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No figment of imagination, pop fiction is a great leveller

Aug 31, 2011 14:56 IST

#Amish   #Chetan Bhagat   #India   #LitCrit   #pop fiction  

By Deepanjana Pal

Whatever your stand on the Jan Lokpal Bill issue, the one heartening aspect of the 13-day circus has been a mass of people from different social strata coming together for one cause. We don’t see this happen often.

We are hyper-aware of how diverse India is. And this diversity is tricky business, in the cultural world especially. There is work created for the masses, like a Bollywood blockbuster or a Page 3-inspired newspaper supplement; and then, there are products we don’t expect will have a wide appeal. However, before Anna Hazare united the nation —  rather than a sliver of disgruntled intelligentsia — India had one great unifier: cheap pop fiction.

Chetan Bhagat at Time magazine's most influential people gala in 2010. Getty Images

Chetan Bhagat’s first novel, Five Point Someone, has sold over 700,000 copies. Karan Bajaj’s debut novel Keep Off The Grass was a bestseller with sales of more than 500,000. Recently, The Secret of the Nagas by Amish is believed to have sold 70,000 copies within a few weeks of its release. All these authors have a few things in common. They are management students; critics rubbish their writing; their books are cheap; and given the sales figures, everyone except the critics (probably the same disgruntled lot who are appalled by Hazare) is buying their books.

Few award-winning Indian writers in English can claim such demand for their work. Presuming the Indian Institute of Management doesn’t have a module titled 'How To Write Crap English That Will Make You A Bestselling Author', it would seem that much of Bhagat and his tribe’s success lies in the pricing of their books.

Though literary fiction in India is cheaper than it is abroad, books of the genre aren’t exactly 'cheap'. In India, literary fiction titles start at about Rs500 and can go up to Rs699 for a hardcover. Paperback prices hover around Rs300. These books are mostly marketed as works that will appeal to a select, intellectual readership. It’s easy to see that a reader would think many times before shelling out that kind of cash for a book that might not be their cup of tea.

On the other hand, when a book costs around Rs100 or less, more people are willing to give it a shot. As a result, there is now a rush of cheap Indian pop fiction hitting the bookstores. Penguin has a series priced at Rs150 and Harper Collins has titles that cost Rs195.

At first glance, this seems like a terrible development. There will now be more books like Johnny Gone Down. The English language and grammar of management students may well proliferate. Well-written, thought-provoking fiction will be categorised as extremely niche and may even be sidelined as publishers devote their energies on unearthing the next bestseller rather than the next award winner.

However, what the likes of Amish are doing is creating a culture of buying and reading books. Pop fiction authors are also challenging writers of a more literary bent to focus their attention on Indian readership instead of a foreign market. Regardless of how dodgy pop fiction might be, it is prodding our writers to tell stories that are compelling and relevant to contemporary India. Aside from price, this is the major selling point of books by authors like Bhagat. Readers from a variety of backgrounds are able to relate to the situations and characters in the novels.

We have spent decades, convinced that India’s diversity means there is no one story that all of India — or at least a majority of Indians — will want to read or hear, unless it’s about Bollywood or cricket. But when more than a million people enthusiastically look forward to a book by Chetan Bhagat about regular people and banal lives, it is a sign that there is indeed some unity in our diversity. It isn’t just the price that is persuading them to buy a book. After all, The Secret of the Nagas is priced at Rs295, which is Rs100 more than the price of The Immortals of Meluha, the first book of Amish’s Shiva Trilogy. Yet, its sales figures are excellent, which shows that if readers like the writing, they aren’t averse to paying more.

The challenge increasingly lies with the literary fiction bandwagon, for writers to woo the readership towards good writing, and for publishers to promote their authors as storytellers that everyone can relate to rather than as intellectuals in ivory towers that look towards the West. Popular fiction’s appeal is more widespread than that of literary fiction all over the world but this hasn’t meant other genres get squashed. The question is will authors of literary fiction in India be able to create a reader base and thumb their nose at bestselling authors. As a reviewer whose sanity is frequently threatened by books she has to read, I hope they do.

This article was originally published in Mumbai Boss.