Jaya Posts

“Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point” by Gyan Prakash

“The Emergency” in India refers to the controversial nineteen month period from 26 June 1975 to 21 March 1977 when the prime minister Indira Gandhi declared an emergency across the country. It was officially issued by President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed under Article 352 of the Constitution because of the prevailing “internal disturbance”. These Presidential powers conferred upon the prime minister to rule by decree. Elections were suspended. Civil liberties were curbed. The press was censored. Many opponents to the government were imprisoned. Human right violations like the forced mass sterilisation camps organised by the prime minister’s son, Sanjay Gandhi, were held.

Much has been written about the Emergency. Many articles. Many books. Even now testimonies by those who witnessed Emergency are published such as this Scroll article by journalist Kalpana Sharma, ” ‘Himmat’ during the Emergency: When the Press crawled, some refused to even bend” ( 23 June 2015). A few months ago Dayton-Stockton professor of history at Princeton University, Gyan Prakash, wrote Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point. It is an extremely relevant and very readable account of not only the Emergency itself but also contextualising it within the events preceding it immediately and its far reaching consequences such as the rise of Hindutva forces in Indian democracy. The reason for his writing Emergency Chronicles is interesting too as Gyan Prakash witnessed the popular upsurge in August 2011 when he witnessed “a crowd of tens of thousands brave the searing Delhi heat to gather in the Ramlila Maidan, a large ground customarily used for holding religious events and political rallies. Young and old, but mostly young, they came from all over the city and beyond in response to a call by the anti-corruption movement led by another Gandhian activist, seventy-four-year-old Anna Hazare. The atmosphere in the Maidan was festive, the air charged with raw energy and expectations of change.” This event reminded Gyan Prakash of a similar student and youth upsurge organised by Jayaprakash Narayan (JP), veteran freedom fighter and once a close associate of Indira’s father, Jawaharlal Nehru. JP had emerged from political retirement to organise this movement that he called Total Revolution.

In his introduction to the book, Prof. Gyan Prakash writes “Popular activism arises in the tension between these two ends of politics, demanding that the formal institutions of democracy — the elected government, law and the judiciary, press and the public sphere — respond to the people’s voice. The growing tide of such politics forms part of the global history of modernity since the emergence of mass societies and politics around the world beginning in the interwar period. In the present, it continues and is accelerating in the form of populism. This book explores the challenge of popular politics in India’s postcolonial history and studies Indira’s Emergency as a specific even in its broader experience as a democracy. What follows is an Indian story in the global history of democracy’s relationship with popular politics.”

As Mini Kapoor in the Hindu while reviewing the book says, “…this seminal and vivid inquiry, it is not the date of that notice that Prakash questions. The question that animates this book is, to align it to the phrasing of the classified, how dead was democracy during the 21-month-long Emergency? The proclamation had after all been sought and signed, lawfully, under Article 352(1) of the Constitution of India.”

Emergency Chronicles by a historian ensures that there is marshalling of empirical evidence to present a draconian period in modern Indian history. Gyan Prakash also proves that the tools to impose the Emergency already existed enabling the then prime minister to use existing constitutional structures. But with the keen scholarship of a historian he also extends his argument to the present to state that “the Emergency enjoys an afterlife”.

Read Emergency Chronicles.

26 June 2019

Book Post 39: 9 – 22 June 2019

Book Post 39 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.

25 June 2019

Tuesday Reads ( Vol 3), 25 June 2019

Dear Reader,

I have just finished reading Amitav Ghosh’s magnificent novel Gun Island. It is about Dinanath Datta, a rare books seller whose life gets entangled with an ancient legend about the goddess of snakes, Manasa Devi. It is a fascinating story that begins in the Sunderbans to New York to Venice. Gun Island has a fantastic cast of characters but it is also a story very relevant to our times for its focus on the situation of migrants and climate change.

At the New Delhi book launch held on 13 June 2019, India Habitat Centre, Amitav Ghosh was in conversation with Raghu Karnad. It was a very special evening as it occurred two days after the untimely demise of the playwright, Girish Karnad. So the book launch morphed into this public memorial for Girish Karnad too. It began with the new Jnanpith winner Amitav Ghosh’s tribute to another Jnanpith winner Girish Karnad. The conversation began with Raghu Karnad, son of Girish Karnad, saying, “My father was a chronicler of Karnataka and of this country, I consider you to be a chronicler of this planet. Interconnecting the countless parts we are in the midst of but miss. They are forces of language, war, or even eco-system.” These opening remarks triggered off a fascinating conversation about “unlikely coincidences” and “meaningful resonances” that exist between space and time. Also what does it mean to try and rationalise events that defy rationalist thinking but at times it is impossible to do so. A significant proportion of Gun Island dwells upon the global migrant crisis. During the conversation Amitav Ghosh commented that “the central literary question is how do you talk about the slow violence that eats itself into peoples lives and never finds its way into newspapers? In the papers every day there are so many reports about violence but this slow violence does not get attention. We have learned to turn our eyes away from it. The issue is how do we find ourselves back to recognise the violence unfolding around us. Poetry is better able to respond to the catastrophe and cataclysm we see around us. Poetry does not have that commitment. Poetry has always responded to every natural event. You see it in Byron and in pre-modern Indian poetry which is not poetry for the sake of poetry — it is devotional. We have to find ourselves back to that…back to being able to talk about other things apart from us.”

Gun Island is an unputdownable book. It will sell well but more so because of the old fashioned word-of-mouth recommendations. At the book launch there were whispers overheard of Amitav Ghosh probably being a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature in the coming years. Who knows?! But for now it would be interesting to see if this book makes it to the shortlist of the more prominent literary prizes around the world like The Booker Prize. It is certainly a book that cannot be ignored!

Of all the books I read in the past week Gun Island was exceptional.

More anon,

JAYA

25 June 2019

Literary Tube Map of London

In The Book are a children’s book publisher, established in 2017 in Hertfordshire. They are passionate about reading, and getting people excited about books. They believe that novels provide a fantastic way for children to safely explore their imagination, develop their confidence and improve their understanding of different cultures and societies.

In The Book created this Literary Tube Map of London to get people to engage with novels, because they believe that good pieces of literature have a way of painting places like nothing else can. The books featured on this map have been hand-picked because they have an incredible ability of transporting a person to their London settings.

This map shows where your favourite characters made a name for themselves. From the legendary Harry Potter boarding his train to Hogwarts at Kings Cross, to Mary Poppins flying into the Banks’ family home just off the Central Line. You can vividly picture Ebenezer Scrooge skulking home after work through the streets near Monument station, and Sherlock storming out of his address at Baker Street to solve another case – closely followed by faithful Watson.

Fascinating!

20 June 2019

JLF Belfast ( 22 – 23 June 2019)

Teamwork, the producers of Jaipur Literature Festival, create JLF in Belfast or thereabouts from 21-23 June 2019. Jaipur Belfast has announced an exciting programme. These are being organised at two venues: The Lyric Theatre (22 June) and Seamus Heaney Homeplace (23 June). Tickets may be booked at the official website for JLF Belfast.

The curtain raiser for the event was organised on 4 June at the British Council, New Delhi. Speaking at the event Sanjoy Roy, Managing Director, Teamwork Arts said, “This is a living bridge — it’s about people, ideas, sport, books and above all, about literature. Today, dialogue is becoming more and more important. We have to continue what we do best that without political affiliation people come together to discuss and disagree peacefully. In Belfast people wear their wounds on their sleeves much as we Indians wear it.” He expanded on this sentiment in an article for the Irish Times, “Jaipur Literature Festival comes to Belfast: celebrating each other’s stories” ( 7 June 2019)

Namita Gokhale, co-director, JLF, said “JLF Belfast looks at shared histories through themes of identity and selfhood. Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee, Mahatma Gandhi’s granddaughter, discusses the nature of non-violence. We ponder the puzzles of identity, the power of poetry, the mysteries of word, the flavours of Asian cuisine, the future of AI by Marcus du Sautoy. We revisit the poetry of Yeats and Tagore and explore the echoes of each in the other.”

William Dalrymple, co-director, JLF, added that JLF Belfast attempts to look at the scars of these different partitions.

At the curtain raiser a wonderful discussion was organised on Kalidas and Shakespeare. It was moderated by translator Gillian Wright. The panelists included academics Dr R. W. Desai and Prof. Harish Trivedi. Here is the recording I made with Facebook Live.

Meanwhile as the weekend draws near Irish writer Paul McVeigh has been posting fabulous tweets on the prepatory work. Here is a glimpse:

Go for it, people! This sounds like a promising event.

20 June 2019

Tuesday Reads (Vol 2): 18 June 2019

Dear Reader,

Today’s “Tuesday Reads” consists of three books published by indie publishers. The selection by indie publishers is a pure coincidence! The first is a translation of a novel from Hindi into English by Permanent Black; the second is speculative fiction by Blaft Publications and the third is a novel set in a refugee camp by The Indigo Press.

The Girl with Questioning Eyes: A Novel by Neelesh Raghuwanshi is in Hindi ( Ek Kasbe ke Notes) and has been translated by Deepa Jain Singh. It is set in a small town of central India, in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Babli, the narrator, is sixth in a line of nine siblings. The last sibling is the only son. Her father runs a wayside dhaba, a kiosk, selling tea and meals. Her mother stays at home looking after the children. One day while delivering dried cow pats to be used as fuel by her father Babli is waylaid by a well-dressed college teacher to enquire whether the bindi on her forehead is centred correctly or not. This brief encounter on the street leaves a big impact on Babli who is determined to be educated. If she has to dream it is against all odds as given the limited resources of her father as well the virtually nil expectations of a girl child except to get married and have a family of her own, Babli has to be quietly persuasive especially with her father to get permission to study further. Simple luxuries that many children in the urban areas take for granted is really a privilege for girls like Babli in small town India. Meanwhile the position of her father’s dhaba by the main street enables him and thus the reader to witness the hustle-bustle of the town. The local economy is closely interlinked to that of the agricultural cycle. So there are about three months in the year where the town is super busy with the agricultural fair and farmers coming into buy and sell grains, cattle and agricultural equipment.

The Girl with Questioning Eyes: A Novel is about Babli’s family, a microcosm of small-town India — it is a beautiful portrait. The story begins slowly but is soon addictive — it is like watching a soap opera, you want to know what happens next and next although it is about the mundane routine of daily life in a small town in Madhya Pradesh. If you travel in this part of India most people’s lives are closely linked to the agrarian cycle. Also they are not exactly receptive to new ideas. So when Babli after watching her older sisters married off in quick succession, she is determined to improve her prospects by education and not be married of as the only solution to her existence. What emerges is the remarkable Babli who gets a job in the city and thus her financial independence. Admirably she does not distance herself from her simple parents living in the small town as she grows successful in the city. The Girl with Questioning Eyes: A Novel is an absorbing novel.

Portalpettai by Avakkai and Chukka is an illustrated mini-book published by Blaft Publications and it gorgeous! For once it is hard to improve upon the book blurb. So here goes:

Portalpettai is an illustrated mini-book about an interdimensional portal which opens at a women’s college in Uthiramerur, Tamil Nadu. It’s narrated by a former lecturer at the college who has been transformed into a floating jellyfish-like creature with a see-through head.

Portalpettai is a portrait of a diverse South Indian community and its resilience in the face of an alien life force intrusion. It also touches on the subjects of non-baryonic matter, old Tamil film music, and the arcane secrets of mushrooms.

Here is a page from this delightful minibook.

Sulaiman Addonia’s second novel Silence is My Mother Tongue is an extremely moving story set in a refugee camp. It is about Saba and her mute brother Hagos, new arrivals in the camp. They learn to negotiate daily life in the camp despite the constant surveillance from the other refugees, the violence of the British intervention and UN Aid programmes. It is also about the manner in which the siblings negotiate sexuality, sexual violence / predators, rape and homosexuality. More so when their culture denies women their sexuality and rejects homosexuality. Refugee camps are fragile and tenuous reconstructions of society as was known to exist on the “outside” the walls of the camp. But the structure of the novel belies the very structure of this finely crafted society by the refugees that rapidly crumbles with new rules of engagement being established.

Sulaiman Addonia fled Eritrea as a refugee in childhood. He spent his early life in a refugee camp in Sudan following the Om Hajar massacre in 1976, and in his early teens he lived and studied in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He arrived in London as an underage unaccompanied refugee without a word of English and went on to earn an MA in Development Studies from SOAS and a BSc in Economics from UCL. His first novel The Consequences of Love was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and translated into more than twenty languages. Silence is My Mother Tongue has been longlisted for the 2019 Political Fiction Orwell Prize. Sulaiman Addonia currently lives in Brussels where he has launched a creative writing academy for refugees and asylum seekers. There is a moving profile of his in the Guardian which says:

Addonia has not been back to Eritrea, where his mother now lives, since 2005; the country enforces indefinite and compulsory national service, regardless of British citizenship. But this distance may have benefited them both. When The Consequences of Love was published, family friends called his mother and accused him of attacking Islam; she would call him to cry and beg: “Why do you write this? Don’t you want to see me?”

This, he says, is why there has been a decade between his books. “Looking back, I could only call myself a writer when I was ready to lose myself, my family and my friends,” he says. “My mother became a source of censorship and I needed to free myself from her. I wrote this book, but I was also rewritten by it,” he smiles. “And I am completely free.”

Read one or read them all. Time well spent!

JAYA

18 June 2019

An interview with Rebecca Servadio, Literary Scout and Managing Partner, London Literary Scouting

Rebecca Servadio, Literary Scout and Managing Partner, London Literary Scouting is an incredible person to meet, crackling with energy, eyes sparkling and speaking rapidly with not an urgency but because there is so much to share about the world of books. No time to waste. She is a powerhouse who is involved with organisations like PEN, World Without Borders, literary festivals, juror for various publishing awards etc. In 2017 she was recognised as one of the Whitefox “Unsung Heroes of Publishing“. Rebecca works for twenty plus publishing houses around the world, for example Riverhead/PRH in the US, Gallimard in France, Einaudi in Italy, Anagrama in Spain, Hanser in Germany, de Bezige  Bij in Holland as well as working in film/tv and stage where she also works for BBC Film and the National Theatre amongst others. Rebecca and I met when we were a part of the Visiting International Publishers Delegation, Sydney (29 April – 5 May 2019). The following interview was conducted via email.


  1. How and why did you get into publishing?

The truth is that I love to read, I love literature, I love the thrill of losing myself within a book, the immediate travel. Immediately I am somewhere else, outside of my experience, inside the human experience whether it be emotional, intellectual or a page turner. I was and am still interested in people and in storytelling and in community and collaboration of all types and publishing is all these things. Creative with words. Local, particular, challenging, ever evolving, transformative, international – publishing is all those things and each interests me. I was a lawyer before starting to work in publishing and although I learnt both rigour and determination and other life skills that serve me well with my scouting agency, I found myself weighed down by the monotony and intense focus. Publishing is as varied as there are stories and people and I relish the challenge of connecting these two things with good books.

2. Why did you choose to be a literary scout and not a literary agent? What are the differences between a literary scout and a literary agent? Does it help to be multi-lingual as you are?

I think the real answer to that question is that I am interested in where the dots connect up and how you build bridges and connect people and books in different countries. I love building bridges and networks that surprise and so help books to travel and help the publishers that I work with discover and publish the best writing and author. I also like to communicate and talk in different languages and across different languages and different domestic, national and international realities. I read in English and Italian and French. I work closely with Spanish and have readers that read in the Scandinavian languages, German, and Portuguese. I think of scouting as curation, as gate opening, as intelligence, as the signal within the noise and the world is very noisy.

There are many differences between scouting and agenting but the primary one is that an agent represents his or her clients – writers generally speaking and is paid through a commission on the sale deal for the book of the author. An agent is always incentivised and interested to recommend an author (and a particular book) because that is the very nature of their job – their bread and butter consists in selling that authors works and so talking about them in a way that strengthen the hand and the value of the book. A scout on the other hand works for a publisher and helps the publisher navigate the publishing world and marketplace. The scout should be opinionated and recommend the best books for a particular publisher and again enable the publisher and their best interests and so advising against a book is as much part of the job as advising to buy a book more economically or again read/buy something different all together. A scout should never have a commercial incentive or interest to recommend a book to their publisher and their loyalty should always lie with the publisher and not the writer or the agent. A scout should not have a client – publisher house – in their home country and again work exclusively in each country unlike agents. Again agents generally work in one territory and not across territories although this is not true of co-agents or foreign rights agents in house or in agencies. 

3. How and when was London Literary Scouting established? What are the genres you specialise in?

As Literary Scouts we are interested in and engaged with storytelling in all its forms. We look for the best fiction and nonfiction to be published, or published in English, as well as in other major languages, on behalf of our international Publishing Clients as well as for Film, TV and Theatre. Rather than thinking in ‘global’ terms, as London-based scouts we can and do individuate those ‘worldwide voices’ which speak across languages. London is the most international of cities and we read widely and omnivorously. Yes, they might be set in other countries, worlds and cultures, but the challenge is to recognise those singular and particular voices that can cross latitudes and longitudes. Without being defined or pre-occupied by ‘the new’ we help find the authors that will build the bridges to readers today, tomorrow and in the future.

London Literary Scouting was born from a partnership between Koukla MacLehose, Rebecca Servadio and Yolanda Pupo Thompson. Koukla MacLehose founded her eponymous scouting agency in 1987, as the agency grew and flourished in 2012 Koukla founded Koukla MacLehose Associates which then became MacLehose, Servadio and Pupo-Thompson in 2014. We are now known as London Literary Scouting and the agency is led by Rebecca Servadio

We read voraciously and widely. We don’t read academic books nor do we read picture books. We read and have readers who read with us in most of the major languages. We try and find readers on a case by case basis in the other languages.

4. What are the notable successes or even failures of your firm? (There is a learning to be gleaned from every experience!)

I think our successes are all in the breadth of our client list – wonderful publishing houses, the BBC, the National Theatre and production companies and well as the calibre and intelligence and hard work of our team. In terms of books there are many by SAPIENS is one of which I am proud.

5. How important are book fairs, rights tables, and international literature festivals to a literary scout?

Essential. Meeting publishers, agents – new friends and old friends, writers and book lovers – new friends and old friends, is right at the heart of the business. Publishing remains a people business so the opportunities to meet and exchange are these ones. Reading, listening to and meeting writers is equally important and interesting. Part of scouting well is understanding what you have in your hand and who needs to know about it when. Part of scouting well is understanding your clients – the publishing houses and their domestic realities and needs and so travelling regularly to their home offices and country and meeting them at fairs is essential.

6. You are an active participant with organisations that believe firmly in the power of literature/words like PEN and Words without Borders. Around the world there is a clamp down on writers. Literary scouts work internationally with their clients. With state censorship and self-censorship by writers/publishers increasing, how does a literary scout navigate these choppy waters?

Carefully. I think network and intelligence and understanding writing and the value of fact and information has never been more important.

7. As a signatory and an advisor to the PEN International Women’s Manifesto you are very aware of the importance of free speech. What are the ways in which you think the vast publishing networks can support women writers to write freely? Do you think the emergence of digital platforms has facilitated the rise of women writers?

This is a hard question to answer properly. I think the primary way that vast networks can support women writers to write freely is to ensure that they are as widely read as possible in as many parts of the world as possible both so that their writing – their freedom of expression is more protected in what is a public and international space and again that it reaches the widest number of people so that change and progress is enacted and again shepherded and enabled forward. Change and collaboration are radical and transformative, community in numbers affords some protection for free speech and again value and visibility. I would agree that the emergence of digital platforms has played an important and facilitatory role.

8. The porousness of geographical boundaries is obvious on the Internet where conversations about translations/ world literature, visibility of international literature across book markets, evidence of voracious appetites of readers, increase in demand for conversion of books to films to be made available on TV & videos streaming services, increase in fan fiction, proliferation of storytelling platforms like Wattpad, growth in audiobooks etc. Since you are also associated with trade book fairs like the Salone Internazionale del Libro, Turin, do you think these shifts in consumption patterns of books have affected what publishers seek while acquiring or commissioning a book?

I think that most publishers acquire and publish the books that they have fallen in love with and are interested by and that to some extent reflect or help us answer or perhaps simply understand questions about how to live and to be that are essential to the human condition and that the changes in the world are necessarily reflected in these choices as the readership too evolves. I think the flip-side of this is true to so for example the fragmentation of society and the proliferation of niche interests and communities on the internet has also translated into a strengthened special interest publishing houses be they neo Nazi publishing houses or Christian evangelical publishing houses.

9. A mantra that is oft quoted is “Content is oil of the 21st Century”. Has the explosion of digital platforms from where “content” can be accessed in multiple ways changed some of the rules of engagement in the world of literary scouts? Is there a shift in queries from publishers for more books that can be adapted to screen rather than straightforward translations into other book markets?

I think that the explosion of digital platforms and perhaps even more importantly the speed and ease with which the digital world is able to share information and again upload/disseminate and/or publish has transformed the mores and publishing reality entirely. Navigating the mass of content, its breadth, depth and scope is very challenging but equally the fact that it is now possible to submit a manuscript quite literally to publishing house around the globe at the same time has transformed the rules of engagement as has the corporatisation of publishing and the establishment of huge global publishing houses such as Penguin Random House or HarperCollins. That said I think the wealth and breadth of content means too that real considered opinion and curation is more important than ever and so intelligent scouting is ever more important and interesting. Of course no one can run faster than email nor should they want too. . . .Re the book to screen market book to screen (and particularly TV) is booming which is surely a good thing for authors who are struggling evermore to make a living from writing and a less good thing for publishing as many interesting and talented writers prefer to write within this more lucrative medium that write simple books. As someone who remains of the opinion that what is sort after is excellence in all ways put particularly storytelling – so in other words the opposite of indistinguishable content – I continue to feel optimistic about wonderful books and writers finding interesting and transformative ways to also tell their stories in other medium and that books will continue to be read and treasured and shared.

10. In your experience what are the “literary trends” that have been consistent and those that have been promising but fizzled out? What do you think are the trends to look out for in the coming years?

I think intelligent narrative nonfiction and popular nonfiction is going and has gone from strength to strength and will continue to do so. People after ever more in need of ways to understand and answer the questions that trouble or times and contemporary societies. A trends that has (fortunately fizzled out) is soft erotica a la 50 Shades of Grey. With regards trends for the future, I look to the environment and the ecological/climate crisis in both fiction – eco thrillers & whistle blowers as well as serious nonfiction.

11. How many hours a day do you devote to reading? And how do the manuscripts/books find their way to you?

How many hours a day…. that is really impossible to answer. I love to read and equally I am interested in people and curious so I meet people which is also how manuscripts make their way to me. How books come to me is that that is the heart of the game. Books can come from anywhere so I work with, talk too and interact with a wide variety of people from agents, foreign rights agents, editors and publishers but also writers and journalists. I read voraciously, online too, longform, short stories, old and new. I love recommendations. Friends. I work closely with both like minded and non like minded people because I don’t see the point of only having a network of people who share your taste. Many agents and foreign rights people send me books because working for a larger family of publishers means it is a way for them to reach a wider audience.

17 June 2019

Dr Christian’s “Guide to Dealing with the Tricky Questions”

A brilliant book for children, adolescents, parents and educators on initiating conversations about tricky stuff. It is by Dr Christian Jessen, a British physician, television presenter and writer.

Watch this IGTV video posted on Instagram for more information:

17 June 2019

Anil Menon’s review of Ian McEwan’s “Machines Like Me”

Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me is set in the past in which England lost the Falkand War and Alan Turing was still alive. The story is about Adam, an android, and its relationship with its owners. It is also a novel about Alan Turing and laying down of the theoretical principles of artificial intelligence. Ron Charles writing for the Washington Post ( 17 April 2019) says “…Mc­Ewan…is not only one of the most elegant writers alive, he is one of the most astute at crafting moral dilemmas within the drama of everyday life. True, contending with an attractive synthetic rival is a problem most of us won’t have to deal with anytime soon (sorry, Alexa), but figuring out how to treat each other, how to do some good in the world, how to create a sense of value in our lives, these are problems no robot will ever solve for us.” Sadly though this is a novel that has received a mixed reception. It also generated quite a hue and cry when Ian McEwan said in an interview that Machines Like Me was “not science fiction“. Nor did he have time “for conventional science fiction”. A month later in The Wired ( 19 May 2019) he clarified, “…actually I’ve read a fair amount of science fiction over a lifetime…I’d be very happy for my novel to be called science fiction, but it’s also a counterfactual novel, it’s also a historical novel, it’s also a moral dilemma novel, in a well-established traditional form within the literary novel,” he says. “I’m very happy if they want to call my novel science fiction, even honored. But it’s much else, that’s all I’m trying to say.” But by then articles such as “‘It drives writers mad’: why are authors still sniffy about sci-fi?” by Sarah Ditum ( Guardian, 18 April 2019) had been published. As Ron Charles says, “McEwan, who won the 1998 Booker Prize for Amsterdam, is a master at cerebral silliness. His previous novel, Nutshell, was a modern-day retelling of Hamlet from the point of view of an indecisive fetus. In that book and in this new one, McEwan knows just how to explore the most complex issues in the confines of the most ridiculous situations.” Author and computer scientist, Anil Menon, says in his review of the book:

It doesn’t help that McEwan’s alternate world is an implausible mess. Partly this is because McEwan gives many details, unwisely and often carelessly, to establish plausibility. For example, we learn that Charles’ car, a mid-60s’ vehicle, is a “British Leyland Urbala, the first model to do 1,000 miles on a single charge.” Since the novel’s 1940s more or less mirrors our 1940s, it means that in 20 years, McEwan’s world has gone from cars that run 15-20 miles/ gallon to a 1960s’ electric car with almost twice the mileage of a 2018 Tesla! On the other hand, we’re also told that Adam takes 16 hours to recharge on a standard 13 amp socket. Since Charles has already told us that “At thirty-two, I was completely broke,” it can only mean electricity costs next to nothing.

The real technical problem is that McEwan does not want to use a near-future setting. So he sets his novel in an alternate 80s’ world similar to our world, except for an accelerated development of technology after World War II. Turing is trivialised into a totalising genius responsible for practically every advance in computer science. The robot’s existential dilemmas were new in the 1940s, when Asimov wrote his tales, but McEwan seems to think they’re brand new. Turing sombrely informs Charles that “we don’t yet know how to teach machines to lie,” but didn’t robots supposedly pass the Turing test in the 1960s?

My criticism is not about “getting the science right”. It is about getting the psychology right. The Great Chain of Servitude — slave, serf, servant, employee and devotee — now includes a new subaltern: the robot. The stories we tell about robots are stories about our evolving understanding of personhood and servitude. History matters. By disrespecting history, McEwan reduces this understanding to a caricature.

Alas, Machines Like Me, is a dull book. In all likelihood no publisher would have taken it, if it hadn’t had McEwan’s name on it. Oh well!

15 June 2019

“Faber & Faber: The Untold Story: by Toby Faber

The big firms say that they intend to retain the imprints of the small publishers they absorb. But I doubt if that ever works for long. You might retain the imprint, but you must inevitably lose the elusive character of the individual firm, compounded by its proprietor’s personality and taste.

Geoffrey Faber in The Publishers’ Circular and Booksellers’ Record, 12 August 1939

Faber & Faber: The Untold Story by Toby Faber, grandson of the founder, Geoffrey Faber is a fabulous account of a publishing firm that is synonymous with setting the gold standard in literary publishing, including poetry. Toby Faber details this history by mostly presenting edited excerpts of correspondence from the official archives of the firm and presumably some from his family such as the diaries of Geoffrey Faber and his personal correspondence. Toby Faber’s commentary in the opening pages of every chapter and occasionally between the reproduced correspondence helps contextualise the moment in history. Faber is responsible for launching/ closely associated with the careers of many prominent writers and poets such as Siegfried Sassoon, W. H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, Ezra Pound, Ted Hughes, Lawrence Durrell, Tom Stoppard, Samuel Beckett, Vikram Seth, Kazuo Ishiguro, William Golding, Wilson Harris, Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney, Barbara Kingsolver, Sebastian Barry, Gunter Grass, Harold Pinter, Mario Vargas Llosa, Milan Kundera, Peter Carey, DBC Pierre, Sally Rooney, and Anna Burns. Establishing the bedrock of this magnificent list of A-list authors can be attributed to Nobel laureate T. S. Eliot and the poet Walter de la Mare’s son, Richard, who were a part of Faber’s founding editorial team. They gave shape to the editorial policy of Faber & Faber and thus gave the publishing firm its distinctive identity of publishing excellent modern literature. Some of the other editors-at-large who joined the firm were musicians Pete Townshend of the WHO and Jarvis Cocker of Pulp.

In 2019 Faber is celebrating its ninetieth year. It was established on 1 April 1929 by Geoffrey Faber. Interestingly as this wonderful historical account describes, Faber & Faber arose like a phoenix from the ashes of Faber & Gwyer. A firm that had in turn been built by the distinguished lawyer, Maurice Gwyer* and Geoffrey Faber on the foundation laid by the Scientific Press, estd. 1880s. The Scientific Press had been established by Gwyer’s father-in-law, Sir Henry Burdett. This publishing business had been inherited by Sir Henry’s daughters, one of whom, Alsina, married Maurice Gwyer. Curiously or perhaps with some astute business sense, Geoffrey Faber persuaded the Maurice Gwyer to launch a magazine for nannies called The Nursing Mirror. Unfortunately as sometimes happens in businesses, the two partners fell out over what are keen strategies or sheer foolhardiness. Despite the steep learning curve Geoffrey Faber decided to reinvent himself and launch a new firm, Faber & Faber.

This ability to reinvent itself and respond to the changing times is embedded in the DNA of Faber & Faber. It is evident in the manner in which the firm took to publishing paperbacks although in principle for a long time remained a firm known for its hardback publications. It also at critical junctures of its history restructured itself and launched new firms such as Faber Music, Faber Academy, Faber Digital and Faber Factory. It also has a fine children’s literature list too. In the early years it also managed to “discover” new authors by encouraging T. S. Eliot to continue the publication of the literary journal Criterion. Later there was a fortuitous discovery in the slush pile of the manuscript originally called Strangers from Within submitted by William Golding, to be published as Lord of the Flies.

Faber & Faber is a superb history on how this publishing firm came to attain its legendary status. Extraordinarily it has retained its independence through its nine decades of existence. Toby Faber attributes this ability of the firm to hang on to its indepedence as being “lucky”. He says:

That repeated ‘luck’ points to something else: a publishing philosophy that, without ignoring commercial imperatives, has always focused on excellence and the long term, whether that applies to relationships with authors that last for decades, or to books that enter the literary canon. A philosophy like that can lead to books that continue selling; Faber’s backlist has given it the income as the core of its financial stability.

Philosophy alone, however, is not enough. It needs to be allied in good editorial taste.

Of course there have been extremely tense moments about Faber & Faber’s survival. In some particularly gloomy years the royalties earned from the musical adaption of T.S. Eliot’s poem Cats by Andrew Lloyd Weber kept the firm afloat. There have been conversations about mergers but ultimately the directors have steered Faber & Faber firmly to an even stronger footing. One of the notable moments in its history was when the widow of T. S. Eliot decided to support the firm. So while the Faber family holds a fifty percent stake in the company, Valerie Eliot joined the firm as a “sympathetic shareholder”.

Faber & Faber is known for its enviable stable of authors. Apart from those already mentioned, since 1990, Faber authors have won more Nobel prizes, the Man Booker, the Costa awards etc. While the book is a glowing account of a fiercely independent firm there are also moments of regrets such as losing out on publishing James Joyce and George Orwell. At times this history reads like an old boys publishing club that did occasionally publish women — Anna Burns was their first woman writer to win the Man Booker Prize in 2018. As Toby Faber points out that this win “itself [was] an indication of the firm having travelled a very necessary distance from the chauvinistic 1980s. The same could be said of Barbara Kingsolver’s victory in the Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction in 2010”. Be that at it may, Faber’s list is fantastic and makes every author proud to be a part of it. A testament to this is an excerpt of the correspondence between Indian author Vikram Seth and the then Managing Director Matthew Evans.

Author Vikram Seth to Matthew Evans, 28 May 1985

After we had lunch yesterday, it struck me that you would be a good person to send my novel in verse to. If you like The Golden Gate, you might want to do a British edition — and even if that doesn’t happen, reading it might somewhat increase your affection for a city that is — I promise — far from dreary and provincial.

I’ve told Anne Freedgood at Random House — who tells me that TCG is out at a few British houses — thatI’d like to send it to you, and she says that’s fine. ( She showed it briefly to Robert McCrum, but when he offered to consider it only for the poetry list, she refused. The book is fiction, and to put it on a poetry list would be to kill it.) [. . . ]

The book is due out in February 1986, and I can think of nothing more pleasurable than to appear simultaneously on the fiction lists of the British and American houses I most respect.

To read some more excerpts from the book, here is a link to the Guardian. To commemorate 90 years a fabulous collection of 90 short stories have been released.

Faber & Faber: The Untold Story is a wonderful, wonderful history of an iconic publishing firm.

14 June 2019

*Sir Maurice Linford Gwyer, GCIE, KCB, KCSI, KC (25 April 1878 – 12 October 1952) was a British lawyer, judge, and academic administrator. He served as Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University from 1938 to 1950, and Chief Justice of India from 1937 to 1943). He is credited with having founded the prestigious college Miranda House in 1948 in Delhi, India. Gwyer Hall, the oldest men residence for the university students is named after him. ( Source: Wikipedia )

Note: All pictures used in the gallery are off Twitter. I do not own the copyright.