Between the two shores of Rs 99 cheapo fiction and the 500-page academic monograph abides the vast continent of contemporary Literature. True?
No! Well, yes, true in one sense. There are broad plains in between where the book critics graze. But also no, because it is a false dichotomy, this opposition of cheap fun to expensive rigour. There is room in the market for cheap and high-minded. The two shores can be pinched together; no grassland left for the critics.
What I’m asking for is short, thought-provoking nonfiction with a low cover price. Hardly a new idea. Two years ago Penguin UK wrapped up its “Great Ideas” series — a hundred 100-page books containing selections from the writings of the “great thinkers, pioneers, radicals and visionaries whose ideas shook civilisation, and helped make us who we are”.
The series was a hit. In a 2010 post on the publisher’s site, series editor Simon Winder wrote of one of the authors, “We had hardly been able to keep in print John Ruskin’s selected writings, but a tiny group of my favourite essays suddenly sold some 70,000 copies.” Ruskin wrote on, among other topics, art and architecture, and his essays helped convince Victorian England to conserve old buildings for their own sake.
Now, 70,000 copies sold (even at £4.99 each) is more than you can shake a stick at. Of course, George Orwell sold 140,000 copies. The same publisher has tried small editions of the Indian classics, which though may last probably don’t sell well. There is surely room for more contemporary stuff.
That is being tried. Oxford University Press is starting in India its “short introductions” series. The first one is out: 200 pages by a bright young Harvard PhD student on The Indian Constitution. It is an analysis of this unusual document, and almost accessible to the layman. Next come Natural Disasters and Indian History, Caste, The Poverty Line and Indian Cities, in quick succession, all priced at Rs 195. The topics are interesting and timely. Also interesting will be how many copies they sell.
Judging by the experience of other, albeit smaller, publishers, not very many. Navayana, a one-man publishing house in Delhi, has intellectual street-cred and brass testicles. S Anand published D N Jha’s 200-page The Myth of the Holy Cow (2009, Rs 200), in which the historian argues that Vedic Indians didn’t just herd and milk their cows, they also ate them. But he says he struggles to find quality writers who can give him a punchy, serious, saleable non-fiction book of 30,000 words, or about 100 pages.
And the Three Essays Collective, another small Delhi publisher, has a fine list of short books by good authors. Here are some: Slouching Towards Ayodhya: From Congress to Hindutva in Indian Politics (2004), Opium City: The Making of Early Victorian Bombay (2005), Demolishing Myths or Mosques and Temples? Readings on History and Temple Desecration in Medieval India (2008). All under 200 pages, and priced accordingly. Ask yourself why you don’t hear more about these books.
Here’s one reason: though the titles sound controversial, you can’t fool the book-buyer so easily. The books are academic. Most are by academics. The arguments they enter into are about old things. Somehow they don’t sound useful. Indian buyers, as a quick perusal of the bestseller lists will show, want reading matter that entertains, offers answers to everyday problems, or improves one’s employability. That is the demographic that buys cheap.
Compare with the Penguin series above. Reading and spending little, the purchaser gets a taste of many ideas, and practical insights. From the blurbs: Schopenhauer is on “art, morality and self-awareness” in a “Godless, meaningless world”; Dickens describes “his time as an insomniac”; Francis Bacon writes on “anger and ambition, marriage and money, envy and empire”. The subject matter has altitude, but the message is, “this book will be useful to you”.
Yes, the lack of skilled, thoughtful Indian writers is a drag on our imaginations. Perhaps the publishers can rope in more Indian graduates in Western universities to write, for a start? But one could also seek a better pick of topics. How about good 100-page, Rs 100 books on: corruption (subtitle: “How you were conned into the great game”), water (“How soon will India run out of it”), Indian cities (“How do they pay for themselves?”), classical music (“Why it is good for you”), education (“India’s best ideas on learning from the sages to the syllabus committees”), and so on.
Would you buy them?
Every week, Eye Culture features writers with an entertaining critical take on art, music, dance, film and sport