'Let’s talk about the literary referees'

A battle that is underway in the United States is between a self-serving retailer that wants to sell books very cheap and a self-serving publisher that wants the freedom to decide the price of its own books, writes Manu Joseph.

columns Updated: Sep 14, 2014 19:45 IST
Amazon,Stephen King,John Grisham

A battle that is underway in the United States is between a self-serving retailer that wants to sell books very cheap and a self-serving publisher that wants the freedom to decide the price of its own books. Their objective, both the corporations have said, is to serve and protect culture, which is a nice touch.

Amazon, as the largest bookseller in the States, has been forcing publishers to lower the price of their books. Many have given in. Hachette, a giant publisher, has stood up to the larger giant. Hachette says that Amazon, now a publisher too among other things, wants to destroy other publishers just as it killed physical bookstores, and that the retailer has been sabotaging the sales of Hachette’s books. Also, Hachette believes that a world where Amazon is the predominant publisher and seller of books would be a world where culture is sold as though it is a lawn mower. Amazon, which probably wonders discreetly why culture should not be sold at a big discount, has said that traditional publishers are obsolete and that they do not know how to sell books.

Over nine hundred writers, including Stephen King and John Grisham, have signed on a letter that asks Amazon to keep writers out of their dirty tricks. A few thousand writers, many of whom were once rejected by traditional publishers, have come out in support of Amazon’s ways and have proclaimed the company as a saviour of those who were condemned to be unpublished or insignificant. They have accused traditional publishers of being elitist, anachronistic and incompetent. Why else would books be in a crisis, they argue, when reading is not.

There is, no doubt, a crisis. As it is with India’s noble grains that do not reach the poor while Parle G biscuits that a private enterprise distributes in self-interest reach every nook of the nation, so is it with books. The marketplace for easy-reads is brisk and regulated to a large extent by brutal competition, but the more substantial books are afflicted by the inadequacies and corruption of the middlemen that exist between the writer and the reader. Writers and impassioned readers, depending on their persuasions, have pilloried the publishers or giant retailers. But there is a type of people who have gotten away, which is odd because the very existence of this medium is supposed to be for the high purpose of uniting great books with readers. They are the literary referees, the guardians of art, the discoverers of new talent, the noise.

They sit on juries, write reviews, organize literature festivals. If the Good Book is in a crisis, does it not point to a colossal failure of the referees? If the books that they champion are often rejected by the readers, what does it say about their relevance?

I am a lucky beneficiary of the publishing establishment, of exceptional editors, and on occasion of award juries, critics and literary entrepreneurs. Yet, even as a happy insider I share the disenchantment of readers and several writers with the quality of the referees. There are academics and critics who take on the responsibility of being a part of an awards jury for honourable reasons and fight with great passion for the books they truly love. But the charlatans dominate the field — academics who want to push arcane agendas, intellectualoids who hope to punish writers for their views, poets with provincial wounds who want to diminish those whom they fear are successful. It does appear some times that an awards jury is a conference of midgets who conspire to project the shadow of their own kind as a possible giant.

In the Facebook booklist virus that went around, you probably lied. About some titles perhaps, not entirely. I have been going through my newsfeed and I am unable to recognize several acquaintances from their lists of favourite books or books that apparently shaped them. Award juries and critics lie too. Some of them are so intellectually feeble, so uncertain of their own place in the world, that they have the need to pick unreadable rubbish as art. Anything entertaining worries them because in their distorted perception of intelligence art that is worthy of respect has to be tedious, painful. But readers, especially those who search of high-quality books, feel differently. In fact, they have grown to be wary of award-winners.

Two years ago, the Edinburgh International Book Festival had invited fifty writers from various nations to a conference. The Festival encouraged acrimonious debates on various issues but as modern writers are smart networkers than polemicists, the proceedings were sober and banal. They were united in their lament against the success of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, which had sold more than all the works of the fifty delegates put together. As they discussed the crisis in modern literature they somehow blamed Amazon for it and how it was changing the old ways. But the fact is, the physical bookstore chain, unlike the independent bookstores, never cared about the new or the small writers. In fact, in Britain and the United States, it was hard for publishers to get these stores to stock and display the little-known writers. Amazon, inadvertently, is more fair.

Also, for all their concerns about literature, established writers do nothing to promote the new, unless they are acquainted with the freshers. The reason why the blurb has become so discredited in the eyes of the readers. So authors themselves are not trustworthy as referees.

The word of the ‘friend’ was always persuasive to readers. As the referees have lost their heft, the friend, who is so often online, has become more influential than ever.

(Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel The Illicit Happiness of Other People.)

First Published: Sep 14, 2014 01:26 IST