Tuesday, May 29, 2007

How Grass spent the war

Gunter Grass provides us a poignantly-written peek into his Waffen S.S. days--something that also brought him great disrepute when he first talked about it in his biography. I enjoyed reading it and was touched by Grass' frankness at times:

The two-room hole. The family trap. Everything there conspired to constrain the weekend visitor. Not even the mother’s hand could smooth away the son’s distress. True, he was no longer expected to sleep in his parents’ bedroom like his sister, but even on the couch made up for him in the living room he remained a witness to the married life that continued unbroken from Saturday to Sunday. That is, I could hear—or thought I could hear—sounds I had heard, muffled as they were, from childhood on, sounds that had lodged in my mind in the form of a monstrous ritual: the anticipatory whispers, the lip-smacking, the creaking bedsprings, the sighing horsehair mattress, the moaning, the groaning, the entire aural repertory of lovemaking, so potent, especially in the dark. I had a clear picture of all the variations on marital coupling, and in my cinematic version of the act the mother was always the victim: she yielded, she gave the go-ahead, she held out to the point of exhaustion.

And here is a sublime realisation after a serious race-related episode:

I must say that I was, if not glad, then at least relieved when the boy disappeared. The storm of doubts about everything in which I’d had rock-solid faith died down, and the resulting calm in my head prevented any further thought from taking wing: mindlessness had filled the space. I was pleased with myself and sated. A self-portrait from that period would have shown me well nourished.

Monday, May 28, 2007

A dangerous pursuit called book reviewing

Book reviewing can be a dangerous pursuit. Why? Because sometimes writers can be such pricky ingratiates (writers are expected to be humble souls but exceptions are allowed).

If you don't believe me, ask Professor Amitava Kumar. And Lionel Shriver. But more on that later.

Writers should be thankful to book reviewers for the mere hard work that they put in, whatever the outcome: The poor sods (at least the honest ones) have to trawl through the entire book, fiction or non-fiction, interesting or boring, and come out with an opinion. It's another matter that their opinion might be influenced by the persistent reminders from the commissiong editor or the hurry to catch the next flight to wherever.

Remember, even erudite sounding book reviewers are human beings but when a book review has to be written, they are put to an exacting test.


Ok, let us look at novelist Lionel Shriver's experience:

I am an idiot. Given that publishing honest and thus sometimes unfavourable assessments of the work of colleagues is violently at odds with a writer's self-interest, it's surprising that literary editors can cajole any author into reviewing. But then, plenty of writers like me don't know what's good for them, and some writers plain need the money.

Why is writing criticism self-destructive? Because reviews are deeply personal. The average book represents years of hard work. Most novelists will have invested heart and soul into their text, imbuing characters with a measure of themselves. Although a necessary conceit, the line between the writer and his book is a smudge. The experience of having your book rubbished is of having your character rubbished - for all the world to read. The adversaries you bring into being by writing negative appraisals are like diamonds: forever.

Obviously, the same writers you pillory may end up getting a crack at you. Literary editors are busy people. However dedicated to integrity in theory, they don't have time to verify who might bear whom a grudge.

Now, a practical example: Recently, when Prof Amitava Kumar reviewed (in fact, ripped apart) a Bollyood history non-fiction work (Bollywood—a History) by Mihir Bose, it made the author see an unfounded personal vendetta in the whole exercise. Instead of not taking it to his heart, he's let it all out. I guess Prof Kumar was just expressing his opinion (was the bad morning coffee the culprit behind the negative slant of the review?) but the scorned author has now shot back with his own defence (so what, you'd scream: these days even bad publicity is good publicity, no?):

But in 30 years as a writer I’ve never come across such a malicious review. Why Kumar decided to have a rant about the book I do not know. I’ve never met him and have done him no personal harm. He says: "History should have a point, no?" History with a point is called propaganda. And people who write such histories are known as pamphleteers. Kumar also says that Hindi films don’t lend themselves easily to generalisation. But as Satyajit Ray said: "The ingredients of the average Hindi film are well known; colour (Eastman preferred); songs (six or seven) in voices one knows and trusts, dance—solo and ensemble—the more frenzied the better; bad girl, good girl, bad guy, good guy, romance (but no kisses); tears, guffaws, fights, chases, melodrama; characters who exist in a social vacuum; dwellings which do not exist outside the studio floor; exotic locations... See any three Hindi films, and two will have the ingredients listed above." Whose view would you accept? Kumar further alleges: "You’d be hard pressed to find a single coherent or cogent argument about Hindi cinema in Bose’s book." The book has 19 chapters and almost every one discusses various themes.

Like it? More of it is here.

While we won't meddle (and both the writer and reviewer are entitled to their opinions), there's a lesson to be learnt here. Good coffee or bad coffee, and notwithstanding the editor's reminders, we shouldn't shy away from expressing our opinion. What do you think?

Bollywood comes to Britain

As the latest edition of IIFA Awards go to Sheffield, UK, in June, trite articles on Bollywood have started to appear in the UK media.

Here's The Telegraph's take on the Bollywood fever:

Where Bollywood films were once seen only in specialist cinemas in predominantly Asian areas, they are now routinely programmed alongside mainstream films in multiplexes.

And Bollywood producers are increasingly using British locations and actors, or making films with substantial English dialogue as well as Hindi and other Asian languages. Namastey London - a bittersweet romance about a British-Asian woman and her arranged marriage to an Indian national - was shot largely in the UK, while Goal, about an Asian football league and entirely shot here, will be released later this year. About 15-20 Bollywood films a year are made at least partly in the UK.

So why the surge in interest? Akshay Kumar, Bollywood heartthrob and star of Namastey London, says: "India is 'in' - it's gone global. When you have one of the world's fastest-growing economies, people become interested in its culture and history. And Bollywood films have a unique quality that no other filmmakers can produce."

I wonder why the Blacks and the Black Fridays from Bollywood are not mentioned?

Sunday, May 27, 2007

'India Se' World Tak

As the whole world is raising a toast to a rising India, the global Indians have one more reason to cheer: the launch of a multicolored, high class glossy for them and their ilk, India Se.

This magazine, published from Singapore, is the brainchild of my friend and former colleague, Shobha Tsering Bhalla. The intelligent and smart Shobha, who started her career in banking, switched to journalism some two decades ago, and has worked for Singapore's top media companies until a few months ago when she said enough was enough and 'twas time for a new kickstart.

Though shobha is based in Singapore now, she could not take India out of herself (the Indian, the Indian), like many other NRIs. So, after months of sleepless nights and cavorting with willing and unwilling angel investors and media partners, she has delivered.

The result is India Se, hot off the tandoor, if you will.

India Se is an ode to the feverish Indian connection that binds us all together--the desis in pardes. It promises to provide a platform for all global Indians in this global village of the world.

And from the first look if it, I'm convinced: Between a fight of the entreprenur and the editor in her, I can safely say that both seem to be winning. Why? Coz she has brought to her stable of writers top dollar marquee names such as Mahesh Bhatt, Shashi Tharoor and the irrepressible Shobha De, among others. Yours truly also did the cover story in a personal capacity (but that's not the reason for this appreciation--even if I did not contribute, I'd still say the same things about her and this magazine...but, err, did I hear a murmur and spot a smirk...)

Never mind all that, and run to the nearsest bookstore to grab a copy of India Se...and shall I say Jai Hind!

Friday, May 25, 2007

Singapore Dreams

Welcome to Singapore! says Capt Sao Feng (Chow Yun Fat) in The Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.

In this third part in the Pirates trilogy, Chow Yun Fat plays a Chinese buccaneer whose base is a fishing village once known as Temasek.

And that is just the beginning.

Felix Cheong writes about the Singaporean invasion of Hollywood cinema and says that the trend is picking up (a pleasant coincidence for the country's tourism department?):

This is the third year running that the island republic figures in a blockbuster.

In 2005's Batman Begins, Singapore is mentioned as the last port of call for an illegal shipment bound for Gotham City.

In King Kong, released in November that year, a steamer carrying the main characters headed for Singapore ends up on Skull Island, where the king of apes awaits.

And of course, last year's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest refers to Singapore as a prelude to At World's End.

Suddenly, this little red dot is red-hot.

No wonder the STB has rolled out a marketing blitz in nine countries in conjunction with Buena Vista International, the distributor of At World's End.

The hook: 60 winners will be picked for an all-expenses-paid, four-day trip here.

Of course, the Singapore as depicted in At World's End is a Hollywood construct. To be exact, a kampung built on a huge soundstage in Los Angeles with 22 thatched houses over a pool of murky water.

Meanwhile, Singapore is also making a little ripple at this year's Cannes Film Festival with its movies.

The Hollywood Reporter notes:

Singapore has an unprecedented profile on the Croisette this year, with three films selected for the Festival de Cannes across various categories, including an official competition slot in the short film line-up.

Singapore-based Thai Director Ekachai Uekrongtham's "Pleasure Factory," (pic above) which was selected for a slot in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, stars Golden Horse Best Actress Yang Kuei-Mei in a story about pleasure seekers and providers in Singapore's red light district of Geylang.

Anthony Chen's short film "Ah Ma" ("Grandma"), a 14-minute film inspired by the death of Chen's grandmother, will screen in the short film official competition (Les Courts Metrages en Competition). This the first Singapore film ever to screen in the short film competition.

And Pok Yue Weng's "SuperDONG," a four-minute animated short, will screen as part of the Directors Fortnight. "SuperDONG," which Pok describes as "gritty but within the limits of Singapore censorship," looks at what happens when toilet-graffiti comes off the wall and develops a life of its own.

However, Variety does not seem to be much pleased with Singapore-Netherlands co-production, Pleasure Factory:

Neither sexual nor audience satisfaction is guaranteed in "Pleasure Factory" a shoddy Singapore-set HD product masquerading as a meller-cum-social expose. Follow-up to "Beautiful Boxer" by the island state's Thai director Ekachai Uekrongtham, pic takes a peek at Singapore's seedy prostitution scene. Making Herman Yau's recent dreadful Hong Kong film on a similar subject, "Whispers and Moans" looks like a narrative masterpiece by comparison, this pic borders on the inept. Clout of distrib Fortissimo will see this effort arrive at fest assembly line but export elsewhere is unlikely. Homoerotic elements will make domestic release nearly impossible.

Multiple sparse, barely sketched anecdotes set in and around the alleyways of Singapore's Geyland red-light district reveal that prostitution is not as glamorous as it might seem. Thesps, looking amateurish and stranded with nothing and no one to guide them, give tentative perfs. Clumsy helming suggests Uekrongtham has yet to transcend his legit origins. Some docu inserts are superfluous. HD lensing is grainy and poorly lit. Camerawork is as erratically indecisive as the characters it is shooting. Like many Asian indie HD efforts, sound is generally of poor quality and is frequently mismatched within scenes.


India had Nadira. Singapore had Nadra.

Have you heard this name before?

Most people in this region know her as Bertha Hertogh or Maria Hertogh.

And there is a story behind this name which created a sordid chapter of history in this part of the world.

Now Ross Wallace of TODAY reports from Cannes that a film is in the works on her life story:

Deadly riots and the tension-filled true story of a teenage girl at the centre of conflict between East and West will soon be reenacted on the big screen in a movie that is to be partly shot in Singapore.

Co-produced by Singapore's Monsoon Pictures Pte Ltd and Dutch film company IdtV, Nadra tells of 13-year-old Dutch girl Bertha (or Maria) Hertogh, aka Nadra binte Maarof, the focus of a 1950 custody battle that became an international political and religious struggle.

The two companies signed an agreement on Wednesday on the sidelines of the ongoing Cannes Film Festival to make the US$6.5 million ($10 million) movie, directed by Dutch film-maker Ben Sombogaart and co-produced by Monsoon Pictures managing director Christopher Chew along with IdtV's Hanneke Niens and Anton Smit.

"Beyond being the story of a girl, it's really a story about clashing cultures — Christian and Muslim — so it's a very timely and relevant movie," said Chew at the signing ceremony. "More importantly, it's about people caught in the middle of a war between governments."

Born in 1937 to a Dutch family in Indonesia, the real-life Hertogh was given up for adoption by her mother during World War II after her father's capture by the Japanese.

Converted to Islam and given the name Nadra by her adoptive Malay mother, she drew attention at a sports meet eight years later and quickly made headlines around the world as "the Dutch girl raised as a Muslim in the jungles of Malaya".

Her birth family's subsequent battle to reclaim the girl in a Singapore court led to riots that left 18 people dead, around 200 injured and a rift between families and countries that would take decades to repair.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Thank you for smoking

Is smoking linked with creativity?

Smoking is one of the most indefensible habits but many creative people indulge in it. Why is smoking so appealing to the creative fraternity? This also includes writers.

When one talks about writers and nicotine, I instantly get served with an image from my memory: Gunter Grass with a dangling pipe.

I don't know if my fav writers like Naipaul or Coetzee also smoke. Perhaps Rushdie does. Or maybe he doesn't.

Among the Indian writers, I am sure of only two people who smoke. Actually, I had seen them puffing away after a seminar in a lit conference in Delhi: Ruchir Joshi (The Last Jet Engine Laugh) and Githa Hariharan (In Times of Siege). I hope I recognized them correctly.

But well, there are many other examples from another generation. Picasso, Sartre, Camus, Orwell: They all did it, more or less.

One of the best novels, in any language, that I've ever read is the Chechniyan novel, My Dagistan by Rasool Humzatov. I had read it in translation in Hindi but despite it being a translated work, its creative power was hard to ignore. The novel started with a sentence like this: "Agar Allah Talah kabhi koi kahani kehna shuru karta hoga to woh zaroor pehle cigrette ka ek lamba kash leta hoga" (If God would ever start telling a story, he must would go for a long drag of the cigarrette).

Cigarette companies cannot find a better endorser than the Almighty Himself but then that is a matter of creative speculation.

Here are some of the lesser mortals holding forth on the subject:

Germaine Greer

I guess I began to smoke regularly at university, because everybody else was smoking. Even my English tutor sucked on a cigarette the entire time she had eight or nine of us imprisoned in her tiny room; she would spell out the spatial relationships in a poem such as Gerard Manley Hopkins's Wreck of the Deutschland with her fag pack and her box of matches, voicing the lines round the cigarette that hung from her nether lip. Dragging on my own fag was the only way to avoid the nausea reflex that other people's smoke can still trigger. If others in a group are smoking, I'll smoke; if not not. For years I smoked only OP's - other people's. I can work for eight or nine hours in a library without feeling any kind of craving for a cigarette, but I'll probably light up on the way home, if there's a cigarette in the car. If there's not, I won't make a special stop to get some.

In the 1950s my fellow students were smoking cork-tipped Virginia cigarettes, Craven A, Ardath, De Reszke (pronounced Dee Rezeek), and Du Maurier, which always struck me as dry and tasteless. Tough guys smoked untipped cigarettes, Senior Service and Pall Mall. The more adventurous - or pretentious - smoked exotic cigarettes, Black Sobranie or Passing Clouds. My mates and I followed the example of Picasso, Sartre, Camus and Orwell; we smoked Gauloises "brunes". And I still would, if I could ever find them. The last French factory making them shut down nearly two years ago. Altadis, the company that manufactures Gauloises, is being stalked by Imperial Tobacco. The younger generation does not like dark tobacco, so we old reprobates must do without. "Liberté toujours!" has given way to "British American Tobacco rules OK". As the rich are growing out of the tobacco habit, the poor are being sucked into it. Our children smoke in the same spirit that they disfigure themselves with piercing and tattoos. The pleasure principle has nothing to do with it.

Beryl Bainbridge

There was a ritual to my smoking when I sat down at my desk, one that involved the wearing of a pair of white gloves. This was to stop the inside of my fingers turning brown. I placed a packet of cigarettes directly in front of me, and a tin hat that had belonged to my father at my right elbow. The latter had nothing to do with the ceiling falling down; it was simply to cope with ash and stubs. Then, three years ago, my left big toe froze up and my calf hurt. On a warning that I might have to have a leg off, I gave up smoking. Since 1973 I had been used to writing a novel a year, as well as columns and articles. Suddenly, all the words drifted out of my head. My explanation for this is as follows. When young, the creative urge stems from a desire, a need to explain the meaning of one's own particular existence. God knows why: possibly it has something to do with the events in childhood. Then, as the years pass and life gets the boot in, the brain no longer works in the same way. What was once intuitive becomes muddied by experience, by the effects of age. It isn't that one doesn't feel the same way, simply that the optimism, the life force has begun to rust. Nicotine contains something that invigorates the mind, returns it after a puff or two to its original state.

I can well see that the young shouldn't smoke, just in case. But maybe those over 70 should be allowed to continue. What about a room in pubs and restaurants set aside for those of mature years?

Dance of conversation with the maestro

If you follow Indian dance and music, you might have heard of Astad Deboo. He is a very well-known Indian dancer who excels in developing his own language of dance by making the eastern and western styles cohabit.

I got to meet him recently in the Raffles Hotel. He was in Singapore to participate in a dance festival and my journalist friend Deepika was meeting him with regard to an interview for her TV channel (see them both in the photo).

Padamshri Astad Deboo, despite his achivements and international fame, came across as an extremely modest man, gentle, obliging, and adept at Urdu, my mother tongue. We did most of our conversation in Urdu, and he was kind enough to regale us with his stories--how he hitchhiked for eight years across different countries learning dance, his experience with Bollywood filmmakers, etcetera. Subsequently, I met him again to interview him. Here are some excerpts from that interview:

On Indian dance and where it is going

The traditions of the Indian classical dance are still very much vibrant. What's happening in the Indian classical dance scenario now is that a lot of Indian classical dancers are wanting to do contemporary work. Now it is not easy to do contemporary dance but then again people think that if you don't take the stories of Ramayana and Mahabhrata and do something, it becomes contemporary. Also, sometimes they think that by adding music also but just doing the traditional style makes it a contemporary item. It does not work. Bollywood dancing has taken over which is good in one way but it is not the end all. Even in India, you'll see parents pushing their young kids (for various dance-based TV shows) but I don't think kids from the age of six and eight onwards should be learning to gyrate their hips. There is a time and place for everything. You see many television shows where young kids dance (Bollywood kind of dance)--I find it in poor taste. The choreographers behind the show justify it by saying that dance is for everyone but thing is that there is dance and dance and dance.

On choreographing for Hindi films

I have choreographed only three films: Sanjay Khan's Abdullah in 1980s, M F Hussian's Meenaxi--A Tale of Three Cities and a promotional music video for Vishal Bhardwaj's Omkara. Again, the choreography was very special, the kind of stuff I do. I wasn't doing the jhatka routines and they weren't very masala films--these were mostly art related films. It worked both ways--both from mine and the director's perspectives and it worked well together. Off and on I keep getting queries from Bollywood directors but things don't work out because one, the focus of my work is not Bollywood and two, there are scheduling issues as I work a year and a half ahead in time.

On the future of dance

In the West, the choreographers there have resources available to them. Also, their audiences have reached a certain level--they have seen so much. So, they always want to be titillated. So, their creators try out new things--right now video is very fashionable--projections, multimedia, and so on. So, there are trends that keep catching on. Certain choreographers have brought in the disabled into their performing arts and worked things around them. There are revivals of taking old stories and giving them new interpretations, through new settings. I mean, dance would be there. But in India, the dance seen on stages, the performance scenario, is getting less and less--sponsorships, people's interests, and trends have changed. The audience too, both in India and in the West, has a lesser attention span. They are not willing to sit through an hour plus performance unless it is some hot shot performer. So, one would hope that there is a future for dance.

Remembering Manto

Sadaat Hasan Manto was Urdu fiction's enfante terrible. There was a time when writers like Manto, Krishan Chandar, R S Bedi, Qurrat ul ain Haider, Ismat Chugtai, Intezar Hussain, among others, made Urdu fiction rocking--they were their generation's Raymond Carvers, Guy de Maupassants, Sartres, Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquezes (Though Manto was considered more like D H Lawrence for the choice of his themes).

I grew up reading their stories and novels (some of them had just passed away by that time), and took immmense pride in their work. It took me to a world that was not known to me and made me yearn for that universe, inspiring in me the desire to become an adult and enter that world. Sometimes that world was terrible, mad: Here I am referring to the stories of partition and the pain and savagery that it brought along.

Manto, at his time, was both loved and loathed but his legacy cannot be denied. Even today, his stories are avidly read and they still evoke a sense of wonder at his literary accomplishments.

Here's a piece in Tehelka remembering his life and work:

As an artist, Manto was hugely human, a piece of work in progress. From the early days of his writing career through the years in Bombay to his last days in Lahore, he remained an enigma. He wrote some spectacularly crisp short stories and some eminently forgettable ones. His pen-portraits, nothing less than path-breaking in Urdu literature, stand witness to the sweep of his might as an observer of human nature. Circumstances made Manto what he was as much as he interpreted them. A stern father who trampled on his restless childhood; a school that failed him thrice in the matriculation examination; a social circle that consisted of rebels and spoilt outcasts; well-settled step-brothers who reminded him of his poverty; an establishment that treated him as an embarrassment; a “progressive” peer group paralysed by petty personalities; a socio-legal setup that damaged his self-respect and sent him to the lunatic asylum; a royal addiction that helped him achieve his death wish in the face of consistent rejection — Manto had everything going against him. But, as he said when confronted on his predilection for controversial topics, “If you find my stories dirty, the society you are living in is dirty. With my stories, I only expose the truth.”

Monday, May 14, 2007

Is there a formula for a best-seller?

How does a publisher know that the manuscript he is looking at is a potential bestseller? The answer is he doesn't. He only has a hunch and he bets on its basis. Most often he loses.

That is what makes the business of publishing novels (for the publishers) "the greatest mystery". And no one has the "key" to make it big in the publishing business. In an article that looks at this phenomenon, Shira Boss of NYT writes:

The hunt for the key has been much more extensive in other industries, which have made a point of using new technology to gain a better understanding of their customers. Television stations have created online forums for viewers and may use the information there to make programming decisions. Game developers solicit input from users through virtual communities over the Internet. Airlines and hotels have developed increasingly sophisticated databases of customers.

Publishers, by contrast, put up Web sites where, in some cases, readers can sign up for announcements of new titles. But information rarely flows the other way — from readers back to the editors.

... Most in the industry seem to see consumer taste as a mystery that is inevitable and even appealing, akin to the uncontrollable highs and lows of falling in love or gambling.

This is an interesting story, and the news peg is Curtis Sittenfeld’s (picture above, courtesy NYT) first novel, “Cipher,” that was let go by nearly two dozen high-ranking editors at major publishers, only to be picked up by Random House, who made an offer, giving Ms. Sittenfeld a $40,000 advance.

Random House published “Cipher” in January 2005, renaming it “Prep” and backing it with a clever marketing and publicity campaign. The novel has confounded all expectations by making the New York Times best-seller list a month after publication. The hardcover, with a cover price of $21.95, eventually sold more than 133,000 copies. The paperback also became a best seller, selling 329,000 copies to date. Foreign rights have been sold for publication in 25 languages, and Paramount has optioned the movie rights.

Puzzled? Do you also think that publishing isn't a business, it’s a casino? Read on...

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The art of the novel

Recently, quite a number of good (and bad) books on the art of the novel have been appearing in the bookstores, and I, for one, have no complaints against it. Rather, I welcome them as these books equip us with ways of looking at the best works of fiction that might have not occured to us. Others are quite scholarly, and and yet there are some that simply inspire us to become writers and teach us how to stay on the course.

In a review essay in the recent issue of NYRB, Hermione Lee takes an overview of the art and craft of writing novels, why do we need novels, what do they achieve through their existence and how they have evolved over centuries and reached today's stage:

The novel's entanglement in "the prose of the world" can also be its justification and its pride. The novel's virtue, it has often been argued, lies in its egalitarianism, its very commonplaceness. And the novel's everydayness need not be an enemy to its aesthetic integrity. In his wise, deep, and witty essay on the novel, The Curtain, Milan Kundera, a follower of Flaubert in his critique and practice of the European novel, celebrates "the everyday" ("it is not merely ennui, pointlessness, repetition, triviality; it is beauty as well") while writing in praise of the novel's essential self-sufficiency:

It...refuses to exist as illustration of an historical era, as description of a society, as defense of an ideology, and instead puts itself exclusively at the service of "what only the novel can say."

Look at the titles of the books at the beginning of the essay. Do you need a better bibliography on this subject?

Monday, May 07, 2007

Two books and a writer

I'm really looking forward to read two books which are still in the making (apart from Professor Amitava Kumar's Home Products of course; its copy is yet to come from India for me).

One is Patrick French's biography of V S Naipaul. Patrick had been researching it for a long time and now I hear that it will soon be making its way to the press. Two things are interesting about this project. First, Patrick is a provocative (and scholarly) writer--so I expect some interesting research on Naipaul in this book. Second, and not any less important, Naipaul himself has written so much on himself and his life--so what new thing is going to come out of Patrick's research and observations, and how will Naipaul react to it? After all, Naipaul was also analysed by his former friend, Paul Theroux, in his book on their friendship and its unceremonious end--definitely not leaving a good taste for Naipaul.

Second is the novel by former Time magazine journalist Arvind Adiga. Outlook reported that his manuscript, The White Tiger, was doing the rounds at London Fair and was creating a lot of buzz. I have enjoyed Arvind's writings on books and writers and I am sure his work will be an engaging read.

Meanwhile, looks like London-based novelist Mohsin Hamid, while promoting his second novel A Reluctant Fundamentalist, is becoming an expert in framing sharp (and short) answers. In a Q&A with Outlook, he said this when asked if Rushdie was an influence:

Rushdie opened the doors of commercial and literary recognition for South Asian writers. But not an aesthetic or political space.

Hmm...another tiff in the making with the Shah of Blah?

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Throwing books out of newspaper columns

Are lit bloggers pushing the traditional book reviewers to the margins? This is the latest literary question the western media is asking these days. Many American newspapers are doing away with or cutting down on their book review sections for many reasons, the most important being the financial ones.

A Guardian blog noted that in San Francisco, a city so bookish even your barista probably has a PhD, the Book Review was halved to make space for ads. The Los Angeles Times recently folded its Book Review into the opinion section. The Atlanta Journal Constitution, which reaches 2.3 million readers a week, recently "reorganised", eliminating its books editor position altogether.

The blog further notes:

When you complain - and readers are doing so more often - newspaper owners usually say these are financial decisions. And they're right. Newspaper circulation is ebbing steadily downward. Craigslist has eaten through their classified market like a plague of locusts.

Their readership is also getting older, and newspapers were slow to attract younger readers to their websites, a shame since the future of newspapers is going to be a mixture of print and online content. In anticipation, some savvy books editors have begun podcasting, blogging (like this), and hosting online chats.

Lit-bloggers will point out that they have been using this technology for years, and that's true. In the US, with a few exceptions - like Salon.com - lit-bloggers been pioneers at the online frontier, and readers seeking out smart, casual discussion about books have and will continue to be well-served by these 21st century homesteaders.

But in the struggle for bragging rights something gets lost: the awareness that for every lit-blogger who has been serving up opinions daily since 1998, there are five books editors who were around when Toni Morrison's first book landed on their desk in 1970, and are no longer.

This loss of cultural knowledge is inevitable. As Jonathan Franzen pointed out in his terrific book of essays about reading, How to Be Alone, obsolescence - once it is accepted - can be a virtue. But not in this case, I believe. Book reviews are one of the few places in a US newspaper one can stop to appreciate the beauty of language, the pleasures of knowledge. They are also footbridges to artistic tradition, however rickety.

Yesterday, The New York Times also ran a piece on this topic: Are Book Reviewers Out of Print?

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, meanwhile, has recently eliminated the job of its book editor, leading many fans to worry that book coverage will soon be provided mostly by wire services and reprints from national papers.

The decision in Atlanta — in which book reviews will now be overseen by one editor responsible for virtually all arts coverage — comes after a string of changes at book reviews across the country. The Los Angeles Times recently merged its once stand-alone book review into a new section combining the review with the paper’s Sunday opinion pages, effectively cutting the number of pages devoted to books to 10 from 12. Last year The San Francisco Chronicle’s book review went from six pages to four. All across the country, newspapers are cutting book sections or running more reprints of reviews from wire services or larger papers.

To some authors and critics, these moves amount to yet one more nail in the coffin of literary culture. But some publishers and literary bloggers — not surprisingly — see it as an inevitable transition toward a new, more democratic literary landscape where anyone can comment on books. In recent years, dozens of sites, including Bookslut.com, The Elegant Variation (marksarvas.blogs.com/elegvar/), maudnewton .com, Beatrice.com and the Syntax of Things (syntaxofthings.typepad.com), have been offering a mix of book news, debates, interviews and reviews, often on subjects not generally covered by newspaper book sections.

Joining the debate, Dan Wickett, whose blogfeeds I keep receiving in my emails, and who has been mentioned in the NYT article, argues that newspapers should continue publishing the book reviews. He notes in his email a copy of which I received in my mailbox:

I absolutely do not want to see print reviews disappear. The first thing I do every Sunday morning is grab the Detroit Free Press and turn to the book page (yes, page). I follow that up by going online and looking at the new book pages/sections of 8-15 papers from across the country. Yes, I'm doing this online, but really only because I don't have access to the printed copies of these papers.

I think in India, the Times of India had seen it coming long time ago. But thankfully, all Indian newspapers and magazines have not sacrificed the book reviews for more ad spaces. Journals like The Hindu, Biblio, and The Book Review, among others, are still doing a good job. But I sometimes don't like the way some magazines crunch the book reviews to a mere blurb, for space reasons. Better not to publish such jokes at all that make a mockery of a writer's hard work.


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