Sunday, October 19, 2008

Booked for Good

Sunil K Poolani

When my wayward friend who was good for nothing took a lottery ticket, a disparager said, “Sucker, you lost Rs 10.” And when he won Rs 10 lakh and a Maruti car the misanthropist changed opinion, “See, I predicted… he would win the lottery.”
I predicted Aravind Adiga would win a Booker this year. And all my friends pooh-poohed me. And now I stand vindicated. And Adiga won. And how. I write how.
Adiga, through his reportage and columns in the venerated Time magazine, always amused me. He packed much punch in simple words and sentences and it did wonders. He still does that; he is quite young, too. And when I opened his debut novel to savour, I knew what I was expecting.
The novel in question, by now discussed to death, is treatise to the condition the Indian nation is in. Adiga searches for the impossible. He takes the last mile, where none of today’s journalist (if you can call anyone by that moniker) would tread: in a hard way; the weather-beaten way. And, thus, exploring a story he wanted to narrate — in an inimitable style not many a scribe-fictionist in India could easily achieve to do.
Like the writing, the story of White Tiger, too, is reasonably effortless. Born in abject poverty (a pig’s life is much better than him), Balram Halwai (whose age is unknown) is the son of a rickshaw puller. He was taken out of the school to work in a teashop and through various meanderings he somehow gets a break when a rich village landlord hires him as a driver for his son, his daughter-in-law and their two Pomeranian dogs.
From behind the wheel of a Honda he explores the metropolis of Delhi with a gleeful eye. And since then his life is on a rollercoaster ride. He learns English. He sees the dark façade behind the life of many rich people in Delhi and their moral debauchery. Balram’s language and his scorn for the rich only increases as time passes — so does his ambition to become a rich man at a time when the country is going through a new-fangled economic boom, primarily BPO operation.
To cut the story short, Balram eventually murders the landlord’s son (by then the daughter-in-law has left the son) and steals the son’s money to start life anew in another booming, glitzy city: Bangalore.
Balram kicks off an entrepreneurial venture, of hiring vehicles to ply BPO employees, and he has to grease several palms to achieve a dream of a big man in these times.
The novel is a telling tale of two Indias: Balram’s journey to achieve his goals is totally amoral and at times very nasty; it shows both the good and bad sides of today’s make-belief world. Nevertheless, most of the times the novel is uproariously funny, too, and Balram keeps a bold face even when he learns his entire family has been massacred by the landlord’s goons.
White Tiger is written in a novel way: in the form of letters to the Chinese Premier from ‘The White Tiger’, which is Balram. This debut work explores and defies all conventional norms of feel-good writing and comes as a cruel testimony of today’s murky world where only money counts. Adiga’s is a voice to be watched (Booker or not, more photo ops or not, more sales and revenue or not) and White Tiger is a worthy addition to your bookshelf. I am deeply impressed.

Chetan Bhagat’s “magnum opus”, One Night At The Call Center, was made into a movie (portrayed by some stupid actors making some equally stupid gestures) and was released some days ago. The catch, at least in Mumbai corridors was, that if you buy a ticket for the move you will get to “win” a copy of the book with the ‘acclaimed’ author’s autograph. Ahem. And the movie bombed, thank you. And the books are still piled up in Mumbai multiplexes — untouched, the ink on the signed books still to be absorbed into the newsprint. Who said Mumbai audiences are idiots? Not me.
— Deccan Chronicle / The Asian Age


Anonymous said...

In its heyday, publishing was a vast array of mom-and-pop shops, in which the pops tended to be independently wealthy. Their competitive advantage was not efficiency or low costs but taste. Maxwell Perkins at Scribner; Bennett Cerf at Random House; Roger Straus and Robert Giroux at Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Barney Rosset at Grove; and Alfred A. Knopf epitomized the gentleman editor as gallerist, snatching up unknown geniuses. One British publisher advised an American at the time: “Take lots and lots of gambles, but small ones.” So they did. They took poor writers drinking, put them up in their homes, and defended them in court. They made handshake deals, spent their personal wealth in lean years, and built backlists out of modernist classics. Discovering Faulkner was like buying Picassos in 1910.

In the early sixties, Knopf sold out to Cerf, who sold Random House to RCA, and the era of consolidation began. Formerly independent publishers shriveled into mere imprints of massive corporations. Knopf became part of Random House; so did Doubleday and Bantam and Ballantine and dozens of still smaller shops now distinguished mostly by their names, like corporatized Broadway theaters bearing the monikers of long-gone cigar-chomping producers.

By the nineties, five big conglomerates were divvying up the spoils and their lucrative backlists. Many of the smaller companies that had been struggling, like FSG, Ecco, and Crown, were flush with corporate resources. But in exchange, they gave up final say in how they’d publish their books—or even what books they’d publish. And suddenly an industry accustomed to 5 percent margins was being run by media moguls aiming for double digits.

The corporations began by doing what they knew how to do: acquire, expand, diversify, spend. Sign up all kinds of writers, pay some of them a ton, market the hell out of them, see what sticks. It was the nineties, after all. A few books sold spectacularly, but more failed, and in the last ten years, the bill has come due. So today, the order comes down from beleaguered CEOs: More blockbuster books, fast. Which leads to cutthroat auctions and ballooning advances. You can’t win big if you don’t bet big.

“The system works just fine for commercial fiction. But for literary fiction, I think we had a nice run of it in the commercial world.”

Lately, the whole, hoary concept of paying writers advances against royalties has come under question. Following their down payments to authors, publishers don’t have to pay a cent in royalties, which are usually 15 percent of the hardcover price, 7.5 for paperbacks, until that signing bonus is earned back. The system is supposed to be mutually beneficial; the publishers guarantee writers a certain income, and then both parties share in the proceeds beyond that level. But it only works for publishers if they’re conservative in their expectations. As auctions over hot books have grown more frequent, prudence has gone out the window— paying a $1 million advance to a 26-year-old first-time novelist becomes a public-relations gambit as much as an investment in that writer’s future.

That money has to come from somewhere, so publishers have cracked down on their non-star writers. The advances you don’t hear about have been dropping precipitously. For every Pretty Young Debut Novelist who snags that seven-figure prize, ten solid literary novelists have seen advances slashed for their third books.

Of course, back in the boom nineties, the corporations themselves were pumping up the expectations of midlist writers. Consider Dale Peck. His first novel, Martin and John, came out in 1993 to excellent reviews, and by his third book, in 1998, he was, by his own account, wildly overpaid. Books, he says, “were like Internet stocks, getting enormous advances without demonstrating any moneymaking whatsoever.” Having rarely sold more than 10,000 copies, he took up with superagent Andrew Wylie, developed a reputation for being a “diva,” and pretty soon couldn’t sell a book to save his life. Until he started specializing in genre fiction—first children’s books, then horror. Last year, Peck sold Body Surfing, a thriller about demons exiting people through sexual release. He’s now splitting $3 million with Heroes writer Tim Kring to produce a trilogy of conspiracy thrillers.

Peck sees an increasingly hostile environment for the kind of books he used to write. “When you get $100,000 for a novel,” he says, “you want $150,000 and then $200,000, so when they pay you $25,000 for the next one, and my rent is $2,500 a month, what do you do? The system works just fine for commercial fiction. But for literary fiction, I think we had a nice run of it in the commercial world.”

The good fiction that does manage to snag a stratospheric advance is mostly either a follow-up to or a knockoff of a freak hit. The astonishing success of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain led to a bidding war for his second book, which Grove/Atlantic editor Morgan Entrekin lost with great regret to Ann Godoff at Random House’s eponymous imprint (known as Little Random). Lucky him. The price tag, more than $8 million, might well have sunk Grove, one of the few biggish independent houses left, because Frazier’s follow-up, Thirteen Moons, sold less than 500,000 copies, according to BookScan. Ann Godoff was fired not long after the deal was made. “It is possible they broke Little Random’s neck,” says one agent. “Frazier’s wife will not have the luxury to buy another racehorse.”

Anonymous said...

Hi Sunil,
Immediately after reading the blog on "White Tiger", some questions and thoughts flashed in my mind.
What if every deprived individual of this world adopts a similar methodology as Balram, to become wealthy and successful? Is it the only wealthy who are connected to moral turpitude?Is money the only driving force behind humanity? What if Balram chose the way of hard work and honesty to become wealthy and show the way to others in his clan?Would the theme of the book then been taken as run of the mill and not got the recognition it deserved?
On an after thought, the reality started dawnig upon me and some answers started staring at me.
Today, we live in a Make Believe Society. Real individuals are buried inside, while the impersonators shine under costly make up or designer clothes.
Even the world likes and appreciates only high fliers;who rise to fame and success, forgetting moral and ethical values as well as those who have laid stepping stones to their success.The very Mother Earth, upon which they once stood, their simple yet true friends and the mundane things which they once rejoiced in, stop being of any value once they take wings and float in the virtual world. It is only when the wind is blown out of their sails that they realise the value of the Mother Earth.
Sooner or later, all their crave for ill earned money, false prestige and pretence comes to a naught and they fall with a thud. The very world, which looked up to their meteoric raise with awe, starts throwing derogatory remarks at them and keeps them at arms length.History is replete with examples of the downfall of the high and mighty and the future will be glad to throw up some more. In all fairness, such live examples and tales should serve the mankind as an eye opener and stop them from further perpetuation and down fall.
With this, I close my eyes and fall in to reverie, hoping that the finer print and the underlying message of "White Tiger", would not be lost on its readers and such blogs would help spread the message.
Satya Sista (

padam jenony said...

Nothing succeeds like success.

Anonymous said...

Now I know why people (especially women) find you so endearing at times. Besides, you write well.
Derek Bose (

Anonymous said...

'Overducated to the point of despair', is one of the
phrases used by Bekcett, sorry I forget the context. But I have been
worrying about the publication and the aftermath. One of my uncles,
began publishing a science magazines in Kannada! He had to wind it up
after a few years, incurring losses. When he had asked me, I remember
having told him, publish a magazine, let there be prominent section on
science, because a science magazine in Kannada, about a decade ago,
wouldn't be feasible'.But he wouldn't listen to me. ( Where is Science
Today or Science Reporter today?!)
To make a living, I had to work in an ad agency. I almost
never read ads, because I thought only innocent children or morons
would be influenced by them. It was when I read that Rushdie was a
Copy Writer, before he made it big, that I began to pay attention to
ads, not much.
It so happened that there was this girl, Asha , not her real name,
and, one night, I had the epiphany, you might say, and I typed out the
title (In 1997).The rest is history, as they say, or do they?
I have been waiting...
In the Outlook, dated 20 October, 08, there is this spoof on '13 books
no one has ever finished'. Please read that. I have read ' The old man
and the Sea' and about Moby Dick but can't now recall whether actually
read Moby Dick, 'Ulysses' and and' A brief History of Time' and
'Crime nd Punishment' ,'My experiments with Truth' and 'A hundred
Years of Solitude'...
I can see you frowning at my poor scholarship already...
But I read Amitav stating that when he was writing a novel, he never
read newspapers(!) and ...I can't help reading newspapers, at least
one or two in English and one or two in Kannada ( Sometimes I do
glance at some Malayalam ones, but lost touch with Malayalam...But I
can recite "Neeyagum nilavine Kadalay snehikkumbol, neeyyagum kinavine
unarvay dhaynikkombol... by Sugatha Kumari and once upon a time I read
O.V.Viyayan's first novel 'Khazhakinte Ithihasam...
Too tired to type anymore, please bear with me. I hope I have made may point.
Yours sincerelly,
K.N.Sharma aka Vikshiptha
P S: When are you coming to Kearala and I hereby extend a hearty
welcome to my home. We can discuss the strategy!