Real Writers/ 1

Epochal events are always the great triggers of real writing. Whether it’s the old “Quite Flows the Don” or the recent “The inheritance of Loss’, you see a common link: both the novels had as their background the events that were convulsing their part of the world. While in Mikhail Sholokhov’s novel, it was the bloody Bolshevik struggle in Russia, Anita Desai’s book had in it India-Nepali insurgency in the mountains.

Sholokov had first-hand, and up-close experience of the Bolshevik war, and he watched the day-to-day happenings with passion and interest. He chronicled these things, and ended up writing a 4-volume classic. Anita felt the pleasure and pinch of the insurgency living through it, and converted her experience into a great novel – with great insight and wisdom.

The point of writing all this is that real writers involve themselves in big events instinctively. What better way to get their material from something that unfurl before them in an inexhaustible fashion!

Now, it’s the age of liberalization. Liberalization, the much-hyped do-gooder to the people, has already proved itself an evil thing across many parts of the world. Millions of people have become poorer and dislocated in its wake. The interesting development is that the victims in different regions have now stood up against the forces of liberalization – the local governments in most cases – in a unique way.

Two names come instantly to my mind: Singur and Nandigram in India. People of Singur provided the first spark. They vehemently protested the forced acquisition of land from the farmers, and refused to part with their land at whatever costs. The government, - a Marxist government at that – cracked down on the people, and grabbed their land without even settling their dues. A motor car company came up soon on the land thus acquired.

In Nandigram, it’s a different story. As if taking a cue from Singur, the people of Nandigram put up a stiff resistance against the government when it tried to grab land for a multinational company. The government’s police force and the goons of the ruling party together let loose an unprecedented terror in the region which culminated in a genocide. The rumble of protests from across the country and the world following the massacre put the government on back foot and forced it to quit its chemical hub plan in Nandigram.

In recent panchayet election, the people of Singur, Nandigram and those places where the government had grabbed land, have routed the Marxists in the first chance. It’s really a body blow to the forces of liberalization.

Is any real writer watching? Or is he already at work?

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