Nilanjana S Roy: The unprivate lives of authors

By : Nilanjana S Roy
Last Updated: Mon, Sep 03, 2012 19:22 hrs

Anthony Bourdain’s pastry chef gave the world an immortal line. Adam Real-Last-Name-Unknown, psychotic bread baker, would call Bourdain and random chefs at unexpected hours of the day, and they’d hear a voice rasp: “Feed the bitch! Feed the bitch or she’ll die!”

What he wanted them to do was to maintain his starter for the dough — “a massive, foaming, barely contained heap of fermenting grapes, flour, water, sugar or yeast...” which had to be “fed” with a mix of warm water, fresh flour and yeast at regular intervals. It was a messy, time-consuming, laborious job, and it was mandatory if there was to be any bread at all.

This part of the life of a writer, feeding the bitch, is not something that writers like talking about. It ruins the pleasant myth that books sell themselves, spread from reader to reader without any actual manipulation on the part of the dark forces of the marketplace.

But it’s necessary, even for the recluses, who fall into two camps. Some suffer for their belief that authors are, separated from their writing, inarticulate people best left alone; they retreat into doing just the writing, and are swiftly forgotten — even if their work is important. (Manohar Malgonkar, G V Desani, Aubrey Menen — the list of neglected and now dead writers in India makes for sad reading.)

A few are already celebrities, famous enough to get away with being reclusive, though they bring up the Pynchon Question: if a Pynchon or a Salinger was writing today, would they be able to hold on to their privacy, or would they never have found a publisher at all?

Some writers and artists dissect what the media wants with ruthless clarity, and give it to them. Yoko Ono, on a recent visit to India, gave of her time in 10 minute segments — sliced down to three to five minutes in practice. (The best use of that interview was made by the writer and artist Manjula Padmanabhan, who asked to spend five minutes with Yoko Ono in silence.) As Salman Rushdie prepares to release Joseph Anton, the word in the media is that few journalists will get more than 15 minutes of his time, during which they can ask three questions.

This is not arrogance on the part of the writer/artist, just an acknowledgement of the form that the modern interview has taken. It’s no use complaining that journalists don’t read the book they’re covering; most “interviews”, especially in India, are short space-fillers. That gives the journalist just enough room for three quotes, setting aside the peculiarly human need for the personal, face-to-face meeting.

For writers like Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie or artists like Yoko Ono, you’d need a Paris Review-length interview to do justice to their long careers. Three questions are enough for most 600-word profiles, even if what’s happening is a simulacrum of an interview — awkward performance art.

If the old-school interview – a conversation, really, a dialogue which assumes give-and-take – survives anywhere, it’s online. There are fewer space constraints, for one. The only sensible way out seems to be for authors to commit a short span of time to the circus, hope to have at least a few interesting encounters, and get back to the desk.

The speed at which India’s reading habits are going online could change that, though. Amazon’s Kindle store in India opened last month, allowing Indian readers to buy books in rupees. Their prices are competitive, and they’re walking into a market that’s already warmed up to buying books (virtual or paper) online, thanks to Flipkart. Many readers – especially business readers – had switched comfortably to reading on their tablets, and the availability of the Kindle makes it likelier that more and more people will read ebooks.

With the growth of online bookstores – and with their ability to create readers’ communities – many writers will be lured by the idea of unfenced conversations with readers. But as writers elsewhere have discovered, there are pitfalls. Some grow addicted to watching their Amazon sales rank swoop or dive; some become obsessed with unfavourable reviews; a few unhappy souls created their own fictitious accounts and praised their books, and were rapidly (and ignominiously) found out.

Amazon might have its hands full with troll wars, too. (A troll is, briefly, someone who posts inflammatory, often bitter or abusive messages online.) Indian trolls are among the worst in the world, and the thought of Chetan Bhagat’s followers battling it out with Ravinder Singh loyalists is curiously dismaying.

The virtue of online bookstores is that they often flag books that might have slipped under the radar, or create loyal communities of readers with similar interests, and it remains to be seen where India’s online reading experience will go. Most authors will have to find a balance between using the Internet to interact directly with readers, and not getting dangerously obsessive about curating their Net presence. In both cases, offline media interviews and online reader communities, less might be more.  

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