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FTN: Can't write off books even in the age of TV

Oct 16, 2008 07:32 AM IST Books Books

Aravind Adiga, the 33-year-old, Chennai-born author on Tuesday won the Man Booker Prize in London for his debut novel The White Tiger.

The judges hailed the book as an extraordinary portrait of modern India.

After V S Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai, Adiga is the fifth writer of Indian origin to win a Booker.

Adiga was the youngest among the six short-listed writers, which included compatriot Amitav Ghosh along with Linda Grant, Steve Toltz, Philip Hensher, and Sebastian Berry.

Now, having won the prized catch of an award, Adiga is richer by £50,000 and is promised whopping sales apart from the aura of being in league with the previous winners.

Desisting from chest thumping over the Indian’s victory, many say that television and the Internet have nearly killed the publishing industry.

Indian wins the Booker: Is the written word still powerful in the age of television? That was the question raised on CNN-IBN’s show Face the Nation.
On the panel of experts to debate the issue, were author, William Darlymple; commissioning editor Anita Roy and the Literary Critic of The Guardian, Claire Armistead who joined in from London.
At the start of the show, 81 per cent of viewers felt that yes, the word still reigned supreme, but 19 per cent chose to defer.
Yet another Booker!
India continues to romance the Booker. Did Adiga, the Indian author’s victory stun anyone?
William Darlymple said that he was surprised that anyone was amazed by it. “It is a surprise when an Indian does not win a Booker these days,” he said.
Then why is it that the book publishing industry in India not taken off, one may ask.
“The book publishing industry as a whole is 700 crore which is not at all insignificant,” said commissioning editor at Zubaan publishers, Anita Roy.
She recounted how there are a lot more literary festivals and dedicated book shops in the country today than there were 10 to 12 years ago.
Catalyst: the book shop
A much bigger factor in promoting readership and sales is the book shop, according to Darlymple who said that when his City of Djinns was published, crossing 7000 copies was the mark of a major best seller in 1990s.
But Jhumpa Lahiri is doing a 50,000 in hard back these days. The market, according to Darlymple has expanded by nearly eight or nine times in the last twenty years.
“When Waltersons opened a book shop in Britain in 1980s, it quadrupled book sales in one single entrepreneurial stroke. I think that the same thing is happening in India. “You have all these bookshop chains. You have Landmark and Crossword. Reliance I believe is going to open a chain of book shops which will double the book shelf base,” said Darlymple.
Is it then that the market is growing but fewer books are being read?
Anita Roy provided that India is the third largest publisher of the English language in India, but there is the regional writing that is huge but not heard about much.
The sales of these not so famous vernacular writers’ books way outstrip the sales of the English language books, said Anita.
“It’s a very, very mixed market and I do not think you can just focus on the Booker-prize winning, high literary fiction end. There are different genres coming up. There is science fiction, there are graphic novels. There are the ‘chicklet’ kinds of popular romances. The variety of books coming out of India is really, really expanding,” added Anita.
Advantage English?
Are the regional authors getting no publicity while the authors in English walk away with money and glory?
“Well, they may not be getting the kind of publicity in the English media but the regional authors are certainly getting it in the regional and vernacular press.
“Where the regional writers have failed is in the area of translation. We all read Gabriel Garcia Marquez in English, but actually he is huge in Spanish. That is how it is consumed internationally. There is no reason why there should not be quality translations of regional Indian authors into English,” said Darlymple.
“Now Crossword’s prize has been promoting and celebrating fine translations,” he added.
Back to the current Booker

A literary critic has accused that the precise reason why The White Tiger may have won is because it shatters the India shining story.
The novel is seen as a searing exploration of the underbelly of India’s economic boom, in which the protagonist, Balaram Halwai – a rickshaw puller writes letters to the Wen Jiabao, the premier of China.

Critics say that the dark story won because it ridicules India and its growth and takes a look at how far we need to go as a nation.

Anita Roy confessed to have not having read The White Tiger. She added hastily that very novels out there really tell the story of the underprivileged.

“When Kiran Desai wrote The Inheritance of Loss she certainly did not imagine that she would be catapulted to fame. But when she won the Booker, she was criticised by the people of the region she wrote about. They said that she had misrepresented them,” countered Anita.

The double edged sword of the Booker

“When you win the Booker, suddenly you are looked upon as a representative of the nation and that I think is a hell of a kind of responsibility to rest on one book,” Anita said.

“I think it is about how much the jury likes a book. That is about its narrative quality and its plot and its style,” said Darlymple. “The extraordinary thing about this year’s publishing is the sudden rush of Pakistani authors and the invasion of the Indian book shelves,” he added.

The literary critic of The Guardian, Claire Armistead seconded that. As jury member of the Guardian fiction awards, she had actually chosen Mohammad Hanif’s bookThe Case Of Exploring Mangoes over Adiga’s debut novel.

So did she then, still think that Adiga deserved the Booker prize?

“Yes, indeed. In fact, it was a very narrow decision for me,” Claire said, confirming that she did enjoy both the novels.

Book: A compatible technology

“I do not think that the book is not under any threat at all but in fact aided by the various forms of literacy being promoted by the Internet. The book publishing industry is in fact turning out something like a 1,20,000 books every year and I do not see any signs of the book withering at all,” Claire said.

She compared the book to the most user friendly form of technology. There is no piece of technology that is better than the book.

You could put it into your pocket, or take it for a read in the bath without a fear of an electrical accident.

“You could take it out in the rain and even pass it on to other people. It is a fantastic technology and it is not going to die,” Claire said, making a pitch for the continuously evolving book.

Darlymple accepted that there seems to be a love-affair between the Booker and Indian authors but this one was unique. Normally, the other winners of Indian origin lived outside India but this one is actually a Mumbaikar,” observed Darlymple.

The book has a long life, and cannot be wished away. It is here to stay and strengthen. The proof of the book’s strength, observed Anita was in the fact that on prime time TV, it had earned a slot for discussion!

Final results of the SMS/Web poll:
Yes – 82 per cent
No – 18 per cent