Column Posts

Literati – “Readers return to book fairs” ( January 2016)

jaya_bhattacharji-300x300My column, Literati, has been published online on 16 January 2016 and will be published in print in the Hindu Sunday Magazine on 17 January 2016. I am c&p the text below. Here is the original url: http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-how-readers-are-returning-to-book-fairs/article8113687.ece 

Publishers across languages were taken aback by the phenomenally positive response at this year’s World Book Fair

“Because I have time to spare, and for the first time in my life nobody expects anything of me. I don’t have to prove anything. I’m not rushing everywhere; each day is a gift I enjoy to the fullest.”

                                                                                                                                           Isabel Allende’s The Japanese Lover

Isabel Allende’s latest novel, The Japanese Lover, ( Simon & Schuster) is a breathtakingly elegant novel, full of quiet grace, about ageing, love, and friendships across generations. There is violence in the story, plenty of it. It is impossible to escape it. Allende writes about her Jewish protagonist Alma Belasco who flees from Nazism in Poland as a young child, the setting up of camps for Japanese families in America after Pearl Harbour, and the devious rings of online child pornography, which Irina Bazili, a refugee from a Moldovan village, experienced. Yet, surprisingly, The Japanese Lover radiates peace. It is written by a 73-year-old novelist who is herself no stranger to violence, having fled Chile during General Pinochet’s coup. As in Toni Morrison’s stupendous God Help the Child, ( Penguin Random House) these two writers come to terms with the fact that there are hardships, but it is important to treasure life one day at a time.

It is this spirit that across during the World Book Fair this year. The fair was brought forward by a month since the country of honour, China, had requested it. Many Indian publishers were apprehensive about the move as they were not very sure about the impact it would have on sales. Yet publishers across languages have been taken aback by the phenomenally positive response.

Piyush Kumar, Publisher, Prabhat Prakashan, whose family has been selling Hindi books for many decades, was astounded by the response. He noted with happy astonishment, “After the crowds left on Sunday evening, our stall looked as if it had been looted. My father who started this business has never seen such record sales.” Across publishers and languages, everyone is reporting unprecedentedly brisk and healthy sales.

At the CEOSpeak on 10 January, organised by FICCI and NBT, Le Yucheng, the Chinese Ambassador, stressed that “books matter in bilateral exchanges”. The presentations focused on translations, digitisation, volume printing and paper trade. But the shocking rates offered by Indian publishers to translators needs to be addressed before such bilateral publishing programmes can be explored.

For instance, the range varies from no payment to an absurd 0.25 paise per word (which has no value given that the denomination is no in circulation) to an acceptable sharing of the author’s royalties. The Translators Association of UK recommends that translators be paid between £80 and £90 per 1000 words but it is still an uphill task to ensure that publishers pay this fee.

Talking of healthy sales, some reasons publishers gave for the phenomenon was that readers are now shunning online stores because of the fluctuating discount structures, the improved connectivity to the fair with the Metro, the fair being organised at the beginning of the month before household budgets are exhausted., the excellent weather, Delhi schools being shut to implement the odd-even traffic rule, and the discernible long-term impact of government programmes like ‘Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan’ that have encouraged literacy and reading.

The size of the Indian publishing industry is estimated at Rs. 260.7 billion (2013-14) with a CAGR of 20.4 per cent. Manisha Chowdhury of Pratham Books remarked, “India is a country of more than 780 documented languages, 66 scripts, only 22 scheduled languages and we have lost 250 languages in 50 years. Sixty per cent of books published are for education. Children’s books are at 30 per cent. We do have a book hunger in this country where there is only one book available for every 20 children. Publishing for children is important only for textbooks whereas every child’s childhood should find a reflection in their literature.”

Having said that, at the book fair, children and adults were seen buying all kinds of books or attending conversations at Author’s Corners with equal enthusiasm. Online conversations like this, “M not into reading but my son is … nd he is after my lyf for wbf .. nd finally gng tmrw” are popping up often on social media newsfeeds. As a publisher said to me, “The glitz and glamour in Delhi is a mirage; people in this city are poor too, so those who come to the fair today may be on a budget, but they come to spend.” They live life to the fullest.

16 January 2016 

Literati: ” A book in any other form” ( 20 December 2015)

(My column, Literati, in the Hindu was published online on 19 Dec and in print on 20 December. Here is the link: http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-the-reading-experience/article8005049.ece )

jaya_bhattacharji-300x300Book-lovers want to be satisfied with time spent reading. It could be in different formats as long as the reading transports and immerses the reader into a different world

My daughter Sarah and I have a bedtime ritual. She brings along a book (if I am lucky, it is only one!) to read. She plumps up her pillow, tucks herself into the crook of my arm and orders, “Read.” It is a long process since I have barely begun to read when her questions come tumbling out or she reads out words in no particular order before I do! She is not yet six, so requires assisted reading. To her the length of the book is immaterial. It is the joy of storytelling, appreciating different styles of illustrations and discovering new landscapes. Sometimes when there is that unnerving-silence-which-should-not-be with a kid at home, I discover Sarah lying on her tummy flipping through her books.

She is charmed by the Kingfisher Encyclopedias, especially the scatological one Don’t Flush, she wants to try the tricks in DK’s illustrated Children’s Book of Magic and squeals with delight when she opens up The Pop-Up Book of Ships or reads over my shoulder L. Pichon’s hilarious The Brilliant World of Tom Gates. She strokes the magnificently detailed illustrations by P.J. Lynch in Susan Wojciechowski’s The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomeyand is very satisfied to discover it matches the text when she impatiently asks, “Show, show!”

Grown-ups are no different. They too want to be satisfied with time spent reading. It could be in different formats as long as the reading transports and immerses the reader into a different world as does Helen MacDonald’s moving memoir H is for Hawk. In 2015, it is claimed printed book sales surpassed ebook sales, yet reading on smartphones is on the upswing as is evident by the establishment of Juggernaut Books and the launch of Pratham Books’s Storyweaver. A survey of bestsellers and critics concluded that the average length of books has increased by 25 per cent in the past five years. For instance, Man Booker Prize winner 2015 Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in my Mind and Hanya Yanagihara’s deeply disturbing A Little Life. Yet there has also been a noticeable boom in short stories with Colum McCann’s absorbing but stunningly painful Thirteen Ways of Looking, the incredible range of writing exhibited in the late Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s Complete Stories translated by Katrina Dodson with plenty more being published in stupendous online spaces like Guernica, The Literary Hub, The Electric Literature, Asymptote and Words without Borders. In fact, the popularity of translations to access world literature can no longer be ignored. Seagull Books, based in Kolkata, announced its Arab list to be launched in 2016. According to the Bookseller, reclusive Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s has made in the U.K. “£1.6m this year through BookScan, 1,254 per cent up on her sales in 2014”. Chad Post in his Three Percent blog post on translation databases in the U.S states that Amazon Crossing has been responsible for a large number of translations, surpassing many independent presse (http://bit.ly/1QrGxV7). Indian publishers too are increasing their translation programmes with notable titles of this year being Daya Pawar’s Baluta (translated from Marathi by Jerry Pinto, Speaking Tiger), Tiruvalluvar’s The Tirukkural (translated from Tamil by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Aleph), Govardhanram Madhavram Tripathi’s Sarasvatichandra Part 1: Buddhidhan’s Administration (translated from Gujarati by Tridip Suhrud, Orient Black Swan), Bhisham Sahni’s Today’s Pasts: A Memoir (translated from Hindi by Snehal Shingavi, Penguin), Upendranath Ashk’s Falling Walls (translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, Penguin), Intizar Husain’s The Sea Lies Ahead (translated from Urdu by Rakhshanda Jalil, HarperCollins) and the Hindi edition of Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton published by Vani Prakashan.

With this mish-mash of emerging “trends” in international publishing, it is not surprising for firms to ensure a reliable stream of income by publishing manuscripts of dependable storytellers. For instance Wind and Pinball, the early novellas of Haurki Murakami, Ideal: the novel and the play by Ayn Rand, Go Set a Watchman, an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Bedtime Story by Kiran Nagarkar, The Mountain Shadow by Gregory Roberts, the to die-for-richly illustrated editions of George R.R. Martin’s A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms (illustrator: Gary Gianni) — prequel novellas to A Song of Ice and Fire and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (illustrator: Jim Kay).

I cannot say whether Sarah will become a voracious reader, but she has unknowingly discovered that reading is like meditation. The same holds true for adults. The genre is not always crucial to the experience.

Literati: A Spiderweb of Yarns ( 14 November 2015)

jaya_bhattacharji-300x300My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online on 14 November 2015 and in print on 15 November 2015). Here is the http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/a-spiderweb-of-yarns/article7872752.ece. I am also c&p the text below. )

The old lady chuckled. “Each story that sinks into the book becomes a part of an ancient spiderweb full of stories.”

“As more stories are added in, the spiderweb gets bigger and bigger and bigger until it forms an invisible blanket that covers every city and town, every village and every forest. And when someone who is walking by touches the web accidently, stories will flow into their head and from their head to their fingers and from their fingers on to paper…”

(Suraya’s Gift: The Story Catcher Children by Malavika Nataraj. A chapter book published by Puffin Books)

Suraya's GiftSuraya has been given an exquisitely designed blank notebook by her aunt. She scribbles stories in it for a while only to abandon it. Later, unable to locate it she encounters the Story Catcher who tells Suraya the book has been passed on to another child who has better use for it. Malavika Nataraj’s is a stunning debut.

Ranjit LalThe importance of stories can never be stressed enough. Ranjit Lal’s new novel Our Nana was a Nutcase (Red Turtle) is about Nana, who is bringing up his daughter’s four children. (Their parents are busy diplomats.) It is a super brilliant, sensitively told novel about the children witnessing their Nana’s gradual decline with Alzheimer’s, their coming to terms with it and slowly realising they have to be the caregivers for their Nana. A similar story about the heartwarming relationship between grandfather and grandson is found in the bittersweet David Walliam’s David Walliamsbestseller Grandpa’s Great Escape (HarperCollins).

Stephen AlterStephen Alter’s slim novella The Secret Sanctuary (Puffin Books) is a little beauty too. It introduces three school children to the magic within a forest they tumble into while walking to school. It is a secret sanctuary where they can be in close proximity to the animals without the beasts being aware of their existence. They discover nuggets of information from the naturalist, Dr. Mukherjee.

MananManan (HarperCollins) by Mohit Parikh is an “odd little tale” as he calls it. Manan attains puberty and is fascinated how reaching this milestone changes his perspective on life, transforming him in more ways than one. It is a first novel about an ordinary family in a small town.

MunnuMunnu: A Boy from Kashmir (HarperCollins), a graphic novel by Malik Sajad with autobiographical elements, is already causing a stir internationally. Sajad anthropomorphises the Hangul deer to tell the chilling account of being a young boy in Kashmir when it was torn apart by conflict. Munnu capitalises upon his excellent drawing skills to draw political cartoons.

Some other examples of well-told stories are: Scholastic India’s annual offering For Kids by Kids featuring short stories by young writers between the ages of 10 and 16. Paro Anand’s Like Smoke (Penguin Books), a revised edition of her young adult stories Wild Child; Parismita Singh’s stupendous graphic story retelling the Naga folktale Mara and the Clay Cows (Tulika); Karishma Attari’s debut novel I See You (Penguin Books), a chilling horror set in Mumbai, and the gorgeously produced retelling of the Baburnama called The Story of Babur by Parvati Sharma, illustrated by baburUrmimala Nag (co-published by Good Earth and Puffin Books). Scholastic’s Branches book series like Dragon MastersThe Notebook of Doom and Owl Diaries ( http://www.scholastic.com/branches/), and Simon and Schuster’s travelogue series Greetings from Somewhere ( http://www.simonandschuster.com/series/Greetings-from-Somewhere) with helpful illustrations, easy-to-read text and simple plot lines designed for newly independent readers, are strong on storytelling Wimpy Kidtoo. Then there is the astoundingly popular Jeff Kinney, whose Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Old School within a week of its release has already sold 100,000 copies in India. Timed with its release has been the launch of the Puffin Car that will be used to build excitement about books and the habit of reading among children.

For Kids By Kids 2015

***

Stories have a way of working their way into becoming a part of one’s mental furniture and creating cultural landscapes that stay forever. A wonderful example to ensure stories continue to be shared is the “Libromat” in South Africa bringing together laundry and reading established by social entrepreneurs from Oxford University.  ( http://www.libromat.com/ )Inspired by a study that said dialogic book-sharing is an interactive form of shared reading (http://1.usa.gov/1MVTK7E), an early childhood development centre in Khayelitsha was outfitted with washers and dryers, and the women were trained to read with their children. libromat-inhabitots

( Note: Images used on this page are off the Internet. I do not own the copyright to them.)

15 November 2015 

Literati: “Ink on the Brink”

jaya_bhattacharji-300x300(My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 17 October 2015) and will be in print ( 18 October 2015). Here is the http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-india-coping-with-book-bans/article7770216.ece. I am also c&p the text below. )

It remains to be seen how India, despite its business potential, copes with cultural policing, muzzling of free speech, and book bans

According to Nielsen’s The India Book Market Report 2015, released at Frankfurt Book Fair on October 14, the print book market in India is worth Rs. 261bn (£2.5bn), making it the sixth largest in the world, and the second largest of the English language markets. U.K. publishers’ revenues, including e-books, home and exports, are worth £3.3bn. India is the second most populous country in the world, with 1.28 billion people. The literacy rate is rising rapidly, from 65 per cent in 2001 to 74 per cent in 2011; it is predicted to reach 90 per cent in 2020. One quarter of young people define themselves as book readers, comprising by themselves a larger group than the population of the U.K. which is 65 million.

It explains why, for some time now, publishers worldwide are keen to explore strategic partnerships with their Indian counterparts in English and regional languages. According to a 2010-12 report Rebalancing the Economy from the House of Commons, Parliament of Great Britain, “40 per cent of U.K. publishing revenues are derived from exports”. Though the statistic is three years old, it will hold validity in 2015 since the links between British publishers and India are amongst the oldest given the colonial past.

But what happens when a market like India with huge business potential mutates into a territory synonymous with cultural policing, muzzling of free speech, book bans and intolerance of ideas? Does it still remain an attractive market to invest in? Increasing number of writers from various Indian languages are returning their Sahitya Akademi awards and Punjabi writer Dalip Kaur Tiwana returned her Padma Shri in protest against the assassination of rationalist scholars like Kalburgi. For some writers, this form of intellectual censorship is linked to the horrific lynching incident in Dadri. Noted Hindi writer, 90-year-old Krishna Sobti, said while returning her award that India did not need any more “Dadri or Babri”.

***

I have contributed an article on the theme of Independence in Indian Children’s Literature for the inaugural issue of
The Read QuarterlyThe Read Quarterly
. It is a journal on children’s literature, founded by Sarah Odedina and Kate Manning; the Kickstarter campaign has been endorsed by Neil Gaiman. Some of the other contributors include Nury Vittachi, Eoin Colfer, Gita Wolf (Tara Books) and Daniel Hahn. My article maps the literary inheritance of independence/partition of Romila Thaparsubcontinent. Much of it is inadvertently focused on hagiographies written to suit a specific ideological position, reinforcing communal Public Intellectual in Indiapoints of view that took root in British India. Fortunately, there are noticeable positive shifts in contemporary fiction, but as Romila Thapar, the eminent historian, wrote to me, “The goal of the national movement was such that communities came together for a cause and set aside what separated them. It is these moments that need to be remembered in the present times.”

Pigeons of the DomeCultural pluralism, democracy and secularism, the defining traits of India, are now under severe threat. Two collections of short stories published this past month address the complexities of Indian culture and ethos being intimidated by communal forces. Deeply disturbing but essential reading is the Pigeons of the Domes: Stories on Communalism edited by Rakhshanda Jalil (Niyogi Books). It was put together with the sole intention of “tracing the secular thread in the fabric of modern India, a thread that goes back many centuries.” It consists of stories by Gulzar, Ajeet Caur, Asghar Wajahat, Deepak Budki and Keki Daruwalla.

‘They Eat Meat!’ is the opening story in Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, 2015 winner,the-adivasi-will-not-dance-cover-for-kitaab-interview Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s new short story collection The Adivasi Will Not Dance. In ‘They Eat Meat!’ Panmuni and Biram Soren go to live in Gujarat, and are surprised to learn that they would have to stop eating non-vegetarian food to be accepted as citizens. According to the author, “The impetus behind the short story was the experience a Santhal family had in Vadodara during 2000-02. …the things I have mentioned are all as they were told to me by this family. I just changed the names. I wasn’t there in Gujarat in 2002 when the riots happened, but I was curious to know what happened, the insider-outsider equation, the pure-impure thing, the veg-non-veg thing, and so I wanted to write this story….This story first appeared in the literary magazine from Kathmandu, La.Lit. Prawin Adhkari and Rabi Thapa, the editors, published it in August 2014 with the title, ‘DON’T MIX WITH THEM, THEY EAT MEAT!’…It read more like an eyewitness report (in the third person) than a fiction based on facts. For the Speaking Tiger version, my editors and I took the report-like feel out and turned it into more story-like. … In the La.Lit version, imagination was minimum; in the Speaking Tiger version, there is more imagination.”

tram_83_301This fine line between fact and fiction is well summed up in the astounding debut novel, Tram 83 by performance artist and poet, Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated from the French by Roland Glasser, published by Deep Vellum Publishing. Lucien, the protagonist, while reflecting upon his work, asks: “Is there a limit to the imagination of a writer who takes real facts and uses them to construct a world where truth and fiction coexist?” It is not surprising that Indian writers are protesting intellectual censorship by returning state awards.

17 October 2015 

Literati: “For the price of a book…” ( 13 September 2015)


jaya_bhattacharji-300x300My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 12 September 2015) and will be in print ( 13 September 2015). Here is the http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-the-hunger-for-books-in-india/article7641333.ece. I am also c&p the text below. 

How can you argue with the low prices, especially in a nation where such a hunger for books exists?

This year the Delhi Book Fair held at Pragati Maidan was held on a much smaller scale than previous years. It was dominated by stalls put up by publishers of school textbooks. Government institutions were represented by the National Book Trust, Sahitya Akademi and Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts with their reasonably priced publications in many Indian languages and dialects. Religious organisations too displayed their publications, some of which were being distributed free. Most of the larger publishing houses were conspicuous by their absence (preparing for the next edition of the World Book Fair 2016).

But it was the smaller stalls of remaindered books that were fascinating. These are books that are scheduled for

Visitors having a close look at the books available at the 21st Delhi Book Fair at Pragati Maidan, in New Delhi in August, 2015. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma ( The Hindu)

Visitors having a close look at the books available at the 21st Delhi Book Fair at Pragati Maidan, in New Delhi in August, 2015. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma ( The Hindu)

pulping in other book markets and are also disposed off by weight. These titles are brought into local markets, usually priced very low. Three books for Rs.100 or for Rs. 500, depending upon their condition and interest in the book or author. It is not unusual to find books with labels from overseas school libraries and institutions, personal inscriptions or treasures like the one Jairaj Singh, a journalist, found at the Delhi Book Fair — an autographed first edition of Kingsley Amis’ Memoirs for Rs. 50 only.

People noodle through these stalls, trailing bags on wheels. Within a limited budget it is possible to acquire a pile of books till the next book fair comes around. It is to these remaindered stalls that the maximum number of buyers— teachers, parents, school children, students, librarians — go. In fact, the presence of these stalls, piled high with books, thrown in an untidy heap, was frowned upon by established publishers at the World Book Fair, February 2015. But how can you argue with the low prices, especially in a nation where such a hunger for books exists? This is borne out by the Amazon India spokesperson who says, “the number of books sold per day has grown by 1400 per cent over the past two years. Over 2500 sellers today offer lakhs of books to their customers across India on amazon.in. The portal has the largest online selection of books in India across languages, including three major regional languages — Hindi, Tamil and Kannada — which have found a huge audience, especially in non-metro cities where regional language books have featured in the top 10 bestsellers list. Over 50 per cent of the orders are coming from outside of the top eight cities.” According to informed sources, online book portals in India are growing at the rate of 12 to 15 per cent per annum.

In August 2015, the longlist for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction was revealed. It is a fabulously diverse list, exciting for the range of debut and experienced writers, geographical regions, varied writing styles and publishers it showcases. A handful, such as Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter, Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways, Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, Marilynne Robinson’s Lila and Anne Enright’s The Green Road are readily available. But try getting hold of Leila Lalami’s The Moor’s Sigh, Chigozi Obioma’s The Fishermen or Anna Smaill’s The Chimes — you either have to pay for  it online (there seems to be no fixed price for the edition even on the same portal, so a comparison of prices is advisable) or bide your time till  it is available at a brick-and-mortar bookshop. Recently, there have been discussions on ebook sales plateauing, primarily because of price fluctuation and smartphones replacing ereaders. (“The plot may be unravelling for e-books” Aimee Picchi, CBS News, 4 September 2015, http://cbsn.ws/1XJDgCf )

final-logo-pratham-booksThis is a trend apparent in India too, as is evident with the launch of the non-profit trust Pratham Books’ open source digital platform, Storyweaver (https://storyweaver.org.in/ ). It features 800 stories in 26 languages (14 Indian and 12 international languages), with an image repository of over 2,000 images. It can be viewed on desktop computers, laptops, tablets or mobile phones. Users will be able to read, download, translate, create, print and publish new stories through the platform using the Creative Commons licensed content on the site. Similarly, Daily Hunt (http://dailyhunt.in/ ) offers news, free and some nominally priced books, in 12 languages and has had 2.3 billion views a month.

Freshly published print books continue to be unaffordable for many readers in India, as is evident from the rush to Amartya Senbuy cheaply priced, sometimes weathered, remaindered books. Yet, it is significant to note that most Indians, despite being economically challenged, possess a handheld device. Hence, innovative ways of bringing together literature and technology to whet a ferocious book appetite at affordable prices have to be explored. It is also a tremendous way of giving neo-literates a chance to practice their literacy too, instead of it stagnating. As Amartya Sen says in his introduction to The Country of First Boys “…having an educated …population can be a major contributor to enhancing steady and sustainable economic growth.”

12 September 2015 

Literati – “The library as social experience” ( 16 August 2015)

jaya_bhattacharji-300x300My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 15 August 2015) and will be in print ( 16 August 2015). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-the-relevance-of-libraries-today/article7539673.ece#. I am also c&p the text below. 

Buying books the traditional way is a cherished subjective experience, heavily dependent on the curating abilities of the book buyer.

My five-year-old daughter asked me, “Why can’t libraries be like bookshops? If we like a book, why must we return it to the library? Why can we not buy and keep it?” I was stumped. It was a perceptive observation.

***

“You either see it or you don’t” was an eccentric American Dennis Severs’ mantra,who converted his Georgian home in London into a time capsule with pieces collected from the 17th century till Edwardian times. Brian Selznick’s absolutely ‘scrumdiddlyumptious’ forthcoming book, The Marvels, is heavily inspired by Dennis Severs’ imaginative lifestyle. To my mind, this mantra aptly marks the rapid disappearance of brick-and-mortar bookstores and at the same time provides a possible solution for their survival.

In Delhi, two iconic bookshops — Fact & Fiction and Galgotia — are closing. There are many factors responsible globally for closure of bookstores, such as rising rents, fewer customers and an increasing use of e-readers like Kindle, iPads and smartphones. Buying books the traditional way is a cherished subjective experience, heavily dependent on the curating abilities of the book buyer. Obviously, a regular customer is wistful at the announcement of their favourite bookstore closing. On the other hand, online retailers have to innovate, evolve and work constantly at providing customer satisfaction without ever knowing who is buying from their portal.

For most readers, it is like being in a dream spell. Having read about a book, many readers want instant gratification and engage in impulsive buying, usually possible only with online retail. It is a human behaviour that has evolved with access to the Internet 24×7 for more than a generation.

Recently, I read a bunch of absolutely delightful titles from the TED Books that take off from where TED talks leave off, such as Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness, Chip Kidd’s Judge This and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should all be Feminists. I also read a devastatingly moving novel, The Blue between Sky and Water, by Palestinian writer Susan Abulhawa; a delightful anthology, The Pleasure of Reading,edited by Antonia Fraser; and an excellent collection of commentaries, Nehru’s India, edited by Nayantara Sahgal. War novel Escape from Baghdad! by Bangladeshi Saad Hossain and The Word at War made it to the list. When I discuss these books animatedly with friends, many automatically order these online. This change in human behaviour has affected the lifeline of bookstores.

In a possible model for a bookstore of the future, non-profit Pioneer Works in Red Hook, U.S., opened a ‘remarkably small’ bookstore. It stocks new and used books, local zines, lit mags, children’s books conveniently located at their height and a modest wall spotlighting a rotating small press. Also, the shop clerk assures customers that if they do not find the book title they are looking for, he will order it for them.

Then there is Trilogy in Mumbai, founded by Meethil Momaya and Ahalya Naidu in December 2014. It houses a library and a bookstore; though they are under the same roof they do not share shelf space. Titles are available in Hindi, English and Marathi. The library functions like any old-school library and the bookstore works like (almost) any other bookstore in the world. The very idea of having a bookstore and a library together in the same place without a wall dividing the two was to allow members the freedom to read books without owning them (library) and when they love a book they would like to own, they always have the option of buying it (bookstore). There is a symbiotic relationship between the two spaces. Borrowers very often want to buy the book they have either issued or find in the library. If it is available in the bookstore they can buy it immediately.

There is also the model that legislator Dr. T.M. Thomas Isaac has suggested in Kerala wherein libraries turn into centres for students to gather and study together in the evenings.

These examples illustrate a recommendation made at the Indian Public Libraries Conference 2015 held on March 17-19, 2015 in New Delhi. Recommendation on refurbishment of public libraries, point 8f, states, “Facilities in public libraries should include, ‘multi-purpose social space’ for use by the community extending services beyond the provision of reading facilities.”

Paul X. McCarthy, in Online Gravity: The Unseen Force Driving the Way You Live, Earn, and Learn, illustrates how a new set of economic rules, very different from those in the physical world, are governing businesses. According to him, one of the fundamental consequences of gravity-giant formation is the way in which it is influencing the shape of products, companies and ultimately the whole economy online. But I wonder if the cross-filtering and influencing of experiences across mediums has not already begun? What is the future of libraries and bookstores if they don’t evolve by catering to community demands and expectations? Libraries and bookstores die because they fail to fulfil this. Reading may be a personal experience, but libraries and bookstores are social experiences. Somewhere the customised experiences of individuals increasingly created by blending digital and real services have begun to spill over into the physical world.

15 August 2015

Literati – “The Critic” ( 19 July 2015)

jaya_bhattacharji-300x300My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 18 July 2015) and was in print ( 19 July 2015). Here is the http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-the-world-of-books/article7429521.ece. I am also c&p the text below. 

In a column on January 11, 2015, The New York Times published Michiko Kakutani’s review of Harper Lee’s much-awaited Go Set A Watchman(@GSAWatchmanBook ) — on the front page, no less. There have been energetic nitpicking conversations about this review. But the truth is that any space given by a mainstream newspaper to a book review is unusual. For, despite the 50-year gap between To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman, the latter has a two million print run. Lee’s resurrection of Atticus Finch has excited readers. According to Bloomberg, US, “it is the most pre-ordered book in her publisher’s history.” (July 9, 2015, http://bloom.bg/1HXxgij )

This pre-publication hype is any writer’s publicity dream. Space for reviewing books in print media is fast dwindling while rapidly gaining momentum on social media, prompting many writers to be creative in getting their books discovered. Popular writer, Ravi Subramanian has launched an app to help promote his books. Booksellers too have to be innovative — curating literary engagements or as the portly owner of Haji Suleiman and Sons tells Hafiz in Anis Shivani’s lengthy debut novel, Karachi Raj “Shelving is an art. Mixing the old and the new on the same subject is more important than getting the alphabetical order just right.”

An important part of the publishing ecosystem is the critic. The few well-read critics like James Wood, Amitava Kumar, Tim Parks and John Freeman are known and greatly valued for their honest, straightforward and informed observations. Whether in print or virtual space, by critics or others (publishing professionals use their Facebook walls to air frank opinions), a good review should generate conversation. Recently, Daniel Menaker — writer and former Editor-in-Chief, Random House Publishing Group — said of the new Harper Lee novel : “Here’s the thing: it is natural and inevitable for readers and experts to compare these two Harper Lee books to each other. But the comparisons have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of each book. They are two different objects. You can get historical perspective about an artist by comparing an early landscape to a late one, but the value of both remains entirely independent of their relation to each other. Rembrandt’s series of self-portraits is an excellent source of historical, biographical comparison, but as works of art they must be judged on their own merits. [Alexander] Alter’s piece in The Times is where it should be — outside the review arena. Kakutani’s “review” should have given no more than a nod to TKAM in discussing GSAW, if you ask me. The rest of the review would have been actually more useful if it had addressed the merits and problems with GSAW on its own terms. Seems to me.” (Quote reproduced with permission.)

With this, Menakar sparked off a crackling literary conversation about the merits of reviewing. To be a professional critic is never painless. It is particularly tough when the critic is an integral part of the literary set of concerned editors, publishers and authors; some of whom have acquired demi-god status. Thus Shamsar Rahman Faruqui’s The Mirror of Beauty and The Sun that Rose from the Earth, and Amitav Ghosh’s Flood of Fire, which are rich longwinded tapestries of the past, have had reasonably good sales and glowing critical acclaim. In his Afterword to Mantonama, Saadat Hasan Manto declares: “know-it-all pundits” can have a powerful impact on an author, but solace lies in realising that “literature…is a self-existent entity. …Literature is as alive and exuberant today as it was before it was discovered.” (My Name is Radha: The Essential Manto, translated by Muhammad Umar Memon.)

In ‘Bad News’, an essay in his splendid book, Lunch with a Bigot, Amitava Kumar sums it: “With all their beauty and artifice, novels often hide the ordinary grit of reality. …It is the irrepressible bubbling-up of the everyday, not the unbending demand of a rigid aesthetic, that makes a novel satisfying, that connects it to life.” Saikat Mazumdar’s exquisite The Firebird and K. R. Meera’s disturbing novella And Slowly Forgetting that Tree (translated from Malayalam by J. Devika) are fine examples of such satisfying literature.

15 August 2015 

Literati – “On translations” ( 7 June 2015)

Jaya Bhattacharji RoseMy monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 6 June 2015) and will be in print ( 7 June 2015). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/a-look-at-the-world-of-books-publishing-and-writers/article7286177.ece. I am also c&p the text below. 

Reading two travelogues about Afghanistan in the 1920s — when the reformist King Amanullah tried to steer his country towards modernity by encouraging education for girls — is an enriching experience. Both Desh Bideshe by Syed Mujtaba Ali (translated from Bengali as In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan by Nazes Afroz, Speaking Tiger Books) and All the Roads are Open: The Afghan Journey by Annermarie Schwarzenbach (translated from German by Isabel Fargo Cole, Seagull Books) offer an absorbing account of Afghan society. The writers had access across various strata of society; a privilege they did not abuse but handled with dignity. 

 

Texts translated competently into the destination language give the reader an intimate

KRASZNAHORKAI_AP_2_2430230faccess to a new culture. Many of the new translations are usually in English — a language of socio-political, economic and legal importance. Even literary prizes recognise the significance. For instance, Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai won the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, which is awarded once in two years. Lauding his translators — George Szirtes and Ottilie Mulzet — Krasznahorkai said, “In each language, the relationship is different.” He uses unusually long sentences and admits, “The task was to somehow find a new Krasznahorkai English”. He continues, “In China once, I was speaking at a university about my books and said that, unfortunately, you couldn’t read them there, and someone in the audience put their hand up and said that there was a translation of Satantango on the net that had been done chapter by chapter by people who loved it. Of course, I was delighted.” (http://bit.ly/1Kx4R1g )

Readers matter

At BookExpo America 2015, New York, Michael Bhasker, Publishing Director, Canelo Digital Publishing said, “Readers are the power brokers who matter most. Readers are the primary filters.” This is immediately discernible on social media platforms — extraordinarily powerful in disseminating information, raising profiles of authors, creating individual brands rapidly circumventing geo-political boundaries, transcending linguistic hurdles and straddling diverse cultures. According to Kannan Sundaram, Publisher, Kalachuvadu, “Indian language writers are as good as or often better than their contemporaries writing in English. Often they are not proficient in English and savvy in handling social media, limiting their exposure on the national and international stage and media. I represent many such writers in Tamil like Salma and Perumal Murugan and have managed to get many of their works published in English, Indian and world languages.”

‘India@Digital.Bharat’, a report by BCG and IAMAI, forecasts India becoming a $200 billion Internet economy by 2018. The use of vernacular content online is estimated to increase from 45 per cent in 2013 to more than 60 per cent in 2018. (http://bit.ly/1Kx9ZCv). Osama Manzar, Founder, Digital Empowerment Foundation says, “The Internet is English centric by its invention, character and culture. It has been growing virally and openly because it is brutally democratic and open. Yet, it is highly driven through the medium of writing as means of participation, a challenge for Indians who are more at ease with oral communication than written. Plus, they are fascinated by English as a language. More so, responsiveness and real-time dynamism of various applications is making people join the Internet even if they don’t know the language of prevailing practices. And because of multi-diversity oriented people joining the Internet, application providers are turning their apps and web multilingual to grab the eyeballs of people and their active participation.”

Writer and technologist Anshumani Ruddra asks pointedly, “If India is to hit 550 Million Internet users by 2018, where are the vernacular apps for more than 350 million (non-English speaking) users?” (http://bit.ly/1Kxa4Gx ) Venkatesh Hariharan, Director, Alchemy Business Solutions LLP, adds “the time is right for Indian language computing using Unicode, especially since the government of India is actively promoting e-governance”.

A constructive engagement across linguistic and cultural boundaries is essential. An international funder once told me supporting writers is a cost-effective way of fostering international bilateral relations. It is easier, in the long run, to negotiate business partnerships as the two nations would already be familiar with each other culturally via literary cross-pollination programmes.

EXCLUSIVE: OxyGene Films (U.K.) has announced a film project based on Tabish Khair’s recent novel, How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position. Details of the Danish-British collaboration, with possible Bollywood connections, are to be announced later.

13 June 2015

James Wood and Tim Parks, two critics, two books

Tim ParksTwo prominent literary commentators and critics — James Wood and Tim Parks— have release books within months of each other. Both the books are compilations of previously delivered speeches and/or columns. James Wood’s The Nearest Thing To Life is a collection of Mandel lectures delivered in April 2013 at the Mandel Center for the Humanities, Brandeis University. It also contains a lecture delivered in February 2014 at the British Museum in a series run by the museum and the London Review of Books. Tim Parks Where I’m Reading From is a compilation of essays first published in the New York Review of Books.

Both the critics have chosen to write part-memoir, part-reflective essays but very germane James Woodto contemporary conversations about publishing, writing, reading and literary criticism. Since these were written over a short period of a time, published more or less immediately, these observations encapsulate a period in publishing history which would otherwise get lost in the deluge of information available online. To read these essays printed and bound as a book allows one the pleasure of absorbing the ideas at one’s pace. There is a range of issues they cover — reading, what constitutes good criticism, what is the hallmark of a good writer and critic, what constitutes disciplined reading, of literary prizes, storytelling and the notion of “home” that surfaces regularly among writers including these essayists, both of whom are Englishmen but reside in other countries — Tim Parks in Italy and James Wood in America. This eternal question about what constitutes “home” turns their attention on world literature. It is also fascinating to discover the strict Christian upbringing both the critics had which they consciously chose to move away from  — it requires tremendous grit and determination to transcend this — to read literature as acutely as they do, is astounding.

At a time when discussions about global literature, significance of translations, accessing new literature and cultures and cross-pollinations of literary traditions and techniques dominate, to have two prominent critics discuss world literature is significant. Tim Parks’s fearlessly exquisite essay, “The Dull New Global Novel” ( NYRB blog, 9 February 2010. http://bit.ly/1PnbidG)  and James Wood engaging essay in “Secular Homelessness” based on his impressive close reading of literature for the New Yorker ( Essay and podcast available at “On Not Going Home” LRB, Vol 36 No. 4, 20 February 2014. http://bit.ly/1PnbABm ). Reading literature especially fiction gives a literary critic formidable insight into socio-eco-political scenarios, raising questions, but connecting dots of daily life that would otherwise pass by us in a blur little realising their import. For instance the conversations about world literature and “tangle of feelings” as evident in world literature are closely aligned to issues about emigration/ immigration/ exile ( voluntary and otherwise), idea of home, the global village becoming a repository of many cultural influences  instead of being culturally homogeneous and undisturbed for many years, what are the politics of translations etc. Both critics, Tim Parks and James Wood, dwell at length on this as illustrated by a couple of extracts from the essays:

Tim Parks

What are the consequences for literature? From the moment an author perceives his ultimate audience as international rather than national, the nature of his writing is bound to change. In particular one notes a tendency to remove obstacles to international comprehension. Writing in the 1960’s, intensely engaged with his own culture and its complex politics, Hugo Claus apparently did not care that his novels would require a special effort on the reader’s and above all the translator’s part if they were to be understood outside his native Belgium. In sharp contrast, contemporary authors like the Norwegian Per Petterson, the Dutch Gerbrand Bakker, or the Italian Alessandro Baricco, offer us works that require no such knowledge or effort, nor offer the rewards that such effort will bring.

More importantly the language is kept simple. Kazuo Ishiguro has spoken of the importance of avoiding word play and allusion to make things easy for the translator. Scandinavian writers I know tell me they avoid character names that would be difficult for an English reader.

If culture-specific clutter and linguistic virtuosity have become impediments, other strategies are seen positively: the deployment of highly visible tropes immediately recognizable as “literary” and “imaginative,” analogous to the wearisome lingua franca of special effects in contemporary cinema, and the foregrounding of a political sensibility that places the author among those “working for world peace.” So the overstated fantasy devices of a Rushdie or a Pamuk always go hand in hand with a certain liberal position since, as Borges once remarked, most people have so little aesthetic sense they rely on other criteria to judge the works they read.

James Wood

What I have been describing, both in my own life and in the lives of others, is more like secular homelessness. It cannot claim the theological prestige of the transcendent. Perhaps it is not even homelessness; homelooseness (with an admixture of loss) might be the necessary (hideous) neologism: in which the ties that might bind one to Home have been loosened, perhaps happily, perhaps unhappily, perhaps permanently, perhaps only temporarily. Clearly, this secular homelessness overlaps, at times, with the more established categories of emigration, exile and postcolonial movement. Just as clearly, it diverges from them at times. Sebald, a German writer who lived most of his adult life in England (and who was thus perhaps an emigrant, certainly an immigrant, but not exactly an émigré, nor an exile), had an exquisite sense of the varieties of not-belonging. He came to Manchester, from Germany, in the mid-1960s, as a graduate student. He returned, briefly, to Switzerland, and then came back to England in 1970, to take a lectureship at the University of East Anglia. The pattern of his own emigration is one of secular homelessness or homelooseness. He had the economic freedom to return to West Germany; and once he was well known, in the mid-1990s, he could have worked almost anywhere he wanted to. 

Sebald seems to know the difference between homesickness and homelessness. If there is anguish, there is also discretion: how could my loss adequately compare with yours? Where exile is often marked by the absolutism of the separation, secular homelessness is marked by a certain provisionality, a structure of departure and return that may not end. This is a powerful motif in the work of Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian-American writer who came to the States from Sarajevo, in 1992, only to discover that the siege of his hometown prohibited his return. Hemon stayed in America, learned how to write a brilliant, Nabokovian English (a feat in some sense greater than Nabokov’s because achieved at a steroidal pace), and published his first book, The Question of Bruno, in 2000 (dedicated to his wife, and to Sarajevo). Once the Bosnian war was over, Hemon could, presumably, have returned to his native city. What had not been a choice became one; he decided to make himself into an American writer.

These books are a precious addition to my personal library.

Tim Parks Where I’m Reading From Harvill Secker, London, 2014. Hb. pp.250 Rs 599

James Wood The Nearest Thing To Life Jonathan Cape, London, 2015. Hb. pp. 140. Rs 599

15 May 2015 

 

Literati – “Serial publishing” ( 2 May 2015)

Jaya Bhattacharji RoseMy monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 2 May 2015) and will be in print ( 3 May 2015). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati/article7164472.ece. I am also c&p the text below.

Published over 20 years ago, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, a single-volume hardback at over 1100 pages, was bulky to hold though printed on Bible paper (a thin grade of paper used for printing books with a large number of pages). It was not unheard of to rip the novel into two or three volumes to read it easily. It inevitably triggered conversations about Victorian England when serial publishing was fashionable and lending libraries in Victorian England preferred to lend three-decker novels to members.

This practice was instituted by Mudie’s Lending Library and Mudie’s Subscription Library. Charles Mudie, known for his sharp business acumen, introduced the guinea yearly subscription allowing a customer to borrow an unlimited number of volumes at any time. He also profited from simultaneously lending different parts of a novel to different customers. Of course publishers and authors benefited immensely from Mudie’s select list of books since an order from the library/retail usually meant buying up print runs, certainly a substantial number of units that helped boost sales.

With the Industrial Revolution, rapid technological advances had a tremendous impact on book publishing. With mechanisation it was easier to produce cheap books for a mass audience. Printers too had acquired new technologies, notably the practice of stereotyping — casting a metal plate based on an impression from hand-set type — which permitted both quick reuse of the type for other pages and multiple copies of the metal plates for even faster printing of multiple copies. Writers like Charles Dickens managed to be financially secure by catering to working class audience sensibilities, weaving in characters in his serial and monthly stories that endeared themselves to readers up and down the social ladder. For instance, with Pickwick Papers, the monthly print run rose from 400 (March 1836) to 40,000 (November 1837). As Claire Tomalin, Dickens’ biographer (2011) points out “the sales of each of the last three numbers of Dombey, in January, February and March 1948, were around 34,000, and people continued to buy back numbers for months afterwards. In 1847 he earned £3,800, and for the first time ever he had enough money in the bank to be able to invest.” (p.200)

Suddenly there were a flood of books available, a first since moveable type had been invented some centuries earlier. In the 20th century, it was Allen Lane’s introduction of the paperback edition that made a significant difference to book publishing.

***

Self-publishing

Fast forward to 21st century. Technological advancements, especially with the introduction of smartphones and e-readers meant that in less than a decade, e-books were easily available to access and download — most cheaply priced or for free! This fuelled the exponential growth of self-publishing as people discovered how “easily” books could be produced and sold at a reasonable price directly to customers. Like in Victorian England, new reading communities were discovered/created. At the same time, digital long reads came into vogue, usually standalone commissioned articles. Slowly the impact of this form is becoming discernible in the crafting a novel.

Instead of the long story being “complete” and polished equally from beginning to end, it is obvious to a trained eye that portions of the story are given more care, probably to be offered as extracts to digital and print media or to be read out at author interactions. This is affecting the form of a novel with experiments in interconnected stories being considered as a novel. Serial publishing too is making a comeback with authors offering their e-books as serials or intentionally writing serials, testing it on readers and later converting it into a book — mostly seen in self-publishing programmes. A deluge of books has resulted in the creation of monthly subscription models such as Oyster and Kindle Unlimited offering readers an unlimited number of e-books. Given the paucity of time but increase in commuting time and variety of handheld e-devices the rise of short fiction (flash fiction and short story) as a popular form of writing is inevitable. Yet I wonder if it is not time for serial publishing to make a comeback. It will engage a reader; the author can gauge the reader’s reaction to the story and tweak it accordingly, so the book’s sale is assured, ensuring writers and publishers benefit.

2 May 2015

An update ( 8 May 2015) 

Coincidentally, two days after my column was published I read a fascinating post on Melville House blog on serial publishing. “Two For Tuesday: Should Books Be Snackable, Serialized, and Delicious?” ( 5 May 2015,  http://www.mhpbooks.com/two-for-tuesday-should-books-be-snackable-serialized-and-delicious/)