Friday, January 6, 2012

In Defence of the ‘Literary Potboiler'

[Published: column:]

While the literary circles in India were still shaking their heads over the recent tidal wave of low-quality fiction in India and the dumbing down of Indian Writing in English to ludicrous levels, lo and behold, publishing circles in the Western world decided to launch a rival to the Man Booker Prize, with the view that ‘Britain’s foremost literary award has dumbed down beyond recognition’, and that it has started putting ‘readability before artistic merit’.

So the concern turns global for those who lament the disappearance of serious literature as part of the changing trends in publishing, not just in India but the world over. But there are two aspects to this. The first is the wave of pulp fiction, especially by young writers, that is sans plot, sans structure or grammar, and available for a song. The second is what one could perhaps term as a ‘literary potboiler’ – well-written but direct rather than oblique/multi-layered/ridden with symbolism, fast-paced rather than meandering, and often linear rather than non.

While I agree that the former category is something lamentable, I have nothing against a ‘literary potboiler’. What could be better than a great story well told and accessible to all? The ALD defines literature as ‘pieces of writing that are valued as works of art, especially novels, plays, and poems’. One, ‘a work of art’ is subjective, to say the least. Two, it doesn’t necessarily have to be esoteric.

Mariam Karim, author of My Little Boat, who has strong views on the subject, says, ‘Literary criticism in IWE has not been developed at all as a discipline. Hardly any collections of critical essays are written. Most reviewers for newspapers and magazines have no background in methodology. They rarely have a developed philosophy of their own, or a reading wide enough to place books in literary contexts. Publishing has become primarily a commerce-driven industry. Erudition is much amiss among editors. The lines between bestsellers and literature have become blurred in IWE. Many authors apparently have "researchers” working for them, to create potboilers. Potboilers sell and can easily be construed as “literature", as discerning literary criticism is almost absent. Many potboilers are focused towards presenting an interesting picture of India to the West, to gain fame and fortune. “Literature” is not a consideration, not even for many writers.’

Agreed. But publishers are hardly the villains. Any business is driven by market forces, and publishers too have to earn their living – as many tend to forget. It is commendable that, in spite of the changing trends and the odds stacked against them, most mainstream publishers have not bent to the pressure and continue to produce high-quality literary writing.

Says Dipika Mukherjee, author of Thunder Demons, ‘I think readers invest their time and money expecting a certain amount of entertainment, and literature also fails when it is too solipsistic or ponderous and simply disengages the reader. Some books fail (for me) not because of "potboiler" issues but larger things. The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini) is a real page turner that keeps a reader engrossed, but at the end caves into a myopic immigrant narrative which sells migration as the panacea for societal evils. I have been deeply impressed with Ghosh's work, and The Hungry Tide is especially good, but The Sea of Poppies just belabours the pidgin voices. Peter Carey, a master literary ventriloquist, was able to carry off such literary ventroliquism in True History of the Kelly Gang, but also faltered a great deal in My Life as a Fake. Also, although The Sea of Poppies is more in the potboiler tradition than his other works, I would hesitate to put any of Ghosh's works in that category. His books tend to be well-researched and multi-layered.’

Serious writing is challenging – both for the writer and the reader. And yet, if it fails to hold the reader’s interest, indeed, what’s the point? In Mark Twin’s own words. ‘A classic is a book which people praise, and don’t read.’ It would be a facile comment if a writer said that it matters not if people don’t buy/read the book, for why does one wish to publish one’s work at all if not to sell and be read?

Perhaps a great story simply and cleverly told works better. What better example of such a rare and fantastic blend can I offer than Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, the winner of the Booker Prize, 2000? Can anyone deny it’s good literature? And, can anyone deny it’s (in a sense) a potboiler?

‘For me, whether a story moves fast or slow, whether it uses suspense or say nostalgia, is only a difference of mood and style, not a difference of depth,’ says Aditya Sudarshan, author of Show Me a Hero and A Nice Quiet Holiday. ‘Often a shallow story will cover up for its emptiness with thrills and shocks, but equally an accretion of detail and supposed subtlety can be ways of avoiding actual storytelling and communication. So I would never judge the literary worth of a book by the genre it belongs to. It all depends on the actual writing.’

Fair enough. And, simultaneously, the reader is just as responsible for what and how much a book offers him/her. As Georg C. Lichtenberg says, ‘A book is a mirror: if an ape looks into it, an apostle is hardly likely to look out.’


  1. there are 'communities of discourse'( overlapping loose assemblages with no sharp boundaries, having common beliefs, interests and styles of expression) . ...I think different writers can address different communities of discourse .

    I love the last quote ---Georg C. Lichtenberg says, ‘A book is a mirror: if an ape looks into it, an apostle is hardly likely to look out.’

  2. Dear Ms. Divya
    I have been reading your posts for some time now and i like them for their being an insider's version of the publishing industry. You tend towards an approach that is problem-solving; for authors, for industry watchers and for general readers. In this post, you have tended to distract from your basic approach. This article moves into a trajectory that confuses instead of entrenching one's self. Whatever be the status of industry, people will read, will write and will publish. Whatever be the theoretical appreciation, what makes the world go? Is it the wait of the next classic? Is it the recasting of the scenario where the meaning is under transition? Or something else? You, being a publisher and literary agent, should avoid any kind of blame game. If you are ambiguous, we all are. For god's sake, remain true to the salt.

  3. Hi Sunil,
    Glad that you enjoy the posts.
    I really have no idea what makes you say that. The article explores publishing in the intellectual realm. What's wrong with that? It certainly doesn't 'blame' anyone for anything.
    People are entitled to different views; I'm entitled to mine. And the intelligentsia loves a good debate.I've simply juxtaposed different viewpoints.
    As for 'confusion' or 'ambiguity', I don't see why any should arise. The title of the article is clear enough. :)

  4. Very good read Divya , I enjoyed your potboiler. It's like the Indian writers market is overflowing with a medley of reads, like a pot pouri party!

    So let's pardy, then, Divya!

    Happy New Reads, 365 days!

    Julia Dutta

  5. I thought 'The Blind Assassin' also made interesting experiments with time, and the very process of remembering, and yes, of course, it was a page turner in every way. But reading the diverse views on what makes a potboiler so, was very educative :); all in the end seeming to reiterate the point that regardless of the genre, the reader decides. Which makes it a bit intriguing for the writer - writing because you are moved by your own instincts and relying perhaps on the empathy of an anonymous reader. Writing could be isolating and yet be the intimate of all tasks.

  6. Good article. For me, perhaps the best examples of literary potboilers are Haruki Murakami's works.

  7. Nice article - I agree with Aditya Sudarshan there...