Every publishing industry professional knows that a Chetan Bhagat or Ravinder Singh sells more than an Amitav Ghosh or Anita Desai. Chetan Bhagat’s grouse against literary fiction, literary fiction writers, and publishers who publish literary fiction shows only one facet of the glittering diamond that literature is. Literary fiction is far from the villain that Mr Bhagat makes it out to be. This counter by Shashi Deshpande is important.
Here are some of my thoughts to supplement Ms Deshpande’s arguments.
Mr Bhagat, in his article, cleaves a binary of classes vs masses in literature. He claims a social chasm exists between the rich elites (those who read literary fiction) and the poor masses (those who read popular or genre fiction). I don’t see it that way.
The book market is not like the automobile market, where there’s a huge price gap between an Alto K10 and a Mercedes S-class. A Bhagat may retail between INR 250 and INR 350 and a Ghosh may retail between INR 300 and INR 600, depending on format and discounts. So, it’s not the kind of gap you’d see between a mass hatchback and an elite sedan.
The book market is extremely price-sensitive—publishers cannot afford to price high, even if it’s a so-called ‘elite’ book. The people who read literary fiction are pretty much the same in terms of education and class as those who read popular fiction. So, the difference, really, is only in terms of what one likes or dislikes. People read what gives them joy or relief. For some, it is The Hungry Tide, for others, it is Half Girlfriend. And, indeed, for some, it is both!
Mr Bhagat’s main criticism is that literary fiction authors are not aware of the ground realities—how people live. This claim can be demolished in a minute flat. If you’ve read Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, you know what I’m talking about. The depths of detail that you’d find in a book like Shantaram is astounding. There’s no way a writer can fathom those depths without intimately engaging with those worlds. Many, if not all, literary fiction writers spend months and years researching their subjects. I doubt popular fiction writers like Mr Bhagat or Mr Singh have to do that. Their subjects, characters, plots, and narratives are necessarily simple. Otherwise, they won’t sell in such large numbers. They have to be accessible, because there are more people in this world who prefer consuming content that is easy to consume. Literary fiction, as you may know if you’ve tried Midnight’s Children, is often extremely challenging to consume.
The challenge is mainly because of the layers that literary fiction will descend to unravel a story. While popular fiction talks about the private lives of people, literary fiction talks about the private lives, private emotions, private imaginations, and private aspirations of individuals. It will weave webs of motivations, causes, and effects that are complex, crafty, and beautiful. It will force you to consider your own life and motives and purposes, sometimes in deeply disturbing and sometimes in greatly inspiring ways. The cognitive processes provoked by literary fiction are different from popular fiction. Yes, it is high art, and often inaccessible. Literary fictions either succeed gloriously or fail spectacularly. But they seldom sell like popular fiction.
What Mr Bhagat’s real issue is that he doesn’t get the kind of ‘respect’ that literary fiction writers get. Even Stephen King alludes to this in his book On Writing. As always, people are at fault—not Mr Bhagat, not Ms Desai. People across the stands have fragile identities that they try to bolster by painting themselves into exclusive corners, looking down upon others, creating ‘us versus them’ narratives to feel superior. Some people do ridicule Mr Bhagat’s works, calling them ‘low-quality’ or ‘brainless’ and many other uncharitable epithets. In my opinion, such people are jerks. Most of them cannot come anywhere close to Mr Bhagat’s success as an author. Mr Bhagat should take pride in the fact that he’s probably the most successful author in India in terms of unit sales, he is loved by millions, and his imagination enters the minds of millions. What greater power or acclaim could one aspire to? Therefore, his attack on literary fiction was not only uncalled for, it was also totally unnecessary.
Popular fiction writers should acknowledge the debt they owe to literary fiction. Many of the tropes, structures, and leaps of the imagination used in popular fiction were first invented by literary fiction writers. Popular writers adopted and adapted them in their own works. It is like the Cerulean Blue scene from The Devil Wears Prada, where Miranda Priestley challenges Andy Sachs, who finds the rarefied concerns of haute couture funny: “So you think this has nothing to do with you.” The fact is, it has something to do with you.
Every popular fiction writer worth their salt is also a voracious reader of all kinds of works, including, and significantly, literary fiction. Of course, both these forms of writing are like twins born of the same mother, that is, fireside storytelling. They’re like two siblings who grew up to be different people, both with their own set of friends, among whom they’re very popular. And there’s no reason why they should hate each other.