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Sadanand Menon: Canonising pulp fiction


Sadanand Menon  |  New Delhi 

A recent literary phenomenon has taken the publishing world by storm. An anthology of translated into English, has turned out to be a runaway bestseller. The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, comprising 17 stories by ten popular Tamil authors of crime, romance, science fiction and detective thrillers, racily translated into English by Pritham Chakravarthy, has also opened up a literary ‘genre war’.

A fresh entrant to publishing, Blaft is the brainchild of Rakesh Khanna, and their very first title has sold out and gone into reprint within three months. It was designated ‘Book of the Month’ by the Madras Book Club and, at their regular meeting last fortnight, some of the contradictory factors involving the popularity of pulp fiction were bracketed.

The original authors of the stories are a prolific lot. For instance, Subha (pen name of Suresh and Balakrishnan) have co-authored over 550 short novels and 400 short stories, Rajesh Kumar (over 1,250 novels and 2,000 short stories), Indra Soundar Rajan (over 500 short stories) and Ramnichandran (over 125 novels). Pattukottai Prabhakar is known in his neighbourhood for writing 12 hours a day, while Pushpa Thangadorai has been writing pulp fiction for over 40 years.

Together, they occupy much of the fictional space in popular Tamil periodicals like Ananda Vikatan, Kumudam, Kumkumam, Kalaimagal, and Dhinamani Kadhir. Copiously illustrated with titillating visuals by artists like Jairaj (who has emerged as the pet hate of local feminists for his salacious drawings of female figures), they occupy prominent shelf-space in book and magazine stalls at street corners, bus stands and railway stations. It is a genre of mass-produced, disposable literature, which has come to be synonymous with the new Indian urbanisation of the past 100 years.

In fact, as early as 1933, in a Tamil article called ‘The Secret of Commercial Novel Writing’, Sudhandhira Sangu set out the thumb rules for commercial success. His advice included nuggets like “the title should carry a woman’s name” and that “you can make money only if you can titillate”. These are among the reasons why this literature inhabits a gray zone of acceptability and is associated with a furtive, surreptitious habit of reading behind closed doors. The publications themselves would be tucked behind bookshelves or secreted below mattresses, away from the censoring eyes of ‘respectability’. The very reasons why this genre is so popular too.

The growth of printing technology in the early decades of the 20th century enabled the emergence of cheap publishing on recycled paper, a process merely accelerated by the emergence of desktop in the 1980s, facilitating the emergence of popular writers and a rapid rise in readership. It also provoked the start of what we can now call a ‘genre war’ between the so called ‘high’ and ‘low’ literature.

Pritham Chakravarthy, says in her ‘Translator’s Note’ that the book is an attempt to “claim the status of ‘literature’ for this huge body of writing that has rarely made it into an academic library”. I would say the genre, in fact, subverts academia and leads us to questions relating to the manufacture of mass public taste through the production of assembly-line escapist fiction.

The core of pulp fiction resides in what, in sociology, is called ‘negativity’. Culture is not all that is positive or surface alone; culture is also the negative, what is submerged. Crime is culture and so is the brothel. The pulp genre occupies the border zone between the bold and the risky on the one hand and the conservative and the safe on the other.

There is an elaborate masquerade both in the production and consumption of pulp. On the one hand, it seems to occupy the space of the ordinary and the everyday. On the other hand, there is a tension between the need to feminise space as against seeing women in public as ‘matter out of place’, lending the stories their problematic anti-woman, misogynist content.

Consequently, these stories, which on surface look invested with risk and seem to be transgressing some social or moral code, end up precisely on the opposite side, endorsing the status quo. Most ‘crime’ stories, for instance, strongly support the Statist police system as well the upper caste moral code. ‘Pulp fiction’ ends up unerringly serving the cause of the establishment.

In one sense, pulp literature occupied the space evacuated by oral literature about a 100 years ago. Since we tend to speed-read through it, the genre has become the closest approximate now to oral culture. However, it has none of the restitutive virtues of the oral. It is the return of oral culture as pathology, within which the narrative tension between the inner and outer courtyard, morphs into a closet crisis. And we are attracted to it precisely because it feeds us the illusion of a risky adventure, even as it reaffirms the existing social order.

First Published: Fri, August 22 2008. 00:00 IST