book bazaar

The DSC Prize shortlist points to an impending crisis of literary fiction

Publishers are not putting out enough ‘good’ books to ensure variety on literary award shortlists.

With a prize money of Rs 25 lakh and a thoughtfully picked jury every year, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature is, arguably, the pre-eminent literary prize for this part of the world. The shortlist for the 2016 prize reveals an astonishingly familiar line-up of books: Akhil Sharma’s Family Life, Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter, KR Meera’s Hangwoman, Mirza Waheed’s The Book of Gold Leaves, Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others, and Raj Kamal Jha’s She Will Build Him A City. With the exception of Meera’s extraordinary novel, the others are all low-hanging fruits when it comes to identifying the most interesting literary fiction about people from south Asia.

Several of the novels on the shortlist have also been shortlisted – and at least one has won – prestigious literary prizes in India already. There’s no doubt about it: these are definitely among the best novels written in the period under question. But, and it’s a huge but, why are there so few of such novels that the same ones keep cropping up over and over on longlists and shortlists?

Frankly, it’s come to a point in Indian publishing where an informed reader can predict a literary award shortlist with a high degree of accuracy, simply because there are so few to choose from. Are our publishers running away from literary publishing in response to what they perceive as shrinking markets for “good” fiction and playing it safe with more obviously commercially oriented lists instead?

What are they publishing then?

At least two major multinational publishers in India – Penguin Random House and HarperCollins – publish dozens of original novels from India every year. Three other international publishers who also publish in India – Hachette, Bloomsbury, and Pan/Picador – have a shorter list of such titles, as do homegrown publishers like Rupa and Aleph, among others. And yet, it’s the same few books that seem to make it to the fiction prize shortlists.

After all, most, if not all, of these publishers are putting out fewer works of literary fiction than before. With the exception of established literary names – an Amitav Ghosh, a Jhumpa Lahiri, a Kiran Nagarkar, a Manu Joseph, or an I Allan Sealy, for instance – publishers are increasingly wary of experimenting with new writers in this form of fiction.

Indeed, print runs for literary writers yet to create a canon for themselves have been squeezed down to 3,000. Even the well-known names are selling fewer copies than before. It isn’t difficult to see why publishing firms are shifting their attention to commercial fiction titles with the potential of selling upwards of 20,000 copies and to popular non-fiction focussing on politics and current affairs.

Giving up the space

The trouble is, by responding to the market instead of trying to restructure it, publishers are further reducing the space for anything other than commercial or genre fiction in India. The former is drearily mired in a swamp of campus romances, fumbling sex, unimaginative corporate ambitions, and unchanging male egos. And the latter is yet to take off in a meaningful way – India has produced neither a Stephen King nor a John Grisham yet, leave alone a Stieg Larsson.

The parallels with the Hindi film business are too obvious to ignore. Intelligent cinema is increasingly being pushed out of theatrical releases and living its life out on the festival circuit and, eventually, on YouTube. Like the big producers and distributors, English language book publishers are also withdrawing their support to books that might last, as opposed to books that will be forgotten as soon as the next one by the same author comes along.

Sure, not every publisher is at the same spot on the road leading away from literary fiction. Some have made palpable progress, while others have barely started. But everyone is headed in the same direction.

But if publishers are going to yield most of the space for “good” fiction to the needs of the marketplace – where a taste for the commercial has always been stronger than that for the literary – they will also give up their right to complain about readers’ preferences. For if they do not publish enough of those books that they want readers to buy, how will tastes change?

Note to editors: Publish more of literary fiction, not less of it. Take more chances, don’t play safe. Shape demand, don’t follow trends.

And a question to CEOs of publishing companies: is your mission to publish good books and make money from them, or merely books that make money?

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Tracing the formation of Al Qaeda and its path to 9/11

A new show looks at some of the crucial moments leading up to the attack.

“The end of the world war had bought America victory but not security” - this quote from Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, ‘The Looming Tower’, gives a sense of the growing threat to America from Al Qaeda and the series of events that led to 9/11. Based on extensive interviews, including with Bin Laden’s best friend in college and the former White House counterterrorism chief, ‘The Looming Tower’ provides an intimate perspective of the 9/11 attack.

Lawrence Wright chronicles the formative years of Al Qaeda, giving an insight in to Bin Laden’s war against America. The book covers in detail, the radicalisation of Osama Bin Laden and his association with Ayman Al Zawahri, an Egyptian doctor who preached that only violence could change history. In an interview with Amazon, Wright shared, “I talked to 600-something people, but many of those people I talked to again and again for a period of five years, some of them dozens of times.” Wright’s book was selected by TIME as one of the all-time 100 best nonfiction books for its “thoroughly researched and incisively written” account of the road to 9/11 and is considered an essential read for understanding Islam’s war on the West as it developed in the Middle East.

‘The Looming Tower’ also dwells on the response of key US officials to the rising Al Qaeda threat, particularly exploring the turf wars between the FBI and the CIA. This has now been dramatized in a 10-part mini-series of the same name. Adapted by Dan Futterman (of Foxcatcher fame), the series mainly focuses on the hostilities between the FBI and the CIA. Some major characters are based on real people - such as John O’ Neill (FBI’s foul-mouthed counterterrorism chief played by Jeff Daniels) and Ali Soufan (O’ Neill’s Arabic-speaking mentee who successfully interrogated captured Islamic terrorists after 9/11, played by Tahar Rahim). Some are composite characters, such as Martin Schmidt (O’Neill’s CIA counterpart, played by Peter Sarsgaard).

The series, most crucially, captures just how close US intelligence agencies had come to foiling Al Qaeda’s plans, just to come up short due to internal turf wars. It follows the FBI and the CIA as they independently follow intelligence leads in the crises leading up to 9/11 – the US Embassy bombings in East Africa and the attack on US warship USS Cole in Yemen – but fail to update each other. The most glaring example is of how the CIA withheld critical information – Al Qaeda operatives being hunted by the FBI had entered the United States - under the misguided notion that the CIA was the only government agency authorised to deal with terrorism threats.

The depth of information in the book has translated into a realistic recreation of the pre-9/11 years on screen. The drama is even interspersed with actual footage from the 9/11 conspiracy, attack and the 2004 Commission Hearing, linking together the myriad developments leading up to 9/11 with chilling hindsight. Watch the trailer of this gripping show below.

Play

The Looming Tower is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video, along with a host of Amazon originals and popular movies and TV shows. To enjoy unlimited ad free streaming anytime, anywhere, subscribe to Amazon Prime Video.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Amazon Prime Video and not by the Scroll editorial team.