Pop Fiction and Mediocrity

The most startling thing about ‘mass’ Indian English fiction is not that it’s mediocre, but that the very people who write and promote it also find it so.



While regional Indian literature boasts a wild and richly sordid tradition filled with gun-toting detectives, voluptuous spies and lovelorn ghosts, Indian English writing has very little to offer in comparison.


Instead, what it does offer for the most part is a bland affair called ‘popular fiction’. Says Mita Kapur, founder of literary agency Siyahi, “We still have to learn how to churn out pulp. There are no Indian pulp fiction writers in English.”


Pop fiction books, or ‘mass market’ books, are a mixed bag of college romances, cubicle battles and the odd mythology-inspired thriller. A good majority deal with urban relationships or life at the IITs and management schools, their plots clearly implying that they are aimed at the new English reader living in a metro with a corporate job (or aspiring to one), and looking for stories he can relate to.


The strategy has worked and sales have broken all records. Now, every publisher wants a share in the profits and is promoting these books usually priced between Rs 100 to 150.


Writers like Ravinder Singh, who start with publishers like Srishti, who seem to publish almost everything that goes to them, have now been picked up by Penguin for their imprint Metro Reads.


There is no doubt these books are selling, but a consensus among people in the publishing business is that most titles are mediocre. But what’s surprising, as Talk learned, is that even enthusiastic promoters of this genre share that view.


Ahmed Faiyaz, founder of Bangalore-based Grey Oak Westland Publishers, which has released several such titles, is candid in his assessment of the genre his imprint specialises in. “It appears there’s a rat race in the publishing industry which is bringing to fore heaps of mediocre paperbacks. There is an unprecedented focus by even the biggest names to churn out these ‘affordable bestsellers’. When there is a disproportionate focus on sales, the quality of the book definitely suffers,” he says.


Faiyaz, who has also authored a couple of titles along these lines (Love, Life & All That Jazz… and Another Chance) firmly believes the majority of what gets published is sub-standard in terms of plot, quality of writing and editing.


Faiyaz suggests that these books continue to sell for the same reason bad movies become hits. “If Housefull or Singham are blockbusters, it’s because they are affordable entertainment options to a mainstream audience who prefer logic-defying entertainment. Many people in India need a break from their difficult and monotonous lives, and these books give them a breather. They’re accessible, affordable and written in a language ;they’re used to speaking in. The writing is not necessarily good, but it works with the target audience,” he says.


Samit Basu, who has written well-received sci-fi and fantasy books like Turbulence and The Simoqin Prophecies, too resorts to a movie analogy to explain the success of badly written books. “I find the most commercially successful Bollywood movies of the last few years unwatchable, despite being a great lover of lowbrow material, action and comedy in general. It’s an issue of poor quality, not the nature or subject of the story being told,” he says. He is optimistic that over the years the writing will improve.


Tuhin A Sinha’s books That Thing Called Love, and The Edge of Desire have been bestsellers. Yet, the writer today laments that the boom has led to a decline in quality.


“A lot of people have turned authors just for the kick of being called authors. Similarly new publishers who don’t know a thing about editing have come up. Most of these books make for good display on  Facebook walls rather than on book shelves,” he says.


Siyahi’s Mita, who has been a literary agent for both literary writers and popular fiction writers, feels new writers and publishers lack patience. “Instead of improving their writing and evolving as writers, they want to write quickly and get published quickly. The publishers too are looking at immediate sales,” she says.


She vouches for many good editors, but also says bad editors get away with shoddy work. Many mediocre authors she rejects manage to get published later, and send her copies of their books. “It was their way of making a point and saying that I am a first class bitch!” she told Talk.


However, she admits to enjoying reading popular fiction. “I don’t want to act like a pseudo-intellectual and say that I only read literary fiction. As a reader, I enjoy mass market books as well. Some of the writing is good and the plots are racy and gripping,” she says.


Tuhin feels the new English-language reader is not discerning. Mita though, takes a big picture view and blames the readers’ consumerist impulses. “We live in a world that believes in use and throw. People want a quick two-hour read,” she says.


She is afraid the attitude of the publishers may mar the image of the Indian publishing industry globally. “We should not compromise on standards. Instead of being myopic, Indian English publishing should step back and take a long, hard look at itself.”


What is disconcerting is the conservative, rightwing nature of such novels. Amish Tripathi’s Meluha series and Ashwin Sanghi’s Chanakya’s Chant are all blatantly repackaging Hindu myths. This is dangerous. These novels are like FMCG products. Just like higher consumption of potato chips does not mean as a society we are eating better, the record sales of these novels does not mean we as a society are reading better. Like junk food, this trend reflects urban lifestyles.”

– S Anand, publisher of the independent imprint Navayana, who considers himself lucky if a book he publishes sells 3,000 copies a year

What pop?

Talk asked writer Jeet Thayil whose book Narcopolis has been long listed for Man Booker Prize 2012, what he thought of popular fiction in India.

His reply: “I don’t think of it at all”


You can also read the artcile at http://talkmag.in/cms/culture/books/item/145-let-them-read-crap


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