Having a story to tell, or being a literary enthusiast, are both routes to successful writing, says VIJAY NAIR

The question that baffles writers and readers alike is what distinguishes literary fiction from popular or genre fiction. Various notions are built around the two to give each a set of distinctive characteristics. But they fall short of being worthy frameworks around which we can peg an absolute understanding. There is one which says the fiction of ideas is literary fiction and the fiction of emotions is popular fiction. One evokes thoughts and the other feelings. There are others who say it is pretentious to describe any contemporary writing as literary. Only history can be a judge of that. No one can be a student of English Literature in India without having to study at least one Shakespearean text. Shakespeare or for that matter Charles Dickens were considered popular writers during their times and there is some evidence to suggest they didn't have literary respect, although their popularity was never in question. And yet, we use the adjectives literary and popular as almost exact opposites when it comes to writing fiction.

Fans galore

No other Indian writer, writing in English symbolises this dichotomy more than Chetan Bhagat. Thanks to the immense popularity the four books he has penned to date have enjoyed, Bhagat has become a cultural phenomenon. His books get adapted into plays and screenplays. For millions of his fans, he has turned into some kind of a motivational speaker without necessarily having to work for that label. A friend who went for a panel discussion around Bhagat's latest work on Indian marriages came back with stories of how the audience wanted answers to some of the dilemmas life was posing for them from the author.

I have read the first novel Bhagat penned many years ago. Bhagat wasn't the phenomenon he is today then and I picked up Five Point Someone from an airport bookshop because of lack of alternatives on the shelves. I finished the book during the flight itself and went to sleep. I didn't think his writing was great but the idea around which the book was based seemed worthy enough. Having studied in an elite professional institute in India and now asked sometimes to take a course in another, I could resonate with what Bhagat was saying in the book. He also seemed to have a great sense for the story that most critics and academicians would say is a critical element of the novel. I have not read any other books of Bhagat after that. Not because I consider him a lesser writer but because when I want to be entertained I read detective fiction and Bhagat's books don't fall under that genre.

I am always uncomfortable in a writer's gathering whenever someone passes an acerbic comment on Bhagat and his writing. I have never got drawn into defending Bhagat because what I encounter is not only derision but also hostility from many of his peers.

Another writer who seems to be getting there is Anuvab Pal with his seminal work The President is Coming. Pal wrote the first draft of the play in a workshop I attended for 12 Indian playwrights that a theatre group from Mumbai organized along with a much revered British theatre establishment. During the first reading of the play in the workshop, the reaction from the facilitators was poker faced at best. When the play was staged to immense audience acclaim, there were jealous titters from others in the workshop about how hard the director had to work to redeem Pal's play. The play soon found itself into a film adaptation and then a leading publisher commissioned Pal to write a novel on the same idea as the book. Since a novel, unlike a play or a screenplay cannot be redeemed by any director, his peers from theatre are not saying anything anymore. The President is Comingonce again is not a farce bereft of ideas. It found a ready resonance with the audience because it pokes fun at them while not taking itself very seriously. The phenomenon of the play is interesting because it became hugely popular in India and abroad without the backing of the self styled patrons of Indian arts and literature that a Sahitya Academy writer once described to me as the cultural mafia. I don't know whether I would ever read Pal's novel having watched the play and the film. But I do have a lot of respect for Pal and what he achieves through his writing.

Different motives

That respect is lacking when it comes to a particular breed of writers who have already styled themselves as literary writers. These are writers whose works come with the coded message “take me seriously.” And the reason they are saying this and have deluded critics into echoing the same is because these are writers who give the impression of being erudite and scholarly. They are writers because they know their Rushdie and Grass. They can give intelligent interviews and most times what they say in their interviews is more interesting than what the reader has to plod through in their works. While writers like Bhagat and Pal seem to write because they have stories to tell and they enjoy writing, there are writers who seem to write because they have read other critically acclaimed writers and want to write like them. And that is always tricky to negotiate. We may dislike a Rushdie or a Naipaul and their works, but we also know they are originals. No one can write like them. Why would we want another Rushdie or another Naipaul who don't quite measure up although their ambition in telling stories about dwarfs and centurions may be worthy and noble?

The argument is not that writers should write only out of their experience. It is not an either/or. Anita Nair's debut novel The Better Man for some reason made me feel she has read a lot of Latin American writers. I was reminded of Marquez while I was reading the novel. But it did not prevent me from either liking or respecting that book. In my humble opinion that is one of the most stunning first works by an Indian writer writing in English. Likewise for Anjum Hasan. Both her novels Lunatic in My Head as well as Neti…Neti comes to me with a strong fragrance of E.M. Foster. Particularly her second novel, where the theme seems to be strongly influenced by the cave section in A Passage to India. But there are also original and interesting stories to go with the inspired themes.

Maybe it is a good thing for a writer to be well read and also have a great story to tell.

Vijay Nair is a writer and critic based in Bangalore