Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Some Sell Books, Some Sell Soap

Many of the writers whose books today sit on the ‘Literature’ racks of posh bookstores would have never imagined that their works would some day become classics. Run your finger through the spines of these books and you will realise that many of these writers did not even live long enough to bask in the fame that was due to them and that came posthumously.

If poverty put a comma in the writing careers of some of them, tuberculosis injected semi-colons in the lives of several others. Not to mention the question mark that would pop up now and then because of factors like alcoholism and censorship. Finally, a combination of some of these factors would put a full stop to the life of an about-to-be-celebrated genius. They would die even before they could turn 50, and in some cases, even 40. Maybe true geniuses are meant to die young enough, because if they live longer, they might produce stuff that negates their previous work.

As Hemingway famously remarked when William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize in 1949, “No son of a bi*** who ever won the Nobel Prize ever wrote anything worth reading afterwards.” Hemingway might have said that out of jealousy, but he has a point — a point you will see if you closely follow the works of all Nobel laureates. Hemingway himself wrote nothing worthwhile after he accepted the Prize in 1954, with the exception of A Moveable Feast, the memoirs of his days in Paris as a struggling writer and which was published posthumously. And he wrote the book while fighting against depression which was induced by alcohol and ill-health (on the account of two plane crashes he survived) and failed marriages and which led him to commit suicide. He was 61.

If depression was an enemy for Hemingway, it was a constant companion for people like Eric Arthur Blair, or George Orwell, who could barely write in peace — ill-health and poverty kept hounding him till the end. A friend (was it Cyril Connolly?) once anonymously bailed Orwell out of his financial mess, so that he could keep his mind and soul together while writing. Orwell had no idea about the millions that were going to come because of 1984 and Animal Farm. Even if he had, it was too late: he was dying.

Tuberculosis and the censors killed D H Lawrence long before his time should have been up, even though he too had an anonymous benefactor in Aldous Huxley. Kafka died at 41, a sad man. F Scott Fitzgerald led a sad life and died young too. They all had something to say, so they wrote. Maybe to sustain themselves, but never to make money out of it.

Back home we had R K Narayan, who treated writing as yoga, irrespective of whether his books sold or not. And then there is Ruskin Bond, who has been soldiering on for decades from his modest home in Mussoorie, sustaining on whatever little money the children's books bring him.

But today the publishing world is no different from Hollywood or Bollywood. It has its own Tom Cruises and Brad Pitts and Shah Rukh Khans and Aamir Khans. Today you have celebrity writers who first write books and then go around, city to city, peddling them. And that does not exclude Sir Vidia, or V S Naipaul. The man has won every literary prize including the Nobel, does he still need to sell his books? Little wonder that Magic Seeds, the first book that he went around promoting after winning the Nobel, turned out to be eminently forgettable. It is quite possible that Naipaul, a man who cannot suffer fools and banality, is not even interested in such promotions and does that at the behest of publishers. In which case, publishers must realise that it is good writing that sells, and not the writer.

Hype can only get the writer fifteen minutes of fame. Maybe a dozen socialites will buy the book at the launch function. But that’s about it. Penguin editor David Davidar’s House of Blue Mangoes, which was launched with much fanfare only a few years ago, today sits dumped in the ‘Bargain Books’ shelf. On the other hand, the quietly-released Hungry Tide, by Amitav Ghosh, is doing well. Not to speak of Inscrutable Americans by Anurag Mathur, which was written more than a decade ago, when writers had not become glamorous.

The bottomline: good writing is capable of finding its way into readers’ homes. But not many seem to understand that in the age of desperate marketing. A big name like Tom Wolfe, for example, is today enticing people to buy his book, I Am Charlotte Simmons, by offering them a chance to win a beach holiday. One wonders if Indian readers should expect advertisements in the coming years which would say something like, ‘Buy this book and you could win 2-day/3-night trip to Goa!’ The ad could also be about finding a gold coin hidden inside the pages of a book, provided you buy the book. When marketing takes over, there isn’t much difference between a book and a one-kg pack of Surf Excel.

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