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October 05, 2008

Publishing Now, and Then

Soniah Kamal

Anita Desai's novels were being published in India in the 60's, 70's and 80's, she says in her opinion piece in Outlook India, to no fanfare at all. Instead, rather than get excited about Indian writers writing in English, Indian readers continued reading Austen and Hardy and Wodehouse. It took major literary prizes awarded by the West, as well as big advances, for Indian readers to develop an interest and Indian-English writing (a trend which continues: it took Arvind Adiga's The White Tiger being long and short listed for the Booker Prize for it to begin to sell in India). Since then times have changed in many instances but this change comes with its own set of drawbacks. Were Adiga not short listed for the Booker and did not begin to recoup the big advance Harper Collins India gave it, would it be tough for his second novel to sell as is the case for authors whose first novels do not sell their advance out in the U.S.? Though the Indian publishing houses, still in their nascent stages in many rosy respects, may yet give their authors a second and third chance that U.S. publishers, with their look-to-the-bottom-line-only, no longer do. Will it follow that midlist American authors, finding it hard to get published in the U.S., increasingly turn to India for book deals and readers? How easy might it be for an 'American-Southern writer' to get a book deal in the Indian market? Will the book have to follow a 'Steel Magnolia'/Ya-Ya Sisterhood/Sweet Potato Queen stereotype'? Might it then be the Indian readers turn to 'exoticize' the U.S.: give us mint juleps and iced teas, give us family sagas where all the women stick together till death do they part, give us long shots of magnolias and big hair? After all 'exotification'-- be it mangos or veils or arranged marriages-- is still a challenge that South Asian writers, indeed writers from many cultures, still face-- though perhaps not as pervasively as before-- when trying to be published in the U.S.


Now that worldly success has been made acceptable and popular, something to be courted, it can too easily follow that the publisher will demand books that earn back those advances and justify the expenditure on publicity and distribution, and slowly, but surely, turn the writer into a good financial bet just as one actor may prove to be such a treasure and another may not. The pressures exerted on both the publisher and the writer today simply did not exist 40 or 50 years ago. But there is no free lunch and the writer soon learns that if he wishes to earn, he must learn to please. An insidious pressure, this, not one that encourages freedom or fearlessness. Somewhere along the way, respect for such difficult qualities as these has been lost, and must be recovered, and cherished—repeatedly and steadily and passionately—because it is from that that literature grows.
read rest here

Posted by Soniah Kamal at October 5, 2008 07:30 PM

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Posted by: Anonymous at October 5, 2008 07:30 PM

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