Essays Posts

Lucy Ellman “Things are Against Us”

This is the first collection of essays by Booker-shortlister & Goldsmiths Prize-winning author of the brilliant Ducks, Newburyport. Some of the essays in Things are Against Us ( Pan Macmillan India) have been previously published but a fair number are unpublished.

These are a fantastic collection of honest, very blunt, sharp, informative and extremely funny essays. The humour stems from Ellman’s delicious ability to call a spade a spade. She does not mince words. She provokes. Her wit is spot on. She may as well be a stand-up comedian in her ability to hold a mirror to society especially when it comes to the manifestation of patriarchy in relationships.

There are far too many superb examples in the book that are to be shard. But two stand out. One is The Mea Culpa declaration (photographed below) and her essay on tourism that is in many ways reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s essay on being a tourist. Ellman is also able to share examples from her mother’s work of comparing the male gaze in analysing women writers.

This is an excellent book!

Truly worth reading.

28 Nov 2021

“The Book of Dog”

Once upon a time, I too had dogs. They were an integral part of my life. They would sit at my feet while I studied. We travelled by road for lovely, long trips. Dad would ensure that we were booked into accommodation that welcomed the dogs. In our family, dogs were and are a part of our lives and this has been true across generations. A lot of memories came flooding back while reading the stories in The Book Of Dog edited by Hemali Sodhi ( published by HarperCollins India). And most certainly one of the memories being that of calming a petrified Hemali when she spotted a pet dog across a vast hall at an event. So her transformation into an ardent doglover is the stuff that myths are made up of. If I had not witnessed it for myself, it would have been hard to believe what she narrates in her introduction. But it is true. The kindness, gentleness, warmth, unconditional love that the animals offer has to be experienced at least once and I am glad Hemali Sodhi has. Sadly, with the joy comes the pain, grief and the gaping hole in one’s heart that the dog’s departure leaves. The Book of Dog is a gorgeous collection of essays, photographs, poems, and illustrations by pawrents. And you know it is a winner when munchkins adopt it by slipping in notes, appropriating it as their own.

19 Jan 2022

Jonathan Franzen “Crossroads”

I have liked Jonathan Franzen’s writings ever since I began reading his essays in the National Geographic and some other random places. Also, my admiration for him rose immensely once I discovered he had mentored a writer like Nell Zink. I have never understood why he was detested since he does not seem to brook fools. This new novel of his – Crossroads ( HarperCollins India)– is very good simply because it is not pretentious. His historical details like in the off-the-cuff references to music, life, clothes, etc. He also makes it clear in the speech formulations, sometimes in the slang used. I have not marked any passages in the book but when I was reading it, I thought to myself, oh this is so outdated but fits with the age. The whole point of the novel seems to be to focus on this middle-class white Christian family, a pastor’s family, the Hilderbrandts. As Marion constantly reminds herself and everyone that she is a Pastor’s wife, so many of her skills such as remembering useless details about individuals is her strength, a quality that marks a pastor’s family as it is expected of you. Franzen chooses to share exactly what he wishes to. The NYRB review questions the historical fiction aspect of the novel. The examples the reviewer takes out to highlight the lack of historicity are exactly what caught my eye as clever acts by Franzen. The reviewer misses out completely all the references to music, the slow intermingling of the white and black congregations, the silent pacts that the white and black pastors have, understanding how their flock has to be managed, the Navajo community etc. While reading Crossroads, I kept thinking about The Cross and the Switchblade.

It requires extraordinary talent required to create the back stories of individuals. Marion may be the flimsiest and vaguest woman but hers is amongst the strongest portrayals in the book. It is brilliant. Her descent into a nervous breakdown is stupendous. The novel is so much about the white middle class crisis, a family saga, a Christian family, the huge hold of the church upon its congregation and the way life revolves around the church – the idea of community. Recent reviews have dismissed the party at the main pastor’s house in one line but it is a crucial part of the story. The guests were from different denominations and religions, there was even a rabbi, and the smattering of conversations one hears, is a pretty good analysis of faith and the questions it raises – the importance of religion in modern society. The manic-depressive junkie son, Perry Hildebrandt, brings this party to a halt with his statements about what it means to be good or not, especially in the eyes of these men, leaders of their flock.

Franzen is playing on the title of the Key to all Mythologies, a reference to Casaubon’s unfinished book in Middlemarch, and mocking modern readers for their high falutin, obnoxious takes on being woke about various issues esp. black and minority cultures. He is just sharing as is. Franzen is achieving two things:

  1. He is calling out all this pretentiousness of liberals today of genuflecting towards minorities and giving them their dues. With this story he is trying to say, look you choose to see what you chose but whites did culturally appropriate much of the black culture in their lives and called it their own, such as Cream’s Crossroads lifting Robert Johnson’s song, but then Crossroads is also the name of the Youth Fellowship in the church – confusion galore! So Franzen is really showing his exasperation.
  2. In the pandemic, literature about the pandemic and other anxieties are being much lauded, but by displaying the ordinariness of family and church life, he is making people rethink the value of family, community and simple pleasures. Although there is enough drama in each individual’s life to merit a book by itself.

Crossroads is more than just an American novel. It is an incredible master class in the art of writing good literary fiction. It is also a way of sharing memories, histories and incredibly delving into the microcosm of a family. Usually, family saga novels tend to focus on a single character and then all the other relatives pale into insignificance. Or family sagas take generations to play out, with the novelist devoting many pages to each generation. In this case, he has written over 600 pages to cover a very short period of time, giving everyone due weightage — and yet not. The varying lengths of each backstory for every individual is a testament to Franzen’s craftsmanship. He is not out to prove that he can do great literary writing. He is giving every character as much is their due. He is so right in saying that he puts down what he sees. Heavens this man is quite the observer and listener. Much of the time, I feel like screaming and saying, “Yes, yes, he got this so well!” The whole idea of creating a mythical town that is really in the suburbs of Chicago, but is a conservative Christian community is done so well. Franzen too spent time in a Church Youth Fellowship. Anyone who is even remotely familiar with church communities and their groups, may realise that these gatherings can get so claustrophobic and stifling and develop their own inner dynamics that then spill out in other parts of life. Franzen gets this really well — the power of the church, the idea of the spiritual and how much of it is really driven by mortal, base and materialistic desires. Also, how much of the outer world preoccupations do not make any dent on this small community. They seem to sail on as before till the cracks begin to develop. The outside world makes its presence felt only because Franzen makes it happen as an external force that is affecting the lives of the characters. Beginning with Clem Hildebrandt, the eldest son of the pastor. A privileged white male who has the option of pursuing University but chooses to give it up to join the Vietnam war. His sister who falls in love with a musician, Tanner, who too nurses an ambition to cut a commercially successful record, but is aware that it can only happen if he leaves this small town. Or even the pastor, the shepherd of the flock, who does all this good work but is bored of his wife and is eyeing the young widow, Frances. It is so complicated. So ordinary. So mundane. But Franzen does not make it so. And so much focus on Russ, the priest, and mocking him but also justifying the choices he makes is an interesting take on a man who is supposed to be a shepherd, a leader but is so out of touch with the youngsters. The idea of a community is very critical to Franzen. He mentioned it in one of his recent essays as an aside. He is keen to give to his community and does his best for it too. So, it is an ideal central to his thinking in this book too.

With the title Crossroads Franzen gives the reader multiple interpretations for the word. Beginning with the Cream album of the same name, that was actually a cover version of the blues musician Robert Johnson’s original composition to many of the characters in the book being at the moral crossroads of a situation to being at the crossroads of life. So many layers to the word. It is utterly fascinating. The crisis that Franzen depicts in the lives of these characters is no different to many other ordinary lives. It is no wonder that Crossroads has taken many people by surprise and is getting fantastic reviews everywhere because there is no pretension; it is up front and Franzen says it like he means.

Links to some reviews:
Guardian ; Slate ; The Bookseller ; https://www.avclub.com/jonathan-franzen-sticks-with-what-works-and-loses-what-1847751729 ; BBC ; https://www.vulture.com/article/interview-jonathan-franzen-crossroads.html?utm_source=tw

I look forward to Parts 2 & 3.

4 October 2021

George Orwell and an 11 yo reader

Today, my eleven-year-old daughter was introduced to George Orwell”s fabulous essay, “Confessions of a Book Reviewer”. The child cracked up with laughter upon reading Orwell’s comments about writing book reviews such as, “grossly overpraising”, “unappetising (books)”, “the complete truth is that this book would be worthless”, and “This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to”. She hooted with delight when she read that the middle section of a review that constitutes about 600 words is usually avoidable. ? This is the kid who only reads a book cover-to-cover if it interests her, otherwise she tosses it away after reading the first few pages. And when she likes a book, she loves it. She will not stop reading it, till she is done with it. She only relies on her instinct to appreciate a book. Rarely goes upon recommendations or book reviews or by popular trends amongst her peers. So she absolutely gets what Orwell means. Fascinating watching her respond to the essay.

I was thoroughly entertained as she read out passages from it by doing voices, alternating between Inspector Closeau and Count Dracula/Hotel Transylvania.

Seriously, who needs TV, when one has kids!!

28 May 2021

“The Longest Kiss: The Life and Times of Devika Rani” and “Maryada”

The Longest Kiss: The Life and Times of Devika Rani by Kishwar Desai ( Context, Westland Books), is a biography of the famous Bollywood actress, Devika Rani. It is a biography that Kishwar Desai has put together after poring over thousands and thousands of the actress’s personal correspondence. It creates an image of woman who was a strong individual, had an identity of her own, knew her mind and was very sure what she wanted out of the film industry. She was then the only, and perhaps even now, actress/filmmaker/producer and owner of a film studio – Bombay Talkies. She was known internationally in the 1930s, a feat that is hard for many to achieve even today, nearly a century later!

The Longest Kiss is informative and an absorbing read even if one is unfamiliar with the Bollywood landscape of the 1930s to 1940s. Bombay Talkies produced some of the better-known films of its time. It helped launch careers of many actors such as Ashok Kumar and Dilip Kumar. Kishwar Desai captures the tumultousness of setting up a new business, in what was then uncharted waters, but the manner in which Devika Rani supported her first husband and business partner, Himansu Rai is astonishing. There are glimpses of the tough life she had and the balancing act she had to do often especially with Himansu’s failing mental health and irascible temper. Apparently in private he would take it out on Devika Rani, at times leaving her unconscious and yet she persisted in supporting him and working hard to preserve their business. Often she was also the leading lady in the films they produced together. Having said that she ensured that Bombay Talkies ran smoothly, the women actresses hired found it to be a safe haven and a respite from their domestic drudgery, the employees found it to be professionally run and the presence of the German cinematographers were more a blessing than an interference. So much so when the British arrived at the height of World War II to whisk the Germans away to detention camps, Bombay Talkies continued to work smoothly as the Indians had been trained well by the Germans and Devika Rani ensured that there was no break in the production schedules. Of course, Kishwar Desai details a great deal of the financial ups and downs the firm faced and how deftly Devika Rani steered it through. The actress even survived successfully a revolt within her firm and the board and continued to make films that were a critical and a commercial success. It was later that she was introduced by Bharati Sarabhai to the former Russian aristocrat and painter Svetsolav Roerich. They got along famously well and the rest as they say is history. This too is documented fairly well documented by Kishwar Desai except that it forms a very slim portion of the book. Devika Rani died a wealthy woman, a far cry from the days with Himansu when she had to starve herself or hide the fact that she did not have sufficient clothes to wear.

This is a fascinating book that was fifteen years in the making and will forever be referred to by cinema buffs, researchers and historians curious about India’s past, and of course feminists who would be keen to review how a young woman, newly returned from Britain, left her mark on the film industry in this astonishing manner. All this despite the trials and tribuulations she faced at home, Himansu was known to beat her but she hid it from public, he had reduced her to penury and she had pawned her jewels to help him maintain his illusion of a successful man. There are so many wrongs in this and yet so many women readers will recognise the eternal truth of being caught in this bind of being themselves while being “supportive” of their male partners. There is this particular sentiment that wafts through the book that is difficult to pin down. It is a feeling that develops within the reader curious as to why Devika Rani despite all odds chose to stay with an abusive partner like Himansu even if the rationale of sharing a business interest is offered. Of course, the love that Svetsolav and she had for each other was a blessing. Even so, this steadfast loyalty to Himansu is inexplicable.

Kishwar Desai writes ( p.430):

It was ironic that all these years, she had longed to be looked after. In all her relationships, she had wanted a mentor,a father figure to replace the one she had lost so early — but the men in her life would always lean on her, instead. Somewhere, then, did she always feel unfulfilled? Perhaps it was the loneliness. . . .

I had to take a break from this increasingly bewildering feeling about Devika Rani as to why she stuck it out with Himansu and I was not convinced by the argument that it was loneliness. While on a break, I picked up Arshia Sattar’s lucidly written collection of essays about Maryada, or ‘boundary’ and ‘propriety of conduct’. It is a complicated concept especially since the one version that has held supreme is the idea of ‘maryada purshottama’ or the ‘ideal man’ as the defining virtue of Rama in the Ramayana. But in her essays, Arshia Sattar sets out to explore how the Hindu epics are driven by four ‘operators’ — dharma, karma, vidhi ( fate) and daiva (intervention by the gods). How these especially the various kinds of dharma are fulfilled by individuals by the choices they make. In Maryada ( HarperCollins India) Arshia Sattar tries to delineate the various ways in which these can be achieved or even recognise how others apart from Rama practise this concept. In her concluding remarks in the essay on “Ayodhya’s Wives” where she tries to understand Rama’s arguments about love, she writes:

Rama indicates that Dashratha, too, has acted out of love for Kaikeyi, as Rama is about do now for his wife Sita. Acts of love have to be the most subjective, individual choices that anyone can make, for surely no two people love alike. And yet, Rama feels compelled to transform these acts of will, acts located deep within the sweetest and most expansive spaces of the human heart, into choices that lie within the framework of dharma such as the one that controls him and his father, both as kings and as husbands.

Acting within the constraints of dharma, taking on the roles and walking the paths that have been circumscribed for an individual who is a man, a king, a husband, a son, a brother, minimizes the potential these personal choices have for subversion. …Free will has been eliminated from the discourse of right and wrong, and once again, dharma has been instrumental as the basis not only of action, but also of choice.

It may be a bit far-fetched to think that Devika Rani was at some level following the ideals of the faith she had been brought up in and was whether self-consciously or otherwise fulfilling her dharma. Who knows? And we shall certainly never know. But it is this very fundamental concept of choices that a woman makes that is at the core of the third wave of feminism. Perhaps this angle could have been explored further if Kishwar Desai had chosen to exploit her strength as a novelist to create a thinly veiled fictionalised biography based on facts as David Lodge had done in his novel Author, Author that is about American novelist Henry James. For now I have reservations about The Longest Kiss kind of a biography that oscillates between sharing documentary evidence, especially of the financial aspects of running Bombay Talkies, and ever so often delving into the fiction when imagining the romance between Devika Rani and her husbands, does not quite come together seamlessly. The non-fiction narrative is absorbing to read even if it is based on facts that are never footnoted in the text. So why disrupt the flow of reading with romantic episodes that do not sit well in the text? It does not make any sense even if Devika Rani was a romantic at heart.

Having said that Kishwar Desai’s biography of the actress will be considered as a seminal piece of work even if my Eureka moment of attempting to understand who Devika Rani was by reading some of Arshia Sattar’s brilliant essays. But isn’t that what reading is all about? It raises questions reading a book and that may or may not get answered by reading another one?

Read the books for yourself and judge.

12 Jan 2021

Ways of Dying

It has taken the pandemic for many of us to confront our mortality. Living with the fear of contracting the virus is like living in the shadow of death 24×7. It is a gloomy existence. Fortunately those able-bodied souls who have the chance and exercise their choice, know how to plan for their future, assuming they live. Yet “death” has been explored in literature ad nauseam. It is a complicated part of life since death brings with it a flood of emotions. Grief being predominate but much else happens too. Every individual affected by grief react in their own way.

“Ways of Dying” is a fine collection of literary writings around death and its rites that are observed by the living. All the pieces assembled in this book are extremely well known. But to have them arranged in this manner, shifting gears constantly between the public and personal spaces, unleashes a roller coaster of emotions in the reader. For instance, descriptions of the communal riots in the heart of the Indian capital in Oct 1984 (Amitav Ghosh), Khushwant Singh recalling the last hours of his grandmother, Amitava Kumar’s moving account of his mother’s death, or the fascinating extracts from David Davidar’s book “House of Blue Mangoes” and Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” leave one’s head spinning. The quality of writing is excellent. Controlled and measured . It engulfs the reader in the writer’s hurt at witnessing death. It is an indescribable moment. But at least we are spared that finality of the moment. Because when it comes, it is devastating. It is numbing. These stories can only bring you close to the experience. No more. But it is sufficiently chilling to read especially during the pandemic.

Pick it up. It is worth it.

9 Nov 2020

Hanif Kureishi’s “What Happened?”

Hanif Kureishi’s What Happened? is a collection of essays and stories that were published in various literary magazines and newspapers in recent years. The publications may be recent but it is an interesting mix spanning a few decades of his life. The essays are mostly autobiographical revolving primarily around his desire to be a writer, his determination to achieve his goal and once a published writer, inhabiting a literary world which was predominantly white and seemed to constantly sideline writers like him who were of a different colour.

The British creativity I grew up with – in pop, fashion, poetry, the visual arts and the novel – has almost always come from outside the mainstream, from clubs, gay subcultures, the working class and from the street. Many of the instigators might have been white, but they were not from the middle class, a group that lacks, in my experience, the imagination, fearlessness and talent to be truly subversive.

The truth is, the conservative fear of other voices is not due to the anxiety that artists from outside the mainstream will be untalented, filling up galleries and bookshops with sludge, but that they will be outstanding and brilliant. The conservatives willhave to swallow the fact that despite the success of British artists, real talent has been neglected and discouraged by those who dominate the culture, deliberately keeping schools, the media, universities and the cultural world closed to interesting people.

The essays that stand out are those that describe Kureishi’s awakening as an author, his descriptions of inhabiting the literary world and his firm opinions about racism. These have been consistent themes in his essays over the years but in this collection they are stand out as being extremely relevant. What really hits home hard is that Kureishi was writing about these subjects much before it became fashionable to discuss diversity and inclusivity in the creative industry. He was writing what he saw, experienced, and analysed. He made it his trademark to write about various subjects particularly the racial discrimination he saw daily. It is a perspective that was quite literally being whitewashed in mainstream media and literary platforms though chinks had begun to be visible. Hanif Kureishi is of Asian origin but he was born and brought up in UK. So he was like any other British child except he was made acutely aware of the difference because of his skin colour whereas he did not see himself as any different. But in his very moving essay remembering his friend David Bowie it becomes apparent that to some degree even colour does not matter, but the socio-economic station that you inhabit does. Bowie and Kureishi were a decade apart, they went to the same school in Bromley, but become firm friends later, probably when they joined showbiz.

From the time Kureishi began writing in the early 1970s till now, he has always been comfortable with who he is and his voice has never changed. His style of writing is predictable but never boring, if anything it has become sharper with age. What comes through extraordinarily beautifully in What Happened? is that Hanif Kureishi has not changed but the world has to a certain degree — the horrors of sectarian violence and racism that he was alerting us to over the years have only intensified. So commentators like Kureishi who speak confidently, sharing an opinion, continue to be relevant.

Read it.

22 Oct 2020

“United we are Unstoppable”

United we are unstoppable: 60 inspiring young people saving our world — in their own words is a collection of essays, compiled and edited by Akshat Rathi. Rathi is a London-based journalist for Bloomberg News. These testimonies are brief and clearly spell out the young activist’s mission. Some start with the particular incident that transformed them to start a personal campaign to do their bit towards saving the planet, others on what worries and propels them to start a movement and how it dovetails together beautifully with similar campaigns run by equally enthusiastic and committed individuals scattered around the globe. The essays are arranged according to the continents the young activists reside in. Illustrated b/w maps acting as separators accompanied by key points of climate crisis in that geograohical area are a fantastic snapshot introduction to the problems being faced by the locals. Organising the essays within each section on the youth’s local contribution interspersed with ways in which the readers can also assist is a good way to understand, navigate and understand on how to make relevant changes in our lives The book slips into that space of a cross between a primer and narrative nonfiction but it makes easier to appreciate environmental activism and perhaps even be motivated to be agents of change ourselves It is only collective will that can help save Earth.

As Rathi says in his introduction, “These young people don’t just bring new energy to the climate fight; they bring new perspectives, fresh tactics and unwavering resolution. They don’t just understand that everything in the world is connected; they also know how to bridge the divides that have been forming. They know that tackling climate change requires cutting emissions, but that getting there will require facing up to and rooting out deeper injustices perpetuated in society. The youth climate movement has sprung from the grass roots, brought millions into the fold and changed the global conversation.”

Powerful form of storytelling. Share widely!

4 October 2020

On Sridhar Balan’s “Off the Shelf”

Sridhar Balan is an Indian publishing industry veteran who joined the sector when it was considered a cottage industry despite “big” firms like Oxford University Press, Longman, Macmillan and Tata McGraw Hill having Indian offices. Balan continues to be an active publishing professional who is currently associated with Ratna Sagar. He is always full of interesting anecdotes when you meet him. It is not just the anecdote but the pleasure of watching him narrate the stories with a twinkle in his eye and is forever smiling. He is always so generous in sharing his experiences in publishing. So I am truly delighted that Balan was finally persuaded by Ravi Singh of Speaking Tiger Books to put together a few essays of his time spent in Indian publishing.

The essays span a lifetime in publishing where Balan recounts joining it as a salesperson. He is also a voracious reader with a phenomenal memory and a magnificent ability to tell stories. Mix it all together and voila! — a rich colection of essays that recount significant personalities associated with Indian publishing such as Dean Mahomed (1759 – 1851), a barber’s son from Patna who wrote his first book in 1794 and ultimately settled in Brighton. The essays on other publishers such as Roy Hawkins who is known for settling in India happily wedded to his job as general manager at OUP for more than thirty years. More significantly, Hawkins is credited for having “discovered” many writers such as Verrier Elwin, Salim Ali, Minoo Masani and K.P.S. Menon. Hawkins also published Jim Corbett’s unsolicited manuscript “Man-Eaters of the Kumaon”, first published in 1944. ( It is in print even today with all of Corbett’s other books!) The account of the international publicity organised for this book is a fascinating story. A dream run. A tale worth repeating over and over again including the tiny detail of having two tiger cubs join the book launch party in Manhattan on 4 April 1946. The cubs were encouraged to dip their tiny paws and leave their footprints on the books as a special memento for the guests. A copy was specially inked in this manner for the author too. Corbett had been unable to travel to NYC under military quota as his status was that of a civilian. So he missed his own book launch. Nevertheless the book sold close to 490,000 copies in that year alone. A staggering number by even today’s standards of bookselling! As for the cub footprints on the cover page of the book proved to be such a magnificent book promotion detail that it was then replicated in subsequent editions of the book.

Off The Shelf is full of such wonderful gems of publishing history. For instance, the scholar and academic trained in classics, E.V. Rieu ( 1887 -1972) was selected to head the Indian operations of OUP. He was absorbed in his work but Rieu found time to write verse for children too. Balan recounts a poem that Rieu wrote called ‘Hall and Knight”. It was written by Rieu to record his sympathy for the generations of schoolchildren who had to endure Hall and Knight’s ‘Algebra’, which was the standard textbook in mathematics.

Many of the essays revolve around the time Balan spent at OUP but there are others such as about Dhanesh Jain ( 1939 – 2019) who established Ratna Sagar or legendary bookseller of Lucknow, Ram Advani. ( Whom I too had the pleasure of meeting and who upon hearing I had joined publishing, sent me such a lovely email welcoming me to the industry.)

Balan’s enthusiasm for the book trade shines through Off the Shelf but it is his passion for inculcating the love of reading that needs to be talked about more. He shares one example of his efforts in “Reading in Tirunelveli”. It is an essay worth sharing amongst educators, librarians, book clubs etc for the gentle kindness Balan demonstrates in encouraging children to read. He suggests constructive steps in building libraries and engaging in reading sessions. It is an essay seeped in wisdom.

This is such a lovely book that I could go on and on about it but I shan’t. Just buy it. Read it for yourselves. I could not put it down and read it in one fell swoop.

31 July 2020

Tim Parks, “Pen in Hand, reading, rereading and other mysteries”

Tim Park’s essays are always a pleasure to read. Short and always packed with information. Some of it familliar, some of it unexpected. Pen in Hand is a collection of essays that mostly appeared in the New York Review of Books Daily between 2014 to 2017. There are many to choose from but one particular one entitled “Too Many Books?” has a fascinating section on patronage for the independent writer, the history of mass printing and accessing mass audiences and with it the evoluion of the concept of copyright.

Here is an excerpt:

…in the early 1300s, with the establishment of the first partially mechanized paper mills in Italy, a more generous supply of paper began to circulate and the number of people able to write rapidly increased. All the same, the only way to have more than one copy of what you’d written was to write it out again on another piece of paper, or pay someone else to do that for you. These limitations naturally encouraged people to keep things short and to invest the act of writing with a certain solemnity.

For centuries, if what you had written was going to be shown to others, it would have to be placed in a library, usually a church library. And since the one of the only ways anyone would know that a new piece of literature had been written was if the writer personally put the word around, there would usually be some kind of social connection between writer and readers. At best, then, you could appeal to a literary elite, sharing the same written language — Latin — that was inaccessible to the masses. Perhaps the offspring of these elite would also read you. In fact it was easier to imagine a reputation in centuries to come than widespread diffusion in one’s own time. The perception was that the essential quality of writing was its separation of mental material from mortal grey matter. Word and idea were disembodied and stabilized in order to travel through time, not to be infinitely multiplied in the present.

In general, then, the conditions for supporting the independent professional writer who makes a living from his work just weren’t there. At most, one could hope to come under the patronage of a king, or a city state, or the Church. You could be commissioned to write a treatise or a history. These were not the circumstances where it would be easy to write things your patrons didn’t agree with. Or you might attach yourself to a theater company, where actors would repeat things you had written, though not necessarily word for word. Now your writing might travel a little if the theater company traveled. But most likely it wouldn’t. Traveling companies would not be performing elaborately scripted plays until the sixteenth century.

With the arrival of print in the late fifteenth century, it was suddenly possible to start thinking of a mass audience; 20 million books had been printed in Europe by 1500. Yet it was the printing shops—often more than one if a book was popular—rather than the authors, who made the money. You might write out of a passion to get your ideas around, or out of megalomania—never a condition to be underestimated where writers are concerned—but there was still no steady money to be had producing writing of whatever kind. In economic terms, it was hardly worth insisting you were the author of a text, hence the anonymous book was rather more common than it is today.

Meantime, with this new possibility of printing so many books it made sense to start thinking of all those people who didn’t know Latin. The switch to writing in the vernacular had begun; this meant that, though more copies were being sold, most books were now trapped inside their language community. There were scholars capable of translating of course, and a book that made a big impression in one country would eventually be translated into another. But it took time, and it wouldn’t happen if a book didn’t impress in its original language. Nor for the most part were these translators under contract with publishers. Initially, they were simply scholars who translated what they were interested in and what they believed was worth disseminating. Think of that.

In 1710, Britain’s Queen Anne introduced the first of a series of laws recognizing an author’s right to control the copying of his work. Suddenly, it made economic sense to address yourself to everybody who could afford to pay for a book, rather than to your peer group; much better to write one book that sold in huge quantities than many books that were of interest only to a chosen few. And if the work could be sold in another country it was now worth paying a translator to translate, even if he or she, but usually at this point he, was not especially interested in the work, or perhaps actively disliked it. Writing, translating, and publishing were all becoming jobs.

This essay was first published in New York Review of Books on April 16, 2015.

4 July 2020

Web Analytics Made Easy -
StatCounter