Thursday, December 29, 2011

Between the covers

A couple more weeks and the books industry will have survived another year, predictions of its imminent death notwithstanding. Yes, people are spending more time on social networking sites, giving pigeons competition in terms of attention span, and independent bookstores in the West (not just chains like Borders) are shutting down en masse, but books as such have survived.

Apart from the gloom and doom, 2011 saw the worst literary spat since Paul Theroux and V S Naipaul’s fell out. Niall Ferguson accused Pankaj Mishra of racism after Mishra’s scathing review of Civilisation: The West and the Rest appeared in the London Review of Books.

Here are a few of Mishra’s jabs. Ferguson, he wrote, is a “retailer of emollient tales about the glorious past” whose books “are known less for their original scholarly contribution than for containing some provocative counterfactuals”. He summarised Ferguson’s new book in one word: gallimaufry. Thin-skinned Ferguson threatened to take Mishra and the LRB to court for making “racist” comments and called the review “a personal attack that amounts to libel”. Mishra refused to be cowed, and is nowhere near making an apology. It remains to be seen whether in the new year Ferguson makes his threat real.

Mishra rubbed Patrick French the wrong way, too. He trashed French’s India: A Portrait so harshly in Outlook magazine that the latter retorted, “It was less a review than an ideological cry of pain,” and returned the compliment by comparing Mishra, with his “migratory bio”, with Lord Curzon.

Catfights apart, one of the bigger events was Salman Rushdie’s entry into Twitter. Other than Bret Easton Ellis, Rushdie is probably the only popular novelist who understands perfectly well how to engage his followers. When Facebook banned his profile for not including his first name (Ahmed), Rushdie took to Twitter and compiled a list of Middle Name Users: James “Paul” McCartney, Francis “Scott” Fitzgerald and Edward “Morgan” Forster, among others. If you haven’t yet read Rushdie’s limerick on TV personality Kim Kardashian’s recent divorce, you’ve missed a minor gem.

Another major controversy blew up when a judge quit the Man Booker International prize panel after Philip Roth was given the award. The judge, author and publisher Carmen Callil, said of Roth that “He goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.”

Closer to home, the mushrooming of literary festivals was a cause of minor consternation as the same clique of writers was seen displaying its wares at every location. But then, anything that celebrates a series of dark pigments in rectilinear format has to be a good thing.

The Jaipur Literature Festival at the beginning of the year was the absolute standout among the bookfests. With the impressive lineup of international writers its organisers manage to assemble year after year, JLF is turning into the Hay Festival of South Asia. Martin Amis, Orhan Pamuk, Kiran Desai, Junot Diaz, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Richard Ford, Jay McInerney, J M Coetzee and Vikram Seth are a few of the many writers who held the audience in thrall during the five days of the event. Next year’s list of speakers looks equally promising.

The sore thumb of the year in bookfests was Harud, the Srinagar literary festival that was indefinitely postponed because of an “open letter” that several writers of Kashmiri origin composed and circulated. The letter said that so long as human rights were being denied in the strife-ridden region, an “apolitical” festival was an absurdity.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. If only it didn’t have to be that way.


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