It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer of literary fiction in India cannot live on the proceeds of literary writing. Or rather, this truth is universally acknowledged amongst writers of literary fiction. Further, it must be clarified that this acknowledgement, universal though it might be, is not to be made out loud since the author of literary fiction must be above minor matters such as the keeping together of body and soul.
Nonetheless, I will, to use a metaphor that is current, break the silence here and suggest a few things that might help literary writers earn a little more from writing. The pandemic will bring a fall in disposable income, and so it will have an impact on our already meagre takings. So perhaps we have to seek new ways of making some more money, not to augment incomes but even to just keep them at their current levels.
To begin with, let me say that I feel that the literary novelist requires, and will continue to require, mediators to help them reach their audience. Typically, the literary novelist produces one book every few years. This essentially means that each individual writer has as much importance in the world of publishing as Maggi noodles masala flavour has in the local grocery shop.
That is to say, the writer and the writer’s books are important because individual readers come looking for them, but they constitute just one entry in a large inventory. Unlike the fitness YouTuber or the recipe sharer on Instagram, the novelist cannot bring content to the table on a weekly basis.
Nor is the average novelist, or even the well-known Indian literary writer, enough of a celebrity for regular interventions on social media to be events in themselves. And even if it were, this does not necessarily move copies off the shelves, other than in a few exceptional cases.
Publishers are, of course, the primary mediators who produce the book and make it available for purchase. But in this piece, I am not seeking to push them any further than that. (What do you say, an author who doesn’t want to give publishers gyaan? Is that even possible? Revoke his licence immediately.) Instead, I want to talk about other mediation possibilities.
Entering the classroom
Literary writing in English differs from literary writing in other Indian languages in one key respect: English writing gets very little support from the university. Is it possible to ensure that recently published books are prescribed as part of university curricula? When I was a student at IIT Delhi back in the 1990s I took a course on contemporary fiction where the professor chose the previous year’s Booker Prize winner, Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, as one of the three main texts to be studied through the semester.
It was probably a challenge for her to teach a book that had been out only a year or two, but she relished the challenge and I know her students thoroughly enjoyed reading and discovering that book with her. The IIT system gives the instructor a level of freedom that several other universities may not provide, but there’s nothing to prevent the literature department from instituting a policy of ensuring that fiction written in the preceding five or ten years finds reasonable representation in a student’s reading list.
A committee can sit every two or three years and revise the lists. Organisations like the Sahitya Akademi that maintain lists of books published in the last few years can support this process.
This kind of initiative has advantages in two directions. For students, the benefit is that they can tackle fresh material, hot off the presses, and shape its interpretation and reception. For writers, the benefit is not just in terms of copies sold, but also in terms of an audience that naturally engages more seriously with the writing. These readers will graduate eventually and may continue to look for the books of the writers they read in college, the way people who read Ruskin Bond in school continue to read him into adulthood (and even take inspiration from him, the way I did, if they should end up as writers themselves.)
If the university is one powerful mediator between the writer and the audience, the other, more powerful, is visual media. With the success of Sacred Games and Leila we see a new set of opportunities emerge. However, to the best of my understanding, so far the engagement is largely limited to the optioning of published works. While novelists may not necessarily be equally skilled at screenwriting,g they can be profitably engaged as script consultants, especially in the multi-season miniseries format.
The basic storytelling requirement for this format is the ability to spin a multi-stage yarn that keeps the viewer engaged. Novelists, working as they do with long-form fiction, typically do have these yarn-spinning skills. It is fitting to recall that the novelist works only with story and language and so gives great importance to those, not having cinematography, colour, music and the several other tools that filmmakers employ to create interest. As such, a novelist’s approach to storytelling could potentially bring a new level of sophistication to the filmmaker’s narrative.
The caveat here is that novelists typically work in solitude, whereas story development in the context of movies and series tends to be a group activity, like most other activities associated with the film medium. Some novelists may baulk even at the use of the verb “develop” in association with the word “story.” What next, they might ask, a powerpoint presentation? But the OTT series is a new and exciting form of storytelling today that is drawing a large audience, and the novelist who is not averse to working in a group should seriously consider it.
Finally, having addressed two established institutional mediators, academia and cinema, let me talk about new forms of mediation that may benefit literary writers. It has long been my contention that writers should be paid for public appearances, for example at literature festivals, colleges, etc. This is, of course, such complete anathema to the status quo that I have generally kept this opinion to myself. Then it happened that at one litfest I was dining at a table full of mass market authors, each one of whose sales figures for their recently published book would be several times the number of copies I have ever sold.
Emboldened by what I thought was their market power, I floated the idea to them that they, at least, should start charging for public appearances. The hope was that once people who sell tens of thousands of copies per book make people understand that an author’s time is worth money, then the rest of us may also be able to shake the tree.
The table grew glum. Some went into a soulful “Very right, you are very right,” said in a manner that left the “but it will never happen” unsaid but not unheard. Others started complaining about how the hospitality at litfests is often second rate. One told a story of how he once asked for an appearance fee and got an email saying something like “you are a selfish person.”
As we continued this conversation, the sponsors’ logos and advertisements and sometimes even their products continued to be displayed prominently for all potential consumers to see – those same consumers who had actually come out to listen to the authors who were there for no consideration.
Anyway, the pandemic will probably put paid to a large number of litfests, so there’s no point flogging a dead horse, especially since that horse didn’t really respond to flogging when it was alive. Instead let us look ahead.
In the course of this pandemic online platforms have become the primary source of entertainment for most people with disposable income. Various publishers, bookstores and prizes have launched series of author-based interactions and there seems to have been some response to these from the public. Taking this idea forward, is it possible to create a platform whose content is provided by authors, carefully curated by a programming team who comes up with interesting ways of engaging the audience?
Such a platform could host prose readings, poetry sessions/slams, interactive sessions, masterclasses, reading groups, literary quizzes and other things that someone younger than myself would probably be better at devising. If such a platform can begin to approximate the popularity of a Rekhta or Coke Studio, then it may begin to pull in some revenue which could be shared with the authors who participate in it.
Once a reasonable audience base is created, then sponsors might also follow. It could be a kind of perpetual online litfest with one major difference. In a physical litfest the audience that has decided to dress up and go to the venue will spend the day there flitting between sessions even if they have been thrown together without much thought. In the online litfest if the session is not engaging your analytics will let you know.
Following the Rekhta model, which began online and went offline, a literary platform of the kind I am suggesting could venture offline as well once the restrictions imposed by the pandemic have eased. But when it does go offline, events should be ticketed and the authors involved should be paid. Because, really, it isn’t cool to not pay the talent, is it?
Amitabha Bagchi’s last novel, Half The Night Is Gone, won the 2019 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.