Monday, October 25, 2010

Books Populi: Un-cut (original published in Hindustan Times, 15th Oct 2010)

Books Populi

The sudden boom in trade publishing in India these days has supposedly come about post Chetan Bhagat, thanks to the birth of a new genre of publishing. Call it young adult, college romance, or Bollywood style. But these titles are being churned out faster than popcorns, and sold at an ‘affordable’ price. Mostly, they’re aimed at university students.

Surprisingly enough, the same target audience never finds a three-hundred-rupee pizza ‘ridiculously expensive’, while a thousand-rupee pair of jeans is ‘quite reasonable’. But talk about a good book available for ‘two hundred bucks’, and you’ll see incredulity written all over their faces.

In our time (and that was really not all that long ago), books implied something almost sacrosanct, to be cherished and preserved.

Whereas book trade in India is considered a slow, non-lucrative business, these titles have been selling about forty to fifty thousand copies. A bestselling Rushdie sells about half the number in India. They have created such a storm that even the primary players have had to enter the fray. For the conservative ones, it’s Hobson’s choice – for retailers these days recognise only two kinds of books – the ones that sell, and the ones that don’t.

The young adult fiction trend seems to have altered not just the definition of books, but of creative writing as well. And – it doesn’t stop there. It seems to be redefining English as a language altogether.

An aspiring author mentioned (with some bewilderment) recently that his crime fiction script was turned down by an agent not because his English was awful, but because it was too good. The language wasn’t poetic or ornate; it was simply correct.

‘Too good to sell,’ his agent told him.

Some editorial service agencies have been receiving similar requests: ‘Edit this script the way you need to, but do leave some rough edges in there. Don’t make it into a book that reads too well.’

Hello? Did we hear that right?

The readers have every right to read the genre they wish to read. But why are the gatekeepers of the industry bent upon playing Kalidasa?

Some publishers have adopted the stance that it’s all right not to bother with editing such titles, since Indian audience isn’t discerning anyhow. Their argument is that we are not trying to teach the readers English; we’re simply offering them a story they can relate to.

Is it all right for the publishers aka gatekeepers of the industry to take such a stand?

Next, we just might have our Asha Bosles anointing singers who cannot hum a sa different from a pa as the next musical superstars. Who then fights for sur and taal? Are they also as outdated? Dumped into the bin like correct language and grammatical nuances?

Is it wise to mix up commerce with art? Has commerce become so important that the guardians of the written word are ready to compromise the art?

Like a tea-taster, a true book lover has a sensitive palate too. But today, correct English seems to have shrunk to being the prerogative of a few literary elite – the language Brahmins as it were.

Storytelling is no longer an art. Anybody can be a writer. And, so long as they sell, nobody’s complaining. If this trend is to continue, why should publishers pretend to be publishers at all? They might as well simply turn printers.

Please to be listening, publishers! After all, the whole purpose of book publishing in India is being redundant little by little then, no? It is more better to have authors’ that sell, never mind what their skills might be, is it? They are like – the ‘in-thing’, eh? Their cousin brother's and cousin sister's can keep their proper English to themselves. If someday it returns back, it’s God will. Otherwise, who cares anyways...?



  1. Very relevant post....have tried reading afew of these new fangled books and abhor the idea that they can at all be called books.

    The language changing and adapting itself to the the world is one thing, intentionally dumbing it down is just not on.

  2. Hi Pinku,

    I've done a whole big article on that. Will post it once it's out. :) A lot of professionals in the industry do feel strongly about it. It's madness.

  3. I agree 100%. I've tried reading a couple of recent books, both best-sellers and highly recommended by peers. Sorry to say, found little satisfaction in them.

    So far, I had thought that problem must be with me. I thought that perhaps my own tastes are too old-fashioned. Well, being old-fashioned maybe okay in a reader, but definitely not in a writer, it seems.

  4. The dumbing down of language is all about money. Most of the big publishers buy what they think will sell the best, then they spend all their advertising dollars promoting these books. It's all about the hype and so often we lovers of books fall for the hype and are disappointed.