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Creative crunch or marketing mayhem

Published : Feb 24, 2016, 12:54 pm IST
Updated : Feb 24, 2016, 12:54 pm IST

While there continues to be a steady stream of mythological fiction being produced by contemporary writers, question remains as to whether or not the Indian literary imagination has failed to evolve a contemporary sensibility and idiom rooted in its own traditions. We glean insights from authors and publishers...

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 BOOKS1_0.jpg

While there continues to be a steady stream of mythological fiction being produced by contemporary writers, question remains as to whether or not the Indian literary imagination has failed to evolve a contemporary sensibility and idiom rooted in its own traditions. We glean insights from authors and publishers...

At the recently concluded Gateway Litfest 2016, a literature festival that focuses on regional languages, a group of eminent writers and scholars addressed whether writers writing in English are in some way hijacking the realm of mythology. In the current Indian literary scenario, authors who write on mythology — such as Anand Neelkanthan, Amish Tripathi, Ashwin Sanghi and Devdutt Patnaik — continue to be much-read. But as a counter-current to that, outside the mythological space, there appears to be a dearth of an authentically modern Indian style that resonates with people. Is that because Indian authors are still stuck with retellings or are finding it hard to rid themselves of Western influences Or is the problem a more tangible one, rooted in the marketing dynamics

“I do think there has been a failure in reaching younger readers for sure. Amish Tripathi’s success has suddenly spurred an interest in mythological fiction and now everyone is doing it,” says columnist and founder of Tata Lit Fest, Anil Dharker. He feels iconic writers like R.K. Narayan, Kamla Markandaya, Mulk Raj Anand were more high-minded and wouldn’t make any effort to reach to a bigger audience. “This was encouraged also by the publishers,” he adds.

Anil points out that in the recent years, authors like Chetan Bhagat and Ravinder Singh have reached young readers, and that has “displaced the foreign imports”. “Earlier popular writing was confined to Sidney Sheldon, Jeffery Archer and the likes. Today’s readers can better identify with the context that our commercial writers are bringing in their works. These writers are talking about their lives — going to college, falling in love, etc.” But it is the lack of the “literariness” that keeps the commercial writers on a lowbrow segment, Anil states. “One must note that these writers have come from other fields — they were bankers, managers or engineers — who suddenly felt that they could write. In fact, many of them are not particularly good writers,” he adds.

Renowned Marathi poet, translator and publisher Hemant Divate feels that the problem is not with the writers but with the readers. “Since our society is rooted in an oral tradition of storytelling, more than reading, we like to listen and see. Even when on a vacation, how many of us really take books along We may carry indoor games or musical instruments, but not books. And this is the crux of the problem. We are not reading. Except in Kerala, the readership in other parts of India is not very noteworthy,” he says. The readers’ tastes are also driving factors, he says. “If we publish a Chetan Bhagat book in the UK tomorrow, people won’t read it beyond two or three pages. Since they have been reading for so long, they know how to differentiate between good and bad writing,” he says.

For Ranjit Hoskote, cultural theorist and poet, there is no deficiency in the literary imagination. He says the problem lies in how “the imagination distributes itself and finds its audience.” “There is a long tradition from Rajgopalachari to Laxmi Subrananium to Sister Nivedita, who brought over the epics into English. Then there’s this new Kannada novel Ghachar Gocher, which is being translated. Also, I know that he’s not very highly thought of in Bengali literature, but in Shankar’s works, there’s a whole middle-of-the-road in fiction, which captures the 50s and 60s but it still speaks to the contemporary. And he’s getting popular now.”

Pointing at the economics of distribution, Ravi Singh, co-founder of Speaking Tree, a publishing house, feels that publishers are lacking initiative too. “Perhaps there is a laziness among publishers and they keep repeating the success formula. They continue to publish retellers in mythology and campus romances. Anything that’s successful, most people would try and replicate that. But I wouldn’t say that publishers aren’t trying at all. However, their efforts need to be more streamlined.”

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