After a recent bout of illness, dear friends, not to talk about many doubts about the novel, I am back to editing Mr. Bandookwala, M.B.A., Harvard. I have made good progress in the past few days. When doubts assail me and I want to flop in front of the television, I think of what I have achieved all these years. Nothing much, except, perhaps, a house of my own and completing my son's engineering studies. I want the novel to be something about me and the way I was.
Is it worth it to write a novel in the environment of today? Is there hope for the novel. Today I observed a man reading a novel in train - an Indian novel - and after two or three minutes he closed the book and put it back in his bag. Are Indian novels that boring? Why don't Indian Writing in English (IWE) grip readers? Why doesn't the reader base grow except for Mr. Bhagat's books? Where are we going wrong?
I will examine some of the issues here:
The Agent Publisher Nexus
Today publishers don't have the time to sift through the thousands of book manuscripts they receive. So they depend of agents to spot talent and recommend their work. Actually, some of these agents aren't great literary scouts. They have either been at the bottom of the corporate pile with a publisher, or, even worse are copyright lawyers who think the money is in 'agenting'. (There may be exceptions, of course, I know of many.) So if you send your hard-worked manuscript to an agent you will be rejected outright because you don't have the standing among your peers, you aren't a pretty woman with drop-dead-picture-perfect looks, you don't have the public relations pizzazz, or worse, you aren't presentable. I once read that if you submit to a foreign agent, the agent checks with friends back in India about you. It's normal for the literary scene to be a bit vitiated in India and, if, suppose, something negative is said by this friend (out of spite, revenge, getting back, backstabbing, all common occurrences), you find no chance of being published.
The Literary Merit Versus Cheap Sensationalism Issue
I have seen lavish coffee table books published on actors. Hagiographies mostly, these are sold to a select audience at a sky-is-the-limit price and the publisher makes a good profit. Nothing about the actor or the social milieu in which he/she worked comes out. Everything is dipped in rose-tinted nostalgia. Do these books serve a purpose? Are they valid as works of literature?
Again a man/woman can sleep with a celebrity and write about it. Publishers will jump at the opportunity to publish it. In fact, I hear, they will even auction for it, promising to pay impossible amounts a la a certain Levinsky. These are the days of "use and throw." These are also the days of "read and throw." Books used to be read and displayed in drawing rooms in my times. They no longer find a place in the glass and chrome houses of today. In fact, a bookshelf doesn't even exist. If this goes on, serious writers of literature would find it hard to be accepted by publishers. And, much of the human condition you would find in Dickens, Austen, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Steinbeck, Hemmingway would be lost to the world. Their loss, not ours (writers').
Self-publishing and E-book Publishing
Well, well, what do we have here? I was offered the option of self-publishing. I will have to buy back around 100 copies of my own book. Why should I buy my own book? It's so humiliating. What will my friends think?
E-book readership has been growing, I hear. But, that's because it is cheap and people do it on impulse. I have seen people with kindle readers and e-book readers in train during the commute. They hold their devices at odd angles and then after a few minutes, close them. Are they too tired? Are their eyes aching? I can read fifty pages of a novel for an hour of commuting time, even if the said book is boring. But these hand-held-device readers can't even go beyond the first few pages. A book is a book, is a book. It can be held any way you like, and still you can read. It can be dog-eared (how can you do that to your e-book). It doesn't need to be plugged and re-charged. It has a sense of wholeness, which e-books can't give. It can be thrown out of the window if it is revolting. Try doing that to you e-book devices.
I don't mean to be pessimistic, but that's how I view the publishing situation. It's something we have brought on ourselves, so we better deal with it.