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A collaboration over too much coffee.
coffee and pen

28 August, 2004

Anita Desai

Ryze business networking: "'So much is being written in India now, every mail brings me manuscripts to look at by Indian authors. It has suddenly become a craze. It's not much to do with writing, it's to do with celebrity culture. Because a few like Rushdie and Arundhati Roy have become celebrities, it's encouraged others to try writing.'"

Now I find what Anita Desai has to say very objectionable!


Published authors, at least in India, never lend a helping had to struggling authors. A crab mentality prevails. Now that I made it why should I help someone else?

Agreed. You have made it against the odds, had to struggle, was rejected, etc. etc. But helping someone come up, saying a good word about something you really like. No way, we are Indian.

One billion people and no Olympic gold? Only one measly silver? Why?

Because our social system and structure is such. Along comes a talented person who wants to do something and vicious gossip is circulated, insults are hurled, character assasination is ready to be circulated, everything is done to make the person feel small.

"Who does he/she think he/she is?"

"Big writer eh?" Smirk! Smirk!

So now that Ms Desai has made it, Ms Desai can thumb her nose at those struggling to make it. Same with the writers who have had "god"fathers abroad to promote them.

Is there any doubt why most talented youngersters (writers, painters, sportsmen, actors) get disillusioned and give up? We are not a society based on merit, we are a society based on cronyism. If you don't like to be a crony then go jump into the well. Ask the sportsmen who has no talent to suck up to the officials. How can you ask if you won't even find them?

Now what makes Anita Desai crib in front of a foreign audience? Perhaps she thinks she has arrived and is now on level with the "goras" so the brownies who struggle in India can suck their thumbs and descend the depths of desperation.

Anita Desai says we Indian writers want to be celebrities... who doesn't? Doesn't she want to be a bigger celebrity than Arundhati Roy and Salman Rushdie? Doesn't she want the TV cameras, the interview, the book launches, the paid book tour, etc.

She does, but she wants it so seriously that she doesn't want the 10 million or so people in the sub-continent who can afford a computer to catch up with her. So she would rather subvert their prospects and criticise them in public than say a good word.

Is it any surprise that a nation of one billion cannot produce a gold medal at the Olympics. All we can do is a silver when unknown countries in Africa (imagine Africa with its malnourished millions!) can produce more than one medal. All our medal prospects gave up long ago!


Blogger zigzackly said...

John, i'm not getting into whether i agree or disagree with the meat of your rant.
But your finding Ms Desai's words objectionable, that i can't understand. i haven't read the lady, i don't know her personally, and have never interacted with her in any way, so i have absolutely no idea if she does or doesn't extend an expert helping hand to up-and-coming writers, Indian or otherwise.
But i find nothing to argue with in that simple statement of hers into which you seem to have read so much. IMHO, it IS a craze. It DOES have a lot more to do with people wanting to be celebrities that about the writing. Not to speak of the money the celeb writers are assumed to be making. Like all crazes, it will run its course, and stabilise.
And, actually, i have no problem with the frenzy. If it means there's more people in this country looking at writing in English as a potential income source, it can only make things better for the rest of us, writers and readers both. At worst, it will mean the ratio of crappy books in English to good stuff will equal those in western markets. At best, more publishers will look at India as a place they'd better be looking for writers worth publishing.

29 August, 2004 07:52  
Blogger Marginalien said...

I agree with Zig. Anita Desai's remarks are what I would call plain-speaking -- if it happens to take a swipe at the quantities of Indian 'authors', so what? The knee-jerk over-sensitive Indian response to any perceived attack on Indians and/or India is so tiresome and so immature. It blunts all attempts at serious criticism, reviews, dialogue, because negative reactions are instantly dismissed as biased, ignorant, vicious personal attacks -- anything at all, but never the truth. How does any culture learn to understand its place in reality without acknowledging its own faults?

In many ways, being unable to face criticism is also a sign of the 'crabism' that John refers to. The same crabs that are supposedly unable to allow any other crabs to get ahead in the race are equally quick to pull down anyone who attempts to make an honest remark, if that honest remark is not in praise of the nation. I don't believe Anita Desai's statement needs to be seen as some grand general diss aimed at all of India. It's something she believes in and so she says it. One sincere remark is more beneficial, even when it's negative, than pages of insincere flattery.

29 August, 2004 08:51  
Blogger putu said...

on the other hand, would we be so undestanding if it hadnt been anita desai, a writer of considerable standing, who had said this?
im not asking her to get me an agent (as in, im not sending her manuscripts, and i can see why it would be really annoying) This kind of broad, sweeping statement could be interpreted as dismissive in tone, though, and somewhat discouraging - this is not me reacting to an all-India diss, just me saying that its difficult to get your work out there, and while i cant see the use of manuscript-spamming anita desai, i can at least understand why people might want to do it. this doesnt mean i would want her to print a retraction, or an apology, or do anything about it at all - these are her views, and theyre justified from where shes coming - heaven alone knows the kind of rubbish she must get. more power to ms. desai. i dont think her comments deserve a rant, but somehow i dont feel even vaguely guilty about never having read anything shes written. yes, a lot of indians want to write. yes, a lot of indians write trash, some of which gets published. but as a principle, i dont think well-known writers should sneer, however gently, at wannabe writers (at least not in public forums). it just doesnt look nice. this is completely irrespective of the nationality or race of the wannabe writers concerned, or how many medals their country has won at the olympics.
having said that, it was probably a completely innocuous remark and doesnt deserve this kind of debate. but we all evidently have too much time on our hands, which is good too.

29 August, 2004 14:13  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's what I'm can't figure out.
You despise cronyism. Hurrah. So do i. So do, I hope, all the talented people everywhere who don't get their breaks because somebody else happens to know a few people higher up in the ladder.
But, at the same time, you're angry with Anita Desai because she's not (so you say - I don't know, one way or the other) helping Indian writers. In other words, she's not promoting people who happen to hail from the same geographical area as she does. Why should she? Wouldn't that be cronyism too? Or have I misunderstood your argument?
Seems a little um, crabby, no?


29 August, 2004 20:12  
Blogger Rashmi said...

hi !

Well we better face it getting a break is difficult for a writer anywhere in the world. Or any other profession for that matter. And the people at the top are not going to be helpful coz they don't have to be. No point cribbing about it. It's human nature.

Having said that, I disagree with Ms. Desai's statement because of the fact that writers are not celebrities in India . Cricketers, filmstars and gangland dons are. Really ask 5 of your friends who read the Times of India, they will all know Neha Dhupia but hardly any will know who Anita Desai is , or be able to name one of her books.

Most Indians who write in English do it because they have something to share with the world. If they get published and earn fat royalty advances good for them or else they shru their shoulders and move on.

01 September, 2004 10:12  
Blogger John said...

Wow! Five feedbacks! I feel rich by the harvest!

My gripe against Anita Desai was because:

1) It is wrong for an established writer to dismiss the vague enough chance of an Indian writer (who has even an iota of talent) from making it by making such sweeping statements... that here people are crazy to be celebrities like her and so and so...

2) She had no hesitation in promoting her daughter Kiran Desai and getting her own agent Sandra Dijkstra to represent her... good for her and her daugher... maybe they deserve it... but... if it is my daughter... oh, she is very, very, talented. But of the others? I think they are zilch.

3) Since she has said it in public... and it has been widely reported... she has entered into a sort of contract with agents, publishers, editors, reviewers in the western world to sneer upon those aspiring writers who can afford a computer and have a novel in them and have something to say. This is unfair and this is discouraging to any potential talent that may want to emerge. I guess more than a few writers would be discourage by the public pronouncement of this worthy writer.

4) What have our celebrity writers in India or of Indian origin done to encourage Indian writing in English? They haven't looked back at the profession that has given them their celebrity status. They have promoted other causes but not that of the struggling authors in India. None, none of them even looked back even to say an encouraging word or a "keep it up."

5) I know because I am guilty. I have sent my manuscript to celebrity authors with self-addressed stamped envelopes. But the authors have never even scribbled me a thank you note! In the western world, it is a common courtesy to at least say a polite "thank you" or "no" or "please keep it up" in reply to such communication. Which our celebrity authors don't have the decency to do. So Anita Deasai could be... I am saying... "could be" referring to me. So my gripe. How then can our celebrity authors justify being where they are!

I know I am ranting... but I prefer to rant than keep quiet about it!

01 September, 2004 11:04  
Blogger jivay said...

Only one question John...
Is it mandatory for any published author (celebrity or otherwise) to help those writers who are not published.

If I were a published author ( again celebrity or otherwise)would it not be within my rights not to respond to all the opinion seeeking mail that I recieved, even while I reserved the rights to make any comments on any field of mky interest.


PS: Sorry, make that three questions...!

01 September, 2004 17:08  
Blogger John said...

Hi Vijay,

If the author seeking a good word sends a self-addressed stamped envelope it is common courtesy to send the envelope back with a polite "no" if one is not inclined to respond and not keep the envelope and stamp to oneself!

This is accepted behavior abroad... read any primer on getting published... also publishers send manuscripts... books to published authors in the same manner and seek their comments... they do get a reply... or at least a "no".

Graham Greene went a step further and referred a rookie RK Narayan to his own publisher and recommended his work. That is how a fledgling author from Karnataka got published! Many such instances are there!

But to not help an author seeking help, and to castigate and deride them in public makes a big difference.... I don't mind if they don't help but to go one step further and dismiss all writing from India as "seeking celebrity status" is what is objectionable...

Hope this answers your questions... if you have more... please ask...

Thanks for your posting...

02 September, 2004 10:49  
Blogger Marginalien said...

Ahh -- forget it, John! Get off your high horse. If Graham Greene helped Narayan it was (presumably) because he really liked what he read, NOT because he wanted to help a struggling writer, just for the sake of helping struggling writers. It isn't often that such opportunities arise -- i.e., it isn't often that a world-class talent sends his unsolicited m/s in through the mail.

It's the fate of unsolicited manuscripts to languish unread/unacknowledged/most likely unseen -- there's really no point getting steamed up about it -- it's not an author's job to be even slightly concerned about other authors. If any individual author is caring and compassionate towards other scribblers, that's a bonus -- but he/she can't be treated as a standard-bearer for all other authors.

So yes -- it's a hard cold world! Authors dump on other authors! Authors promote their own daughters! O Woe and Anguish! Big deal. Believe me, John, some day, when you are a famous author, signing book deals in several languages, you will look back and wonder what you were complaining about back then when it hurt not to get a 'polite' refusal from someone or the other. The reality of publishing is that you need an ego made of tungsten steel just to bring out one book, never mind several, never mind successful. All along the way, there will be people who will puncture your pride, carve away your self-esteem, butcher your feelings -- and you have to be able to walk tall through it all and believe in your own work regardless of what people say and what people do to make you think otherwise.

02 September, 2004 11:25  
Blogger Hurree said...

What's to disagree with, John? After God of Small Things won the Booker--not after it was published, mind you, but after it Won a Prize, publishing houses were inundated with manuscripts from hopeful writers. You could argue that Roy's success gave them the hope they needed and provided a measure of courage, but that doesn't really explain the number of these books that arrived with an optimistic request to the editor to put them in the Booker ring!
It might have been kinder of Desai to draw a distinction between the sort of writer who writes because it's now seen as a good, even respectable, middle class profession where you might win the awards-and-advances lottery if you get lucky, and the kind who writes because, hell, that's what he or she was born to do. It might have been kinder; but it certainly isn't required.
Many Indian authors, including Desai, have actually encouraged what they see as emerging talent. (Met the lady's agent once, who told me that Desai had sent a few budding authors to her door.) But most of them come to a stage where the arrival of unsolicited manuscripts isn't a compliment any more--it's a drain on their time and resources. You're seeing it from the perspective of one author who's finally summoned up the courage to ask for an outside opinion: not from the perspective of an author for whom your manuscript, however good it might be, represents just one of the twenty that arrived during the week, and represents a demand that the author jettison his or her work in order to read yours. E Annie Proulx, Peter Carey, Salman Rushdie: they don't read manuscripts. And yes, it's an imposition to ask, unless they ask you first!
I need to ask why you think Ms Desai shouldn't have made these comments in front of a "foreign audience". She lives abroad; she was at a festival abroad; she was asked a question and she answered it. Would it really have been more acceptable to you if she'd made the same remarks in Delhi?
What you are suffering from, though, exposes a serious flaw in the Indian system: we have no agents here. Several Indian authors will still read manuscripts, but only if they know the person concerned, or if the writer is recommended to them--you can't blame them for this. It isn't their job, and they don't want to be wasting their time. They'll use whatever filters they can get.
There is a chance, though, that if you had agents here, authors like you would have been able to submit their manuscripts to a professional and ask for a qualified opinion. (Within limits: first-time authors abroad often shuck out a fair amount of money for reading fees--several respectable agents now charge to read manuscripts as well.)
I can understand the frustrations of trying to make it; publishing, as the Marginalien says, is a very hard business to survive in. But don't blame Desai for calling it like she sees it. She clearly is speaking from experience, if "every mail" brings her manuscripts that she hasn't asked for. This is just her opinion, and however much you might disagree with it, it's an informed one.

02 September, 2004 15:40  

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