Penguin Random House Posts

Interview with Susan Van Metre, Executive Editorial Director, Walker Books US

Susan Van Metre, Executive Editorial Director, Walker Books

Susan Van Metre is the Executive Editorial Director of Walker Books US, a new division of Candlewick Press and the Walker Group. Previously she was at Abrams, where she founded the Amulet imprint and edited El Deafo by Cece Bell, the Origami Yoda series by Tom Angleberger, the Internet Girls series by Lauren Myracle, They Say Blue by Jillian Tamaki, and the Questioneers series by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Pete Fornatale, and their daughter and Lab mix.

Susan and I met when we were a part of the Visiting International Publishers delegation organised by the Australia Council and Sydney Writers Festival. It was an incredibly enriching time we spent with other publishing professionals from around the world. Meeting Susan was fabulous as Walker Books is synonymous with very high standards of production in children’s literature. Over the decades the firm has established a formidable reputation. Susan very kindly agreed to do an interview via email. Here are lightly edited excerpts.


1.        How did you get into publishing children’s literature? Why join children’s publishing at a time when it was not very much in the public eye?

I never stopped reading children’s books, even as a teen and young adult.  I have always been in love with story.  I was a quiet, lonely young person and storytelling pulled me out of my small world and set me down in wonderful places in the company of people I admired.  I couldn’t easily find the same richness of plot and character in the adult books of the era so stuck with Joan Aiken and CS Lewis and E Nesbit and Ellen Raskin. And I loved the books themselves, as objects, and, in college, had the idea of helping to make them.  I applied to the Radcliffe Publishing Course, now at Columbia, met some editors from Dutton Children’s Books/Penguin there, and was invited to interview.  Though I couldn’t type at all (a requirement at the time), I think I won the job with my passionate conviction that the best children’s books are great literature, and arguably more crucial to our culture in that they create readers. 

2.        How do you commission books? Is it always through literary agents?

Most of the books I publish come from agents but occasionally I’ll reach out to a writer who has written an article that impressed me and ask if they have thought of writing a book. Recently, I bought a book based on hearing the makings of the plot in a podcast episode.

3.        How have the books you read as a child formed you as an editor/publisher? If you worry about the world being shaped by men, does this imply you have a soft corner for fiction by women? ( Your essay, “Rewriting the Stories that Shape Us”)

What a good question. I definitely look for books with protagonists that don’t typically take centre stage, whether it’s a girl or a character of colour or a character with a disability. I have always been attracted to heroes who are underdogs or outsiders, ones that prevail not because they have special powers or abilities but because they have determination and heart. I am in love with a book on our Fall ’19 list, a fantasy whose hero is a teen girl with Down syndrome. It’s The Good Hawk by Joseph Elliott.  I have never met a character like Agatha before—she’s all momentum and loyalty.  Readers will love her.

4. Who are the writers/artists that have influenced your publishing career/choices?

I am very influenced by brainy, hardworking creators like Ellen Raskin and Cece Bell and Mac Barnett and Sophie Blackall and Jillian Tamaki.  I admire a great work ethic, outside-the-box thinking, an instinct for how words and images can work together to create a richly-realized story, and respect for kids as fully intelligent and emotional beings with more at stake than many adults.

5.  As an employee- and author-owned company, Candlewick is used to working collaboratively in-house and with the other firms in the Walker groups. How does this inform your publishing programme? Does it nudge the boundaries of creativity?

There is so much pride at Walker and Candlewick.  Owning the company makes us feel that much more invested in what we are making because it is truly a reflection of us and our values and tastes. Plus, we only make children’s books and thus put our complete resources behind them. There are no pesky, costly adult books and authors to distract us. And I think the strong lines of communication amongst the offices in Boston, New York, London, and Sydney mean that we have a good global perspective on children’s literature and endeavour to make books with universal appeal. I think all these factors contribute to innovation and quality.

6.  You have spent many years in publishing, garnering experience in three prominent firms —Penguin USA, Abrams and Candlewick Press. In your opinion have the rules of the game for children’s publishing changed from when you joined to present day?

Oh, definitely.  When I started, children’s publishing was a quiet corner of the business, mostly dependent on library sales.  There was no Harry Potter or Hunger Games or Wimpy Kid; no great juggernauts driving millions of copies and dollars.  And not really much YA.  YA might be one spinner rack at the library, not the vast sections you see now, full of adult readers. Now children’s and YA is big business and mostly bright spots in the market. The deals are bigger and the risk is bigger and the speed of business is so much faster!

7.   Do you discern a change in reading patterns? Do these vary across formats like picture books, novels, graphic novels? Are there noticeable differences in the consumption patterns between fiction and nonfiction? Do gender preferences play a significant role in deciding the market?

I think we are in a great time for illustrated books, whether they are picture books, nonfiction, chapter books, or graphic novels.  And now children can move from reading picture books to chapter books to graphic novels without giving up full colour illustrations as they age.  And why should they? Visual literacy is so important to our internet age—an important way to communicate online.

8.  One of the iconic books of modern times that you have worked upon are the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Tell me more about the back story, how it came to be etc. Also what is your opinion on the increasing popularity of graphic novels and how has it impacted children’s publishing?

I am not the editor of the Wimpy Kid books—that’s Charles Kochman—but I was lucky enough to help sign them up and bring them to publication as the then head of the imprint they are published under, Amulet Books.  Charlie comes out of comics so when he saw the proposal for Wimpy Kid, which had been turned down elsewhere, he understood the skill and appeal of it. I have NEVER published anything that took off so immediately.  I think we printed 25,000 copies, initially, and we sold out of them in two weeks.  It showed how hungry readers were for that strong play of words and images, and how they longed for a protagonist who was flawed but who didn’t have to learn a lesson.  Adult readers have many such protagonists to enjoy but they are rarer in kids’ books.

9.  Walker Books are inevitably heavily illustrated, where each page has had to be carefully designed. Have any of your books been translated? If so what are the pros and cons of such an exercise?

Our lead Fall title, Malamander, is illustrated and has been sold in a dozen languages.  I think illustration can be a big plus in conveying story in a universally accessible way.

10. The Walker Group is known for its outstanding production quality of printed books. Has the advancement of digital technology affected the world of children’s publishing? If so, how?

I think they incredible efficiency of modern four-colour printing has allowed us to spend money on other aspects of the book, like cloth covers or deckled edges.  That sort of thing.  Children’s books are incredible physical objects these days.

11. Walker Books’ reputation is built on its ability to be creatively innovative and constantly adapt to a changing environment. How has the group managed to retain its influence in this multimedia culture?

First, thank you for saying so!  I think the rest of media still looks to book publishing for great stories and as a house that has always invested in talent, we are lucky enough to have stories that work across many forms of media.

12.  Have any of books you have worked upon in your career been banned? If so, why? What has been the reaction?

Yes.  In fact, I am working with Lauren Myracle on a young adult novel, publishing in Spring ’21, called This Boy. Lauren is the author of the ttyl series, which was on the ALA’s Banned Book list for many years. It was challenged for its depictions of teenage sexuality.  I was raised to be modest and rule following so my personal reaction was horror—especially when parents started phoning me directly to complain—but I feel so strongly that kids and teens deserve to read about life as it really is—not just as we wish it would be.  So I came to be proud of the designation.  Nothing is scarier than the truth.

Bibliography:

Hannah Lambert (2010) Sebastian Walker and Walker Books: A Commercial Case Study, New Review of Children’s Literature and Librarianship, 15:2, 114-127, DOI: 10.1080/13614540903498885. Published online: 03 Feb 2010.

25 Sept 2019

Women in Translation, Aug 2019

The Women in Translation (#WiT) month is celebrated annually in August. There was a flurry of activity online with a number of gems being unearthed and discussed. It is a really fascinating time to discover new writers, new translators, new publishers etc. Whilst I enjoyed reading the various articles, interviews, profiles and even book extracts that were made available online, I realised there was a deafening silence from the Indian subcontinent.

There is a thriving literary culture that has existed in the subcontinent for an exceptionally long time in all the regional languages. Of late many of these texts are being made available in English so as to be accessed by a larger readership. Sometimes new translations are commissioned such as Daisy Rockwell’s translation of Khadija Mastur’s The Women’s Courtyard although a translation by Neelam Hussain of Simorgh Collective exists too.

Another fascinating aspect of the Indian publishing industry is that as it grows, the market grows, and so does the interest in the craft of writing. For long writers have written and published their works in various literary magazines, “women’s magazines”, newspapers etc. Of course there are now online literary spaces, discussion forums and sometimes even in the print media where writers are interviewed and their craft discussed. But interviewing writers, especially women, is an art unto itself. Women writers inevitably have to find the time to write amongst the rhythm of many other duties and commitments they need to fulfil. This was more so in the past than now when increasingly there are more and more “professional writers”. Even so, reading about the craft of writing by women writers continus to be an exciting world since irrespective of socio-economic class, many writers share the same concerns and have similar pressures. Women Unlimited, an associate of Kali for Women, has for years published interviews with women writers. Their latest publication is Lifescapes: Interviews with Contemporary Women Writers from Tamil Nadu. The Tamil publishing landscape is not an easy one to understand with many interesting threads running through it, all of which were influential upon the seventeen women writers interviewed by the editors — K. Srilata and Swarnlatha Rangarajan. While the interviews themselves are insightful, it is the structural arrangement of each entry that is fascinating for it has the mandatory biography about the author, a sample of her writing, a head note by the editors introducing the writer and why they chose her specifically to be included in the anthology and finally, the interview. Every detail adds just sufficient information creating an image of the writer that the reader definitely wants to know more about.

Ever since World Literature began to open new publishing horizons in the Anglo-American book market as well as the growth of the desi diaspora as a lucrative readership, did the spotlight on translations from regional languages into English become an attractive proposition for many firms. As a result there is a feast of offerings particularly as the multi-national publishers expand their fare. Be that as it may there are some fabulous publishers such as Women Unlimited, Zubaan, Orient Black Swan, Speaking Tiger, Permanent Black ( on occasion), Aleph Book Company, Yoda Press, Westland/Amazon and Oxford University Press that have been publishing translations for a while. It is impossible to list all but here some of the wonderful titles published recently.

The Solitary Sprout: Selected Stories of R. Chudamani ( translated from Tamil by C.T. Indra and T. Sriraman) is a fabulous collection of short stories. In fact, R. Chudamani (1931-2010) has often been considered as an early feminist among Tamil writers. The Solitary Sprout is a wonderful selection of Chudamani’s short stories with “No fury like a mother’s”, “Herself” and “Not a stepfather” standing out as very modern stories. It is hard to believe that these were written many decades ago. The sharp insight and clear ideas that the writer shares can take one’s breath away even now. For instance, “No fury like a mother’s” is about three mothers of young schoolgirls who are furious at how their daughters are ill-treated by their school teacher. The punishment meted out to the young girls by the teacher is to strip the girls publicly. The three mothers team up and pressurise the teacher to resign otherwise they threaten to mete out the same treatment to her as she did to their daughters. “Herself” is about a mother who once her children are married and settled with families of their own, discovers her trueself and becomes a music teacher as well is a voluntary worker at the Primary Health Centre in her village. Much to her visiting daughter’s dismay who had expected a month’s vacation at her parent’s home free from all responsibilities including babysitting her own son. Instead the daughter discovers she has to pitch in with household chores at her parents home and continue to look after her own son. She is deeply disappointed and upset as her memories of her mother was one who was always free and available for the family. It rattles the daughter. More so as her father supports his wife’s actions and sees no wrong. “Not a stepfather” addresses issues like widow remarriage, single parenting, stepfather etc. It is beautifully told from the perspective of the disgruntled mother of the bride who is not amused that her daugther has remarried and expects the new husband also to take care of her young son. It is complicated but within the first visit of the newly married couple to the mother’s house, the son warms up to his new father and gets the blessings of his mother-in-law too. It is a powerful story as it raises so many questions about gendered and social expectations of a woman and a man. The Solitary Sprout is worth reading, sharing and discussing in more forums. These are stories that need to be told more often.

Prolific and powerful writer K. R. Meera has a new collection of three novellas called The Angel’s Beauty Spots. As often is the case with K. R. Meera’s stories, she explores love and its various angles. Sometimes well meaning and powerful love for all intents and purposes can go horribly wrong as in the title novella. K. R. Meera’s stories have this remarkable quality of taking the wind out of the reader’s sails with the horrific and at times inexplicable sequence of events except that some bizarre form of love propelled many of the decisions taken by her characters. Somehow the team of author and translator, K. R. Meera and J. Devika, works well. It is difficult to pinpoint an exact reason but the translation reads smoothly without losing any of the cultural characteristics of sharing a story set in Kerala and written in Malayalam. It just feels perfectly satisfying to read.

The Diary of Manu Gandhi ( 1943 – 44) are the diaries written by Manubehn ( Mridula) Gandhi, who was the youngest daughter of Mahatma Gandhi’s nephew, Jaisukhlal Amritlal Gandhi and Kasumba. These diaries are preserved in the National Archives of India and for the first time are being translated and edited from Gujarati into English by Tridip Suhrud. Manu Gandhi as a young girl had been encouraged by Mahatma Gandhi to maintain a diary. Manu Gandhi was the one walking beside Mahatma Gandhi at Birla House before his would-be assassin, Nathuram Godse, pushed her aside, so as to be able to shoot his target.

Diary-keeping of Gandhi was an essential duty for all those engaged in pursuit of truth and hence obligatory for Ashramites and satyagrahis. He constantly urged the Ashram community and constructive workers to maintain one. ….A daily diary,he believed, was a mode of self-examination and self-purification; he made it an obligatory observance for all those who walked with him on the Salt march.

While The Diary of Manu Gandhi ( 1943 – 44) is of more academic and historical interest to many readers, it is accompanied by a fine commentary by Gandhian scholar Tridip Suhrud. He offers insights about maintenance of a diary, the translation process, making available critical empirical material such as these diaries which till now many knew of its existence but not many could access. It also documents the growth of a young, under-confident girl to a mature person as evident in the style of her writing, longer sentences, more time spent describing incidents rather than restricting it to scribbles as many of the early entries are. Interestingly, as Tridip Suhrud points out in his introduction, Mahatma Gandhi or Bapu as he was known, would often read and scribble his thoughts in the margins of Manu Gandhi’s diaries. Ideally though it would have been a preferable if in this volume an interview with Tridip Suhrud with a leading gender/oral history expert had been included. It would then give some critical insights in what it means to translate a young girl’s diary many decades later by a highly reputed Gandhian scholar. With due respect even the best academic scholars tend to gloss over certain gender issues that irrespective of how many times they are repeated continue to be important and need to be highilghted. At the same time it would be fascinating to see what emerges from the conversation of a Gandhian expert with a gender expert to see how much Gandhian ways of living influenced the minds and hearts of those in the Ashram or did the basic gendered ways of seeing also get scrubbed away.

Speaking of memoirs, Rosy Thomas’s He, My Beloved CJ about her life with her husband and well-known Malayalam writer and critic, C. J. Thomas. It has been translated by G. Arunima. C.J. Thomas died young. His wife wrote this memoir much later. While it is a very personal account of her courtship, her marriage and the brief time she spent with her husband during which he opposed her desire to seek employment. Apparently in the Malayalam text, Rosy Thomas often refers to her husband as moorachi ( a colloquial term for conservative). Hence within this context it is quite amazing to read an account of a life that does not necessarily romanticise the couple’s love but is able to subvert the prevalent notions of wifehood. It has descriptions of their homes, their families, their circle of friends and at times some of their discussions on art, creativity and politics. At least in the memoir she comes across at times an equal participant despite his conservative mindset on having a wife who earned a living. Be that as it may, the monotone pitch at which the memoir is written or has been translated in —it is difficult to discern the difference — does not make He, My Beloved CJ easy to read. Of course it is a seminal book and will for a long time be referred to by many scholars interested in knowing more about the literary movement in Kerala or about the legend himself, C. J. Thomas — a man who seems to have acquired mythical proportions in Kerala. How many will access it for being a woman’s witnessing of a fascinating moment in history, only time will tell. Meanwhile the translator’s note is worth reading. G. Arunima writes:

…this biography is as much about C J Thomas and their marriage, as it is about Rosy as a writer. The act of remembrance is also about fashioning her own self and subjectivity, both as a ‘loving’ subject, and as a ‘writer’ and raconteur, observing, weighing, annotating and narrating their life as a text. Rosy Thomas grew up in a literary home; her father, M P Paul, was an intrinsic part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, the Sahitya Pravarthaka Sahakarna Sangham ( Literary Workers’ Cooperative Society) and had also set up the tutorial college that was named after him. Writers, books and a culture of reading were a central part of her life. Even though these reminiscences do not dwell too much on her own literary or political formation, it is evident that CJ’s world wasn’t alien to her. In her later life she was to become a published writer and translator in her own right; such creativity is obvious even in this text where the nuances of a remembered life are testament to her wit and literary flair.

There are many, many more titles that one can discuss such as Sharmila Seyyid’s Ummath: A Novel of Community and Conflict. It is set during the three decades of the Sri Lanka’s civil war. It is told through the lives of three women, Thawakkul, Yoga and Theivanai — one a social activist, the other a Tamil Tiger forced into joining the movement as a child, and the third a disillusioned fighter for the Eelam. The novel has been translated from Tamil by Gita Subramaniam. While it immerses one immediately into the strife torn landscape, it is also puzzling as sometimes the voices of the three main characters seem to acquire the same pitch, making it seem as if the author’s own devastating firsthand experiences of the conflict are making their presence felt throughout the narrative. It is impossible for the English readers to ever solve this puzzle but there is something that comes through in the translation and is not easy to pinpoint. While promoted as fiction, it is easy to see that Ummath with the insights it offers, nature of conversations documented and descriptions of the landscape make this novel a lived experience. This is a challenging story to read but is worth doing so as the conversations about women/gender and conflict are relatively new in public discourse and need to be share more widely.

The final book in this roundup is a translation from Bengali of Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s The Children’s Ramayana by first-time translator Tilottama Shome. It is the Ramayana told with its basic story sans the many digressions and minor tales. It is the epic with many of the popular stories retold that many generations of Indians are familiar with. It does not come across as a novice’s attempt at translation. In fact as she says in her translator’s note, “I have tried to retain that delightful quirky tone and the hint of humour told with a straight face that has endeared Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s works to readers for generations” seems to be true. Again it is impossible for English readers to confirm this fact or not but there is something about the zippy pace, ease of reading, a rhythm to the storytelling, making it immensely attractive to read. Perhaps Tilottama Shome being a trained singer ably assisted her in finding the rhythm to this translation. There is something to be said for a trained musical ear and discovering the cadences of a written text making the translation from one language/culture to the next a pleasurable experience!

18 September 2019

Interview with Ahlawat Gunjan

Ahlawat Gunjan has a Master’s Degree in Graphic Design from The Glasgow School of Art, UK. Previous to that he also spent a semester at Indiana-Purdue University, USA focusing on design thinking and leadership. He is a graduate of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad.

Trained at Lars Mullers Switzerland and Faber & Faber, UK, Ahlawat has a varied and interesting work experience. His overlapping interests in art and literature not only made him pursue a career in publishing but also informs his keen interest in visual authorial interventions and curatorship. This allowed Gunjan to shape the visual personality of the book at every step of its creation. Ahlawat also enjoys the many ways and levels at which a designer can take narrative construction forward through type and image.

He heads Design Department at Penguin Random House, India during the day and spends time painting in the evenings and over the weekends.

Following are edited excerpts of an interview conducted via email:

1.How did you get into the world of publishing?

It was a beautiful accident. My first job was with Hidesign in Pondicherry and I wanted to move closer to home. So, I was looking for opportunities in Delhi and DK happened. I was really enjoying the process of book making, image editing, and managing large book design projects. And I’m rarely satisfied. So, I wanted to try out my hands on a few book covers for Penguin (which used to be next door really in Panchsheel). I still remember being nervous asking my then manager and now Managing Director, DK India, Aparna Sharma, and she was absolutely open to the idea and very encouraging. I did one cover and it went off very well and this was the start of a new journey. I went on to do four more covers and discovered a sort of hidden joy in myself. I realized I really wanted to do this for living now. With huge support from DK and Penguin, the switch happened and I made Penguin my home thereafter. My masters at The Glasgow School of Arts was focused on publishing and as a part of it, I was extremely lucky to intern at Lars Mullers in Switzerland and later at Faber and Faber. This is how publishing happened to me and today, honestly I can’t imagine myself in any other domain of Graphic design.

2. What in your opinion are the basic elements of designing a book cover?

Since seeing comes before words, I would say strength and clarity are foremost and non-negotiable. By strength, I mean the ability of the cover to draw your attention towards it and clarity is the ability (through image and typography) to communicate the message clearly and effectively. The rest happens between these two.

3. Are there a set of basic ground rules that a book designer should be aware of before delving into a new project?

Be courageous and have conviction.

Design and not decorate.

Allow things to evolve.

4. Do you think the basic principles of book designing have undergone a massive transformation since the medieval ages or is it that the modes of production have transformed the process?

Since medieval ages, absolutely. That time we used to have decorative leather bound books with very less variations in terms of size and colour palette. Margins and page settings were dictated how monks would hand write the contents.

With Guttenburg’s invention, the game changed entirely. With printing press, movable type blocks were introduced for mass production.  One can see a lot of illustrated elements like decorative capital letters, but what was missing was para spacing, line spacing, leading and all forced justified text which made the whole page pretty hard to read. It was the time when publishers were the printers and often wanted to show their abilities that were boring, hard to read and based on little showing off. Designs that wouldn’t enhance the text. By 1700s, printing became somewhat common to the masses.

By 1800s, there were authors and fine artists who were involved and commissioned to design and set the books. They introduced the notion of foot notes, side bars and paste numbers. This was the time when the economics of making a book took some precedence, which until now was secondary. 1900s saw several design schools mushrooming all over Europe and USA, with their respective design philosophies (It is very evident even today. For instance, the way Swiss or Dutch people approach design and produce their books, with very strong and distinct typography, imaging and very high production quality).

So, on the whole with turn off every century, book designing saw their own changes.

5. How important is it to know typography as well as different art forms to design a book cover/ book? If yes, what are the fonts for which you have a soft corner?

Author assigns certain voice to their characters and as a book designer we have to assign visual voices to those characters. So, you can understand what a narrative can do without a voice or having a wrong voice. I believe the relationship between the cover design and the text is very special. This is because a font, colour or layout is not chosen solely in function of its legibility but principally for its associative capacity. The classic problem of semiotic theory is that a single image expresses more than a thousand words, and a single word conveys more than a thousand images. (p. 116 Devleminck, Steven, Gobert, Inge, Looveren Johan Van. The Balancing Act of Design )

It’s the backbone of a good cover and I strongly believe in it. Infact, I went to do a summer intensive typography course at the Royal College of Arts, London fairly recently.

I do have some favourites fonts, but I’m trying to work with as few as four/six.

6. Has digital technology made a qualitative difference to book covers?

Yes, your work can reach an unimaginable amounts of readers (say FB, Instagram and other social medias, people tagging etc.), which wasn’t the case 10 years back really. Additionally, unknown readers reach out to you on Facebook, Instagram, Amazon review with their compliments, which is very satisfying and encouraging.

7. What is it that you seek in a book cover design?

A space to negotiate, collaborate, and construct ideas/thoughts and above all space to create! I try to be in author’s shoes to see and feel the writings, to basically try to get the pulse of every possible detail and to assure them that we are equally excited about your work and at the end, making them hand over the controls to you. These are far more fundamental than deciding which fonts to use, what leading is better for a book cover, and so on and so forth.

A designer has a certain accountability and his/ her actions have enormous impact on millions of readers. Without knowing, they become a part of the design and literary history. Along with all the fun you may have, it’s also a huge responsibility on your shoulders, because you are going to give a visual personality to someone’s years of work. Additionally, this will go to print and will be out there for years to come (unlike the digital format, where you can change details quickly). A book cover designer needs to understand that the author’s work is linear but the images on the cover are associative. The challenge is to add layers through visual intervention with type and image. That means, apart from giving a structure, designer can control the reader to read the content in certain way. In other words, the designer holds a remote control to direct the reader a certain way.

8. What is your ideal brief for a book cover design? What are the elements it must absolutely contain and what are the elements that would be bonus if included but are not that necessary?  

We have a standard cover brief format at Penguin and we get written cover briefs from our editors. But, I always believe in having a detailed chat with the editor, sometimes with the author and the sales team also, before I start thinking and researching for the cover. I feel, this way I get the best results!

It’s helpful to have all the elements pertaining to the cover:

Format (HB or PB), size, spine width, budget, extracts to read along with visual suggestions and any additional inputs from the author and Sales.

9. What are the cost considerations of creating a book cover design?

We do work with certain budget per cover and depending upon the design ideas, we sometimes push and pull. For instance, if a designer got a cover design that is dependent on post-press effects (embossing, die-cuts, debossing, Pantone colours) or wants to use unusual stock or slightly extensive printing technique, then we do push the cost boundaries to make it happen. I think it’s about how much we collectively believe in that book and it’s linked to the way we are positioning that particular book.

10. How do you manage to maintain a freshness of style especially with the play of light in most of your compositions? What are the mediums you are partial to — watercolours, acrylic, ink etc.?

My mentor Lars Müller says, “We are authors while designing. Design is our language. And I must reflect my beliefs”. I start each book cover design project from scratch, from reading the manuscript to researching about visuals, fonts I will be using or drawing, discussing the ideas with editors and authors. My way is slow, simple and uncluttered, as already there is enough visual pollution both in typography and imaging. Both of these are art and science and one should strive for simplicity.

No, I’m not partial to any medium when it comes to designing a cover. It has to be absolutely objective and true to the contents inside.

11. What would you claim to be your signature style in creating an art work, may it be canvas or a book cover? For Turner it was the playing of paper and colours. What is yours?

I like making my own imagery for the covers. Originality is one feature that plays an enormous role in my designs. In this age and date where everything is a click away, one seems to think that they have browsed through similar visuals. To arrive at something that is startlingly unconventional and refreshing, the process of thinking needs to be unconventional too. Therefore, one must embrace ambiguity and not kill any idea that one has. I always say it is better to produce an ugly cover but it should be an original. “I prefer ugly covers to clone covers. At least ugly covers demand a certain amount of attention. And will continue to be ugly. In other words, today’s ugly is tomorrow’s beautiful,” says Peter Mendelsund and I can’t agree more to this.

12. Who are the artists and book designers who have influenced you?

My absolute favourites are Irma Boom, Adrian Shaugnehhesy (just spent a week with him in London) and Peter Mendelsund (my ex-colleague from Knopf, USA).

Artists: David Hockney, Ivon Hitchens and Amrita Sher Gil. I can’t do without them!!

13. Can you share examples of book covers that you consider iconic?

Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh, Gandhi by Ramchandra Guha, Premchand series, Indica by Pranay Lal, Moong Over Microchip by Venkat Iyer, God in the Quran by Jack Miles (Knopf US), Trampled Under Foot by Barney Hoskins (Faber and Faber) and The Room on the Roof by Ruskin Bond (anniversary edition). 

5 September 2019

Book Post 28: 18 February – 2 March 2019

At the beginning of the week I post some of the books I have received recently. In today’s Book Post 28 included are some of the titles I have received in the past few weeks. 

3 March 2019

Extract from “The Hungryalists: The Poets Who Sparked a Revolution”

The Hungryalists: The Poets Who Sparked a Revolution by Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury is an interesting tribute to a short lived but intense literary movement in West Bengal that has left an lasting impact around the world. Their well documented relationship with the Beats poet is also analysed in The Hungryalists. This book will become one of the go-to reads on The Hungryalists precisely for the very reason that little documentation of the movement exists in English as these poets mostly wrote in Bengali. So to transcend languages and cultures requires a bridging language which is English.

The Hungryalist or the hungry generation movement was a literary movement in Bengali that was launched in 1961, by a group of young Bengali poets. It was spearheaded by the famous Hungryalist quartet — Malay Roychoudhury, Samir Roychoudhury, Shakti Chattopadhyay and Debi Roy. They had coined Hungryalism from the word ‘Hungry’ used by Geoffrey Chaucer in his poetic line “in the sowre hungry tyme”. The central theme of the movement was Oswald Spengler’s idea of History, that an ailing culture feeds on cultural elements brought from outside. These writers felt that Bengali culture had reached its zenith and was now living on alien food. . . . The movement was joined by other young poets like Utpal Kumar Basu, Binoy Majumdar, Sandipan Chattopadhyay, Basudeb Dasgupta, Falguni Roy, Tridib Mitra and many more. Their poetry spoke the displaced people and also contained huge resentment towards the government as well as profanity. … On September 2, 1964, arrest warrants were issued against 11 of the Hungry poets. The charges included obscenity in literature and subversive conspiracy against the state. The court case went on for years, which drew attention worldwide. Poets like Octavio Paz, Ernesto Cardenal and Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg visited Malay Roychoudhury. The Hungryalist movement also influenced Hindi, Marathi, Assamese, Telugu & Urdu literature. ( “The Hungryalist Movement: When People Took Their Fight Against The Government” Md Imtiaz, The Logical Indian, 29 June 2016)

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With the permission of the publisher here are two short extracts from the book:

Like everywhere else, the shadow of caste hung over the burning ghats as well. There were different burning sections for different castes. The Indian poets accompanying Ginsberg were usually Brahmins. Being there and smoking up was in itself an act of defiance, which normally nobody but the tantrics indulged in. Sunil, who had brought in his dead father here not too long ago, even joked about the place. Later, Ginsberg would go on to write:

I lay in my Calcutta bed, eye fixed

On the green shutters in the wall, crude

Wood that might have been windows

in your Cottage, with a rusty nail

and a ring iron at the hand

To open on heaven. A whitewashed

Wall, the murmur of sidewalk sleepers,

the burning ghat’s sick rose flaring

like matchsticks miles away, my cough

from flu and too many cigarettes,

prophet Ramakrishna banning

the bowels and desires—

War was on everyone’s mind. Ginsberg spoke extensively on what he called the ‘era of wars’. ‘There are as many different wars as the very nature of these wars,’ he had told his fellow poets. Following the death of Stalin and the Cuban Missile Crisis, an uneven calm seemed to have descended, only to be followed by skirmishes here and there. Issues of sovereignty dominated East and West Germany; the Kurds and Iraq were at loggerheads; closer home, the Tibetans were, of course, still struggling to ward off the Chinese invasion of their lands.

Without much ado, Ginsberg, along with Orlovsky and Fakir, arrived one Sunday at the Coffee House looking for Bengali poets. The cafe was abuzz with writers, editors and journalists. Each group had a different table—some had joined two or more tables and brought together different conversations on one plate. But somehow, everyone seemed to have an inchoate understanding of the business of war and what it spelled out for them in the end.

Ginsberg’s arrival was something of a coincidence, Samir mused. Contrary to what one would think was a far-fetched reality, especially in bourgeois Calcutta, a significant number of young Indian students had around that time begun applying for undergraduate courses in American colleges and universities. Times had fundamentally changed, of course. Where once an aspiring middle-class Bengali academic might have chosen to pursue his studies at either Oxford or Cambridge or some university in the Soviet Union, the new mindset now included American universities as the next lucrative biggie to venture forth into. Typically, one would hear snide remarks and private jokes about it in inner circles—about the disloyalty apparent in such choices and more. But those with aspirational values had learnt to live with it, was Malay’s understanding.

Even amid the erratic crowd and the loud voices that drowned everything in coffee, Ginsberg commanded attention. Samir had recalled to Malay:

He approached our table, where Sunil, Shakti, Utpal and I sat, with no hesitation whatsoever. There was no awkwardness in talking to people he hadn’t ever met. None of us had seen such sahibs before, with torn clothes, cheap rubber chappals and a jhola. We were quite curious. At that time, we were not aware of how well known a poet he was back in the US. But I remember his eyes—they were kind and curious. He sat there with us, braving the most suspicious of an entire cadre of wary and sceptical Bengalis, shorn of all their niceties—they were the fiercest lot of Bengali poets—but, somehow, he had managed to disarm us all. He made us listen to him and tried to genuinely learn from us whatever it was that he’d wanted to learn, or thought we had to offer. Much later, we came to know that there had been suspicions about him being a CIA agent, an accusation he was able to disprove. In the end, we just warmed up to him, even liked him. He became one of us—a fagging, crazy, city poet with no direction or end in sight.

All around the Coffee House, there were discussions on war. Would the Chinese Army march up to Calcutta? Would the Indian soldiers hold out? During one of these discussions, Ginsberg spoke with conviction: ‘People who want peace must intervene now, before it’s too late. But, no one will, I’m afraid. Let’s have debates if you will, let’s get talking. Let the Nehrus, the Maos and the Kennedys of this world come together, sit across and talk. Who are we without a debate?’

******

Very early on, the Hungryalists had announced, rather brashly, their lack of faith and what they thought of god. To them religion was an utter waste of time, and they made no bones about this. In fact, in one of their bulletins, they had openly denounced god and called organized religion nonsense. Many of the Hungryalists, with their sharp knowledge of Hindu scriptures, had been challenging temple elders on the different rituals and modes of worship. This came as a shock to many, in a country where religion was very much a part of everyday life—a matter of pride and culture even. On the other hand, Ginsberg was evidently quite taken with religion in India and sought out sadhus and holy men wherever he went in the country. While this might have been because he was in search of a guru, he seemed to be fascinated, in equal measure, by the sheer variety that religion opened for him in India—from Kali worship to Buddhism. But like the Beats, the Hungryalists came together in denouncing the politics of war, which merged with their larger world view.

*****

A tribute to the Hungryalist movement was uploaded on YouTube. It is in Bengali. Here is the film. In the comments Malay RoyChoudhury has also replied.

Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury The Hungryalists: The Poets Who Sparked a Revolution Penguin Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, an imprint of Penguin Random House, India, 2018. Hb. pp. 190 Rs 599

Further Reading:

Ankan Kazi “Open Wounds: The contested legacy of the Hungry Generation” Caravan, 1 October 2018

Juliet Reynolds “Art, the Hungryalists, and the Beats” Cafe Dissensus, 16 June 2016

A new book chronicles the radically iconoclastic movement in Bengali poetry in the 1960s” Scroll, 8 Jan 2019

Interview with Henry Eliot, Creative Editor of Penguin Classics in the UK, regarding “The Penguin Classics Book”

I interviewed Henry Eliot, Creative Editor of Penguin Classics in the UK after reading the marvellous The Penguin Classics Book he has authoredIt is a beautiful historical documentation of the Penguin Classics list. This book spans world literature from the 21st century BCE to the First World War. The list was launched by the legendary translator and scholar Prof. E. V. Rieu at the invitation of the founder of Penguin Books, Sir Allen Lane. The sales of 130 titles Prof E V Rieu launched sold more than a million copies a year. This impressive book sales record is more or less unsurpassed even now.  ( Scroll re-published the interview on their website on 9 Dec 2018. Here is the link. )

Henry Eliot has also written Follow This Thread and Curiocity: An Alternative A-Z of London(with Matt Lloyd-Rose).

The Penguin Classics Book comes across as a pure labour of love. It also fulfils a very essential task of being a rich historical documentation of a sterling list while being a repository of world literature translated in to English. Henry Eliot’s comments in the book about Dr Rieu’s vision and his intention of housing only the well-known texts as translations on this list is a good reference point for many of the ongoing discussions in the literary world about translations. In fact Dr Rieu’s classic translation of Homer’s The Odyssey  has been prescribed for decades by universities around the world. Dr. Rieu favoured prose but this was (thankfully!) reviewed by his successor, Betty Radice. While reading The Penguin Classics Book I came across a fabulous discussion between Dr E.V. Rieu and Rev. J. B. Phillips on translating the Gospels, recorded on 3 Dec 1953. Dr Rieu is very clear on what he deems to be a good translation — the principle of ‘equivalent effect’ and that it holds well when read aloud. A principle that Henry Eliot confirmed is still in place!
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Here are excerpts from the conversation:
1. How was this project conceptualised?  How long did it take to execute from start to finish?

When I joined Penguin Classics nearly three years ago, one of the first things that struck me was the size of the list. Over the last 70 years it has grown so huge – it now has over 1,200 Penguin Classics and 1,000 Penguin Modern Classics – and it is difficult now for a reader to get a handle on this vast list. We began talking about ways to help readers to navigate the list, to assist them in making sense of it: we imagined a classics ‘museum’ with some big galleries and some hidden corners through which readers could wander and explore and make discoveries. In the end we didn’t build a physical museum but we created a book, which allows the reader to hold the entire list in their hands: now you can get the measure of the entire list and I hope this will give readers the confidence to explore the series and discover wonderful new titles and authors to read.

We began these discussions about two and a half years ago and decided to make the book a few months later. It took me about a year to write and then another year for the design to come together for printing.

2. In your opinion what are the key characteristics of Penguin Classics? How has it evolved over the years?

Penguin Classics has always aimed to present the best books from literatures across the world and to make them accessible to a general readership. It has always prided itself on high quality design and production values. These things have remained unchanged; some things have changed, however:

  • For the first forty years the list was a translation list only: there were no English-language Penguin Classics. These were published in a parallel sister series called Penguin English Classics, which was eventually absorbed into Penguin Classics in 1985.
  • The first series editor, E. V. Rieu, had a preference for prose translations of verse and he insisted on minimal critical ‘apparatus’ other than a short introduction; his successor, Betty Radice, however, preferred verse translations and she responded to an increased interest from US students by including more scholarly appendices.
  • The list’s horizons have also expanded over the years. Rieu had a prejudice against German literature, for example, and Radice made a concerted effort to introduce more Chinese literature. The job of the editors today is to identify the many gaps on the list and attempt to fill them.

3. Even though over the years the list was brought in-house rather than work with remote editors, do the team of editorial directors supervising this list have language specialists advising them on developing the literature in other languages and assessing the final translation?

Yes – the editors have expert contacts in the worlds of academia and publishing, whom they consult.

[ JBR: This is fascinating because this is the manner in which academic and journal publishing happens – to have external advisors, readers and experts guiding the publishing programme. It is a brilliant way in which to test the strength of a list and/or establish a new one.]

4. What is truly remarkable is that The Penguin Classics Book is as up-to-date as possible. For instance, the new Japanese stories (ed. Jay Rubin) edition with an introduction by Haruki Murakami is included. How did this inclusion happen?

Thank you! We have included every Penguin Classic that is in print now – the book is up-to-date to the end of 2018 (and even further in a couple of cases – the publication of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy was delayed to 2019, but we still decided to keep it in the book). The book is roughly organised chronologically and covers literature written before the end of the First World War, but of course this poses a problem in the case of anthologies. We decided to include anthologies at the point in the book that coincides with their earliest work. The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories makes it in on these criteria – it was published in June 2018 and the first story was written in the late 19th-century.

5. Would it be correct to assume that the digital age with its stress on visual images created an opportunity to publish in print the rich history of such a magnificent archive?

I’m not sure — in a way the process was quite old-fashioned. There are over 3,000 images in the book and we got them by photographing all the covers individually. I spent two solid weeks in the Penguin archive working with two photographers in order to capture them all. Now that we have the images, however, I’m sure there will be lots of further uses for them, many of which will no doubt be digital.

[ JBR: Perhaps I did not make myself very well clear in the questioning. I meant if the visual world of the digital space has not impacted the decision to create a visually beautiful edition in print? The previous volumes of Penguin covers have always been paperbacks, in four colour, but nowhere near as beautiful as this edition is.

HE: Thank you — much appreciated! Maybe . . . I think we’re all frustrated by the rigid way in which Amazon displays its book covers – so maybe this was a subconscious reaction to that.]

6. Which titles that have become extinct in the backlist would you recommend resurrecting for a modern reader? Do you think titles showcased in “The Vaults” section may have a future life as digital editions rather than in print?

About ten years ago the editors tried resurrecting a few Penguin Classics titles which had gone out of print and the experiment wasn’t a huge success. I’m sure there are exceptions, but it seems that when something goes out of print, it goes out of print for a reason: there just isn’t the demand from readers.

It might be possible to offer digital editions of these titles, but there might also be an argument for ‘weeding out’ the titles that don’t sell so well, so that the quality and relevance of the whole list remains strong.

7. The book cover designs are always distinctive. For years the Penguin Classics were defined by the deep black, then a deep black with a photograph and a coloured border etc. Why and how did these cover designs change or does it depend entirely upon the whimsical fancies of the editor in charge?

Penguin Classics has had four different designs over the years. The first, designed by John Overton in 1946 and refined by Jan Tschichold in 1949, had a border that was colour-coded by language and an illustrative woodcut in the centre. The second, introduced in 1963 by Germano Facetti, had a black spine for the first time and a very simple cover filled with a photographic artwork, overlaid with the author’s name and book’s title. The third design by Steve Kent appeared in 1985: it combined elements of the previous two by keeping the black spine and the photographic artwork, but reinstating a border on the cover and a small colour-coded system at the top of the spine. The final iteration took place in 2003: now Penguin Classics all have a black panel at the bottom with the author’s name in orange and the book’s title in white, a slim white band with the series name, and a full-bleed image in the space above.

As the list has expanded and become increasingly international, it has become more and more difficult to make a change to the cover design. Logistically it involves rejacketing a huge number of titles and coordinating new templates across all the different offices around the world, so it is certainly not a whimsical decision. If the design were to change again it would need a coordinated strategy behind it.

8. Penguin Classics is the trademark list of the publishing firm. It has existed for so many decades. Are there any titles that are perennial bestsellers or do some titles on the list exist because of their seminal value to a literary canon?

The graph of Penguin Classics sales is L-shaped: there are many titles that sell a few copies a year and a few titles that sell many copies. Some of the perennial bestsellers include Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, Jane Eyreby Charlotte Bronte and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

9. Dr Rieu’s impressive track record of selling at least a million copies a year of the 130 titles on his list would be the envy of many publishers even today. What are the combined digital and print sales figures of the Penguin Classics now?  Titles on this sell better in digital or print or are the sales in equal measure?

I’m afraid I don’t have the data, but I believe print sales are still higher than digital. The early sales figures are very impressive, even for mid-20th century book sales, but these were all very impressive – much higher than figures today.

10. Has your passion for Malory’s Morte D’Arthur and the many iterations it has undergone over the centuries in any way influenced your fascination for the evolution of the Penguin Classic list & book covers?

I do love Malory’s Morte D’Arthur and the Arthurian legends. (In fact I am currently reading A Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys, as I travel around India, which is intimately wrapped up with the legends of King Arthur.) Perhaps there is something quixotic about the quest to gather all the Penguin Classics into a single place. If so, I’d better be careful: we know from the legend that those who achieve the Holy Grail do not return: they’re spirited away to a different plain . . .

11. What are the decision-making elements to include a title on this list that you feel a commissioning editor working today in a firm would benefit from knowing? Would these principles of identifying a good book work across genres?

I am one of many editors of Penguin Classics around the world – and a relatively new addition to the team – so I do not have an authoritative answer, but for me, I do have a few criteria that I use for identifying a classic: it must have literary quality (i.e. it must be written well), it should be historically significant (i.e. it was a bestseller at the time, or it influenced other writers, or it changed the world in some way, or it invented a new literary form etc) and it should have an enduring reputation (i.e. it should still be read, studied or discussed somewhere in the world). Above all it must still be ‘alive’ — it needs to be able to speak to us across time and space and expand our experience of what it means to be human.

12. Do you have any back stories to share about putting this book together that made you pause and think about the resilience of this list or the vision of the founding team — Allen Lane and Dr Rieu?

Allen Lane liked the Penguin logo because he thought it had ‘a certain dignified flippancy’ and I think that combination of serious good humour pervades the Classics list to this day. It is very moving to read E. V. Rieu’s retirement speech, when he stepped down from running the list in 1964. At one point he admits that he had initially been uncertain whether Goncharov had written Oblomov or vice versa. ‘Now, of course, I know that Oblomov was the author,’ he quipped. ‘Or am I wrong?’ And he finishes his speech with some inspiring words: ‘The Penguin Classics, though I designed them to give pleasure even more than instruction, have been hailed as the greatest educative force of the twentieth century. And far be it for me to quarrel with that encomium, for there is no one whom they have educated more than myself.’

26 November 2018 

Beck Dorey-Stein’s “From the corner of the Oval office”

“The Vagiants,” she says with a half smile. Hope goes on to explain that after President Obama took office in 2009, there was widespread criticism about the lack of female senior staffers in an administration that had championed diversity on the campaign trail. By the time I arrived in 2012, the male-female ratio had dramatically improved– there were two female deputy chiefs of staff, a female photographer, a female National Security Council representative and a female ambassador to the United Nations. “Some of the most powerful women in the Obama administration,” Hope tells me, “Call themselves Vagiants.”

Beck Dorey-Stein’s memoir From the Corner of the Oval Office: One Woman’s True Story of her Accidental Career in the Obama White House is an account of a little more than four years spent as a stenographer in the Obama White House. From being unemployed, struggling to hold three jobs including that of a tutor at the posh Quaker school Sidwell Friends School, Beck Dorey-Stein unexpectedly finds herself working at the White House. She was so desperate to seek a “proper” job that she answered a newspaper advertisement. She wanted a job that allowed her to pay bills without having to carry three sets of clothes and different pairs of shoes in her knapsack to meet the requirements of every part time job she did, every single day. Apparently it was not just the written test and interview that she had cleared but also the security clearance as the woman hiring Beck said [to paraphrase], “if you can get security clearance to be on the same  school campus as President Obama’s daughter, Malia, then you are a good candidate for the stenographer’s job at the White House.”

Once ensconced in the White House, Beck is on an adrenaline-pumping job, where she has a ringside view of the press conferences, summits, meetings, etc. She travels on the president’s airplane and helicopter. She travels to more than sixty countries clocking hundreds and thousands of miles. She flirts with the secret service men. She gets the gossip about various presidents and their lives straight from those who witnessed it; these could be the journalists covering the White House and travelling regularly with the president or from the White House staff.

From the corner of the Oval Office is a delightful account by a young woman who seems to be in a perpetual state of amazement about her job. She is ever thankful for it but also starry-eyed about the world she inhabits. If it had not been based on true events, at times it would have read like a “Chick lit” novel for its emotional roller coasters, its preoccupation with affairs of the heart etc. There is little divulged in terms of political commentary or even insights about having worked in such an unusual place. It skims the surface of a very public office, revealing little that is not already known in the public domain. Be that as it may From the corner of the Oval Office is a good precursor to Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming to be released later in the year by the same publishers, Penguin Random House.

Beck Dorey-Stein writes in November 2015 about the presidential canditates:

It’s November 2015. Fuck Trump — this time next year, he will have lost the election and ridden back up his stupid gold escalator, gripping the sides with his tiny white-knuckled hands because he’s terrified of stairs. He will never be heard from again except when he tweets about Kristen Stewart’s love life. He will disappear, and the world will be better for it. 

From the corner of the Oval Office is frothy and light. Pick it up for a good lark.

Beck Dorey-Stein From the corner of the Oval Office: One Woman’s True Story of Her Accidental Career in the Obama White House Transworld Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House, London, 2018. Pb. pp. 336

26 June 2018 

 

Elizabeth Strout “Anything is Possible”

It seemed the older he grew–and he had grown old—the more he understood that he would not understand this confusing contest between good and evil, and that maybe people were not meant to understand things here on earth.

… 

She came to understand that people had to decide, really, how they were going to live. 

Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible is an exquisitely written novel about rural, dusty Amgash, Illinois. It is about the people of the town Lucy Barton had left behind when she moved to New York to become a successful writer. Lucy is the heroine of Strout’s equally well-told novel My Name is Lucy Barton. In Amgash as like any other settlement, irrespective of whether it is a small town or a big city, there is great diversity across the socio-economic spectrum. There are people like Lucy’s siblings all of whom grew up in abject poverty and somehow managed a decent life as grownups. Since rarely do these people move out of Amgash, the past just as the present of the townspeople is an open book. It is claustrophobic and debilitating as it does not allow individuals to grow. The shadow of the past always looms large. This is precisely the reason why Lucy Barton fled. Despite this people continue to live in Amgash making adjustments to their lifestyles with growing old age and some are even successful in their social mobility.

This was a matter of different cultures, Dottie knew that, although she felt it had taken her many years to learn this. She thought that this matter of different cultures was a fact that got lost in the country these days. And culture included class, which of course nobody ever talked about in this country, because it wasn’t polite, but Dottie also thought people didn’t talk about class because they didn’t really understand what it was.

In Anything is Possible Lucy Barton is on a book tour in Chicago and decides to return to Amgash after seventeen years to meet her siblings. Unfortunately the flood of unpleasant childhood memories hits her as soon as she enters her parents cottage. She has a panic attack and decides to return immediately to Chicago. In the interim she has had smattering of conversations with her siblings who have updated her on the lives of people they knew as kids. None of the people have had a predictable lifestyle and it is certainly stranger than the fiction Lucy Barton possibly writes. For instance her distant cousin Abel who along with his sister Dottie would sometimes be found scavenging for scraps of food in a dumpster went on to become one of the richest men in Chicago. This story was the least sad of all that are shared. On the surface of it Amgash inhabitants were living the typical homely small-town-American lives you would expect them to have except there was a murkier underbelly to this. But as Abel Blaine realises it is possible to live the American Dream and improve on one’s status just as Lucy and he did—-“Anything was possible for anyone”.

Elizabeth Strout is known for deftly creating these fictional landscapes that are as finely detailed as a miniature painting. The characters, their personality traits, their lives and the umpteen cultural references are so well packed in the sparingly told narratives that they continue to be with one for a long time after the book is closed. She conjures up the scenes so minutely and exactly that it is crystal clear in mind’s eye. It is not surprising that Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible was on President Obama’s list of favourite books of 2017. Anything is Possible is on the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist 2018.

Two legendary women writers have endorsed these books and truer words were never said:

Hilary Mantel on My Name is Lucy Barton: “Writing of this quality comes from a commitment to listening, from a perfect attunement to the human condition, from an attention to reality so exact that it goes beyond a skill and becomes a virtue.’

Ann Patchett on Anything is Possible: “Strout proves to us again and again that where she’s concerned, anything is possible. This book, this writer, are magnificent.”

Elizabeth Strout Anything is Possible Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, London, 2017. Hb. pp. 260 Rs 599

Elizabeth Strout My Name is Lucy Barton Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, London, 2016. Hb. pp. 200 Rs 699

28 March 2018 

 

 

 

Jordan B. Peterson “12 Rules for Life”

[bwwpp_book sku=’97803458160230000000′]

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos lays down rules for a better living in a noisy modern world. There is an authoritarian tone to the rules as listed in the table of contents.  The arguments laid out in the book stem from his online discussions on the popular platform Quora.

Every chapter is preceded by an alarmingly disturbing ink illustration involving children. “Alarming” because every single image rather than being hopeful and a cofidence building measure inevitably has a tone which hints that it is best where you are, do not try and have dreams. Take for instance Rule 3 which  states “Make friends wtih people who want the best for you” is accompanied by an illustration of the statue of David by Michelangelo with a very tiny figure of a child looking up at this enormous statue. It looks positively monstrous in the illustration. It is a matter of perspective possibly but to have such distressing illustrations will serve the sole purpose of terrifying people, forcing them to remain where they are and to accept institutional systems and their social conditions as is, instead of questioning or being ambitious and hopeful. These forms of intellectual arguments are detrimental to the growth of an individual and for society at large but most people will know no better for undoubtedly Jordan Peterson is fairly persuasive in his arguments.

Pankaj Mishra in a justifiably scathing attack of Jordan Peterson’s book in the NYRB ( Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism, 19 March 2018) has this to say:

 

In all respects, Peterson’s ancient wisdom is unmistakably modern. The “tradition” he promotes stretches no further back than the late nineteenth century, when there first emerged a sinister correlation between intellectual exhortations to toughen up and strongmen politics. This was a period during which intellectual quacks flourished by hawking creeds of redemption and purification while political and economic crises deepened and faith in democracy and capitalism faltered. Many artists and thinkers—ranging from the German philosopher Ludwig Klages, member of the hugely influential Munich Cosmic Circle, to the Russian painter Nicholas Roerich and Indian activist Aurobindo Ghosh—assembled Peterson-style collages of part-occultist, part-psychological, and part-biological notions. These neo-romantics were responding, in the same way as Peterson, to an urgent need, springing from a traumatic experience of social and economic modernity, to believe—in whatever reassures and comforts.
….
The “desperation of meaninglessness” widely felt in the late nineteenth century, seemed especially desperate in the years following two world wars and the Holocaust. Jung, Eliade, and Campbell, all credentialed by university education, met a general bewilderment by suggesting the existence of a secret, almost gnostic, knowledge of the world. Claiming to throw light into recessed places in the human unconscious, they acquired immense and fanatically loyal fan clubs. Campbell’s 1988 television interviews with Bill Moyers provoked a particularly extraordinary response. As with Peterson, this popularizer of archaic myths, who believed that “Marxist philosophy had overtaken the university in America,” was remarkably in tune with contemporary prejudices. “Follow your own bliss,” he urged an audience that, during an era of neoconservative upsurge, was ready to be reassured that some profound ancient wisdom lay behind Ayn Rand’s paeans to unfettered individualism.
Peterson, however, seems to have modelled his public persona on Jung rather than Campbell.
Peterson may seem the latest in a long line of eggheads pretentiously but harmlessly romancing the noble savage. But it is worth remembering that Jung recklessly generalized about the superior “Aryan soul” and the inferior “Jewish psyche” and was initially sympathetic to the Nazis. Mircea Eliade was a devotee of Romania’s fascistic Iron Guard. Campbell’s loathing of “Marxist” academics at his college concealed a virulent loathing of Jews and blacks. Solzhenitsyn, Peterson’s revered mentor, was a zealous Russian expansionist, who denounced Ukraine’s independence and hailedVladimir Putin as the right man to lead Russia’s overdue regeneration.
Meanwhile the book continues to sell and has climbed the bestseller charts worldwide although it never made it to the New York Times Bestseller list. So much so that Jordan Peterson was moved sufficiently to write a “Thank you note to booksellers” commending them for their good work. In the letter circulated he lists the 12 books which influenced his 12 rules. These are:
BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL by Friedrich Nietzsche
MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING by Viktor Frankl
MODERN MAN IN SEARCH OF A SOUL by Carl Jung
THE SACRED AND THE PROFANE by Mircea Eliade
THE ROAD TO WIGAN PIER by George Orwell
BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley
THE ELECTRIC KOOL-AID ACID TEST by Tom Wolfe
NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND by Fyodor Dostoevsky
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT by Fyodor Dostoevsky
ORDINARY MEN by Christopher Browning
THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
WUTHERING HEIGHTS by Emily Bronte
The fact is that Jordan Peterson like conservative intellectuals who through their tub thumping articles persuade individuals to focus on themselves increasingly and not necessarily look at the world in a broader context do far more damage to society. Writing such “self-help” books that explicitly encourage an individual to narrow their landscapes considerably to the microcosm create more havoc than be an “antidote to chaos”. An illustrative example is that he offers of a rape survivor to illustrate his Rule 9 “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t” is a a very messed up argument. There are pages and pages of his analysis and reporting his conversation with the victim but this particular passage stands out for its misogyny.
She talked a lot. When we were finished, she still didn’t know if she had been raped and neither did I. Life is very complicated.
Sometimes you have to change the way you understand everything to properly understand a single something. “Was I raped?” can be a very complicated question. The mere fact that the question would present itself in that form indicates the existence of infinite layers of complexity — to say nothing of “five times.” There are a myriad of questions hidden inside “Was I raped?: What is rape? What is consent? What constitutes appropriate sexual caution? How should a person defend herself? Where does the fault lie? “Was I raped?” is a hydra. If you cut off the head of a hydra, seven more grow. That’s life. Miss S would have had to talk for twenty years to figure out whether she had been raped.
As Pankaj Mishra points out:
Nowhere in his published writings does Peterson reckon with the moral fiascos of his gurus and their political ramifications; he seems unbothered by the fact that thinking of human relations in such terms as dominance and hierarchy connects too easily with such nascent viciousness such as misogyny, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. He might argue that his maps of meaning aim at helping lost individuals rather than racists, ultra-nationalists, or imperialists. But he can’t plausibly claim, given his oft-expressed hostility to the “murderous equity doctrine” of feminists, and other progressive ideas, that he is above the fray of our ideological and culture wars.
Writer Matt Haig in a different context had this to say on Twitter about feminism and patriarchal mindsets. It is applicable in the context of this book:

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life is a book that will be discussed for years to come. Read it if you must while bearing in mind the larger picture of intellectual discourse.
Jordan Peterson 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Random House UK, London, 2018. Pb. pp.410 Rs 699
21 March 2018 

Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West”

We are all migrants through time. 

Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel Exit West published nearly a year ago in spring 2017 was received positively worldwide to rapturous reviews. Despite the extremely long and breathless sentences with innumerable sub-clauses the story itself moves smoothly while unveiling a bleak yet monstrously fragile world of migrants, violence and lawlessness. It is told through the lives of Saeed and Nadia but the narrator remains in complete control, much like a cameraman choosing to tell the story through selected frames. The prose is structured almost like a slow dance fusing reality with elements of speculative fiction. Take the black doors for instance which open like portals to another land, not necessarily another dimension of time, leading refugees away from one physical space to the next.

This aspect of the story has in fact resulted in an incredible art installation in London. It can be viewed till 20 February 2018. According to The Bookseller, Penguin Random House UK has teamed up with Audible and Jack Arts to celebrate the paperback launch of Exit West. To quote the article:

Penguin is partnering with Jack Arts and Audible to celebrate the paperback publication of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (Hamish Hamilton) with an interactive poster installation on Commercial Street, London.

Working with Jack Arts, themes explored by the Man Booker shortlisted novel such as movement and migration – and, as Penguin puts it, “the thin boundaries that exist in our world” and “the doors between neighbours” – will be “brought to life” in the form of poster art.

Taking a recessed wall space on Commercial Street, Penguin and Jack Arts have replicated the book jacket artwork of Exit West and installed posters with book extracts and cityscapes from locations in the book. Functioning doors open onto the posters, inviting people to engage with the story and to “rethink what the doors around them might mean”, according to Penguin. The campaign strapline reads: “You sometimes need a way out. You always need a way in.”

Penguin also teamed up with Audible, identifying the Commercial Street site profile as “directly overlapping” with Audible’s audience. The audiobook retailer is tagged on the installation and will promote the audio edition of the book to its four million UK social followers. Exit West will be an Audible Editorial pick and a recorded interview with author Mohsin Hamid will be available as an Audible Session.

The book’s author, Hamid said: “It was kind of magical for me to see the black doors on Commercial Street, to discover they could open, and to find words from Exit West inside.”

It is very exciting to see how many forms a good story will take. More so in this information age when readers have very high expectations and there are behavioural changes apparent in how people approach a book. With the blending of formats making it available in physical reality is truly marvellous — just as this unique book.

Read it if you have not already done so!

Mohsin Hamid Exit West Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2017. Hb.pp. 230 Rs 599

18 February 2018