Friday, January 19, 2007

Jai Arjun Singh writes in Man's World (January 2007 )

Jai Arjun Singh's blog posts this piece written for the magazine Man's World
January 2007

Posted below is a feature I did for the latest issue of Man’s World magazine. It was meant to be about books that are commonly classified as “lad lit”, but a related story that I find much more interesting (and which I’ve incorporated here) is the number of writers who are targeting the mass market – reaching out to the kind of reader who might pick up a cheaply priced novel because of the easily relatable characters and settings in it. The attitudes of some of these writers are very revealing. There’s plenty of inverse snobbery, for instance: the assumption that “literary” must necessarily be synonymous with “pretentious”, and that the best reason (the only reason?) to write a book is to sell thousands of copies and become famous quickly. I couldn’t help thinking about my recent interviews with Vikram Chandra and Raj Kamal Jha: Chandra saying he would be pleased if his book found just one reader with the “same heart”, Jha saying he felt lucky if 4-5 people appreciated something he had written. The mass-market writers would probably snort at these statements.Working on this story was another reminder that many of us who read/review for a living and move in lit-circles tend to lose sight of the possible directions IWE (Indian writing in English) might take in the next few years. I think there’s scope for more indepth features about the increasing democratisation of Indian publishing.Here’s the story.

‘We can’t do very literary stuff’“What we’re seeing,” says Neelesh Misra, “is the end of pretension for the publishing industry.” The journalist-cum-author is talking about a new movement in Indian writing in English: the growing number of writers who are reaching out to the “casual reader” – that is, someone who prefers easily recognizable stories and settings, and conversational prose, to the rigours of literary fiction. Misra’s own first novel, Once Upon a Timezone, is a case in point. Despite a low-profile launch, it had sold over 8,000 copies as of early December, a very impressive figure for the fiction market in India.“People who didn’t read earlier are picking up books now,” says Misra, “and they want themes and characters they can relate to.” Many urban Indian youngsters should be able to relate to his fast-paced story about Neel Pandey, who dreams of going to the US but ends up working in a Delhi call centre and forming a long-distance relationship with an American journalist.Misra is in his 30s, well-ensconced in his job as a senior editor with the Hindustan Times, and proclaims that he’s “primarily a journalist who also happens to write books” – but his views are shared by a much younger man who hasn’t even embarked on a career yet. Tushar Rahaja, 22, recently graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and the author of Anything for You, Ma’am – An IITian’s Love Story, says he and his friends can’t connect with a lot of contemporary fiction. “I know many people who don’t read simply because they find it very boring,” he says. When Raheja wrote his debut novel, he relied on his visual sense and a flair for recording casual conversations: “I knew I couldn’t do very literary stuff.”This movement away from “literary stuff” is catching on. Traditionally, one of literature’s strong points was supposed to be that it could make you uncomfortable – by opening windows into new worlds, challenging the reader to (at least briefly) understand characters who live and think differently. Much of the new writing on the Indian literary horizon performs the opposite function: it’s about reinforcing what you already know of the world; seeking comfort in the fact that there are others who have experienced the same things you have (even if it’s something as basic as having an argument with a girlfriend at the Barista in Green Park market - you know, the one that's just around the corner from Evergreen?). And as it happens, much of this writing is currently in the form of stories about the lives of confused young men.Dude lit: a facile classificationMany new books deal with the coming-of-age experiences of a male protagonist – the ups and downs in studies, friendships, romance and career. In recent months, apart from Once Upon a Timezone… and Anything for You, Ma’am, there’s been Abhijit Bhaduri’s Mediocre but Arrogant, about a youngster named Abbey who lives and learns in a Jamshedpur management institute in the early 1980s (don’t miss that the book title spells “MBA”) and Tuhin Sinha’s That Thing Called Love (TTCL), centred on the ad-sales manager of a matrimony website and his quest for true love.This commonality has led these books to be classified as “lad lit” or “dude lit”, the Boy’s Own Club riposte to Chick Lit. But the authors themselves resist being slotted. “These are terms propounded by the media,” says Sinha, pointing out that his novel deals with the lives of a motley group of characters, not just one male protagonist. “In a broad sense, I suppose it can be called lad lit. But personally, while writing it, I was least concerned about what category it would fit into.” Besides, he says, the feedback he gets through his website and on email comes from both male and female readers.Chetan Bhagat, whose bestselling Five Point Someone and have been vanguards for the genre, is more aggressive. “Chick lit refers to literature that is read primarily by women. But ‘lad-lit’ is read by men and women both, what is so laddish about it?” he asks. “Some journalists like to slot items into snappy sub-categories, and so do the marketing divisions of publishing companies – that’s how this compartmentalisation happens.”

Abhijit Bhaduri says Mediocre but Arrogant wasn’t written to fit a genre but flowed naturally out of his own experiences as a business-school student. “I wanted to write about the experience of growing up in India in the 1980s and I chose a business-school setting because I was familiar with it.”

Similar sentiments are voiced by Sudeep Chakravarti, whose Tin Fish captured the ethos of Mayo School in the mid-1970s, a milieu the author had experienced firsthand. For all the recent media hype, “lad lit” is simply a jazzed-up term for the good old-fashioned Bildungsroman, which is the sort of book a first-time novelist – still struggling to find a comfort zone in fiction – often writes.Reading is cool. So is writing. But 'serious’ equals ‘pseudo’So while it’s interesting that stories are being told from the young male perspective, the more notable thing about these books is that they constitute a new approach to writing and publishing – one that’s opposed to the idea that reading has to be a solitary habit, confined to a select few. Through pricing strategies and through the accessibility of their writing, these authors are targeting a mass readership and they make no bones about it.A couple of years ago, Rupa & Co’s gambit of pricing Bhagat’s Five Point Someone at Rs 95 famously paid off: in a market where a mere 5,000 sales are enough to classify a novel as a “bestseller”, Five Point Someone sold lakhs of copies. Youngsters who would otherwise never have listed “reading” among their hobbies were buying the book – not just from regular bookstores but even at railway stations and traffic crossings. This is a strategy that other publishers have picked up on. Srishti Publishers has marked Raheja and Sinha’s novels at Rs 100 (in fact they are marked down even further at some bookstores), while Once Upon a TimeZone (HarperCollins India) and Mediocre but Arrogant (Indialog Publications) are both priced at Rs 195 – which is still quite low given their higher production quality and better editing.

“I told my publishers I didn’t want my novel priced at more than Rs 100,” Raheja tells me. Reason? He can’t imagine why someone might want to spend Rs 500 or more on a book “when he can go out with his girlfriend a couple of times and enjoy himself with the same money”. The obvious jokes aside (people who read have time for girlfriends?), this indicates a thought process that’s very different from that of purveyors of literary fiction. It’s the thought process of someone who’s willing to see a book as a pop commodity, something that provides instant gratification the way a quick meal at McDonald’s would – rather than as a pathway to intellectual stimulation. But then “intellectual” is a bad word in these circles anyway – it’s synonymous with “pretentious”, and invariably preceded by “pseudo”. There’s plenty of inverse snobbery on view: the eagerness to take potshots at “serious writers”, the simplistic and self-serving assumption that any writer who uses big words, long sentences and descriptive prose must necessarily be insincere or catering to the demands of the West. The writers who target a mass-readership can’t understand why anyone would be “self-important” enough to write an 800-page tome, or to spend six years working on one book. “My life has been so eventful that I’m sure I can already write 50 books based on my experiences,” says Raheja confidently.

Abhijit Bhaduri and Neelesh Misra are relatively measured in their attitude to literary distinctions. “I want to avoid talking down to readers or getting into fancy descriptions,” says Misra, “but I do think of my work as middlebrow at least. If I write something, it should meet a certain quality requirement.”

Bhaduri, who counts Rohington Mistry and Arundhati Roy among his favourites, says, “The casual, conversational style of writing appeals to a large mass of people, but literary fiction has its own place.”

ConvergenceSignificantly, many of these writers have a strong online presence, with personal websites and blogs that help in promoting their books. “My Ryze page helped spread awareness about TTCL,” says Tuhin Sinha, “When you don’t have a professional PR agency working for you, the Net is the best option.” This medium also helps the writers to bypass the critic (another bad word!) and interact directly with that more important beast – the reader. For as Raheja puts it, “Critics use words that are out of the public domain. They are distanced from what they write about – they don’t know how much effort one puts into writing a book or making a film.”Another interesting thing about this new lot of novels is that many of them are practically ready to be transferred to the big screen. (As a boy tells his girlfriend in Anything for You, Ma’am, “When God is giving us such a good chance to live a movie, why should we despair? Right now it is a perfect script for a masala movie.”) This isn’t surprising, for on the whole these writers have closer ties with Bollywood films than with literature. Sinha, for instance, is a Mumbai-based scriptwriter whose work includes serials like Pyar Ki Kashti Mein. “The scriptwriting experience has helped,” he says. “I’ve been told my book is very visual.”Similarly, Neelesh Misra has written songs for Hindi movies – notably “Jaadu hai nasha hai” from Jism and “Maine dil se kaha…” from Rog – as well as a couple of scripts. His book ends with a very movie-like coda about what eventually happens to the various characters (sample: “Meenal Sharma and Sonia Shah are now India’s first legally married lesbian couple”). And Raheja’s ultimate aim is to make a film and oversee most aspects of the production. “I hate collaboration in art. Ideally I would like to do everything myself.” He draws an imaginary marquee in the air with his hands: “It should say Written by, Directed by and Music by Tushar Raheja.” Chances are that film versions of most of these books will be underway soon – which in turn should open the market even further.

But as Bhaduri says, “Today it’s lad-lit, tomorrow we’ll have teen lit or even kid lit. Eventually it’s all about giving the reader something to identify with.”

Purists and critics will continue to be sceptical about this new writing, but for good or for bad it seems to be working. The coming months should see the playing out of the conflict between mass-market writing and literary fiction, especially if the larger publishers start accepting more manuscripts with an eye on what appeals to the untrained reader.(BOX WITH STORY)

Tempting as it is to put all these books in the same bracket, they do vary in quality. Once Upon a Timezone… and Mediocre but Arrogant are a cut above the others. The former is a good airport read, but it also makes interesting observations about the changing nature of relationships and communication in today’s world – especially in the way the protagonist and his US-based girlfriend become close long-distance despite lying to each other about important things. Bhaduri’s novel (soon to be followed by “MBA” sequels, starting with Married but Available) is well-plotted and benefits from the illustrations, done by the author himself, which are like the doodles you’d see in any college student’s notebook.

On a lower rung in terms of writing quality and production values are Anything for You, Ma’am and That Thing Called Love, both of which are earnest first-time efforts but cringingly awkward in places. When a young couple spends time getting to know each other over coffee in That Thing Called Love, the author notes, “They soon realised that their coffee had been over for sometime. They’d been instead sipping the magic of their interactions.” It’s the sort of amateurishly constructed sentence that one is immediately tempted to condescend on – but then, who is to say there isn’t a market for such writing? This manner of basic, school-level playing around with words is exactly what might appeal to a lovelorn young man who has never read a novel before and casually picks one up at a roadside stall for “timepass”.However, even the most indulgent reader would have to squirm at a sex scene late in the book, when a boy “pulls off a girl’s bra to discover that her lofty boobs did indeed meet the idea he had of them”. (“Lofty” boobs? Really? Where was the editor? But I forget – assembly-line books don’t waste much time on the editorial process.)