Friday, October 31, 2008


Riding the Tiger
ERIC FORBES speaks to journalist ARAVIND ADIGA about his Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The White Tiger (Atlantic Books/Free Press, 2008), an excoriatingly sardonic piece of fiction that captures the injustice and poverty of contemporary India


ARAVIND ADIGA was born in Madras, India, in 1974, but now lives in Bombay. He completed his schooling in India and Australia. He graduated from Columbia University in New York with a B.A. in English literature. After his B.A., he went on a scholarship from Columbia to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he received his M.Phil. in English literature. He went into journalism in 2000 through an internship at the Washington, D.C. bureau of the Financial Times. He worked as a financial correspondent in New York for two and a half years, covering investment and the stock market. In 2003, he returned to India as a correspondent for Time magazine. The Sunday Times of London called his first novel, The White Tiger, a “completely bald, angry, unadorned portrait of the country as seen from the bottom of the heap; there’s not a sniff of saffron or a swirl of sari anywhere.” The White Tiger was announced the winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize for Fiction on October 14, 2008. He is the fourth Indian-born author to win the Booker Prize since it was launched in 1969, joining Kiran Desai, Arundhati Roy and Salman Rushdie. He is also the second youngest winner in the prize’s 40-year history.


When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was in my teens, but it has taken me a long time to understand what kind of writer I’ve wanted to be, and what my subject matter ought to be.

Was it difficult getting published? Did you experience difficulty in finding an agent and a publisher?
The process of getting published has been long and difficult. My first book, a collection of short stories called “Between the Assassinations” was written in 2005—but still hasn’t been published. I’ve had the usual struggles to find and keep literary agents. I’d say it took me about ten years of serious work to get published. Only one person—a friend named Ramin Bahrani—believed in me and urged me never to give up, and so I dedicated the novel to him.

Who are some of your literary influences?
The writers whom I admire are diverse, and range from R.K. Narayan to André Gide; but in writing The White Tiger I was thinking of a few African-American writers whom I respect very much: Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, Richard Wright, author of Native Son, and James Baldwin, the essayist and novelist. Their narratives of the Black American experience formed a template with which I could explore the narratives of the repressed in modern India.

How did you create the character of Balram Halwai? How much do you identify with him?
The White Tiger was first written in 2005 as a third-person narrative, about a chauffeur in Delhi who kills his master, takes the money, and runs to Bangalore—where he eventually is caught by the police and goes to trial. In 2006, I rewrote it in the first person: and without any conscious intent on the author’s part, the ending of the book changed.

The character of Balram Halwai is a composite of many men I’ve met and talked to, at train stations, liquor shops and bus stands during my travels in India. He is not in the least anyone I identify with; it was a conscious effort on my part to try and create a voice, and a character, whose views are entirely different from mine. Literature has to allow us to break down class and psychological boundaries, and enter into new and even disturbing states of consciousness; it has to expose us to moral standards and values that are diametrically opposed to our own, and force us to re-examine our own values.

I’m amazed that so many readers and reviewers assume that Balram’s opinions are my own; so many of the writers I admire—Robert Browning, Vladimir Nabokov and Mark Twain—consistently experiment with narrative voices that are not their own.

What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up?
I grew up in a provincial Indian town, and I read what was available in its public libraries—which reflected the reading tastes of Britain a decade or two earlier: lots of adventure and detective novels, and some classics, like Treasure Island and Kidnapped. Later on, when I was in high school, I began reading English literature in earnest, and many of the writers I studied then have stayed with me: the poets Robert Browning and William Wordsworth, and the American novelist Mark Twain.

The White Tiger has been called a novel that explores the real India. What do you think?
The White Tiger is the story of a man’s quest for freedom—and of the terrible cost of that freedom. Balram Halwai, the protagonist, is a member of the invisible Indian underclass—one of the millions of poor Indians who have been bypassed by the economic boom. The novel attempts to give a literary voice to those who are being written out of the narratives of our time—the poor.

The White Tiger is a work of fiction, written in the voice of a man who is both a victim and an aggressor; a man who is both sensitive and violent, aesthetic and deranged. It is meant to be a provocation; it is meant to jar and disrupt and entertain its readers—it is not an objective commentary on India today. I’d like for the readers to think about what Balram is saying about Indian society, but to remember too that the novel maintains an ironic distance from his views.

Who are some of your favourite Indian authors? And why?
When I get depressed, which is often, I reach for Kiran Desai’s work, and read a page at random, and that inspires and cheers me up at once. What a talent she is! I’m just about to start reading Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s second novel, The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay [which was recently longlisted and shortlisted for the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize]. I do honestly believe that he is one of the most talented young Indian novelists.

What are you reading at the moment?
I read a lot of nonfiction, and often find it more interesting than fiction. I’ve just finished reading To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson’s classic narrative of the rise of Marxism, which has to be one of the best books I’ve ever read.

What’s next?
I’m working on a new novel: I think I’m not far off completion—but who knows!

ERIC FORBES is the senior book editor with a publisher in Kuala Lumpur. After reading economics for a degree, which he didn’t particularly enjoy but somehow endured, he had a succession of jobs before joining the publishing industry. He has been in bookselling and publishing for over 20 years now. He can’t imagine doing anything else.

Reproduced from the special 2008 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival issue of Quill magazine

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

2008 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry: Shortlist

THE T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry is Britain’s richest award for poetry. The shortlist for 2008 is as follows:

1. Europa (Bloodaxe Books, May 2008) / Moniza Alvi
2. The Glass Swarm (Flambard Press, September 2008) / Peter Bennet
3. For All We Know (Gallery Books, March 2008) / Ciaran Carson
4. Full Volume (Jonathan Cape, March 2008) / Robert Crawford
5. Life Under Water (Bloodaxe Books, September 2008) / Maura Dooley
6. Theories and Apparitions (Jonathan Cape, 2008) / Mark Doty
7. Nigh-No-Place (Bloodaxe Books, 2008) / Jen Hadfield
8. The Lost Leader (Faber & Faber, 2008) / Mick Imlah
9. Hide Now (Picador, 2008) / Glyn Maxwell
10. Yellow Studio (Oxford Poets, March 2008) / Stephen Romer

The winner will be announced on January 12, 2009.

2008 Australia-Asia Literary Award: Shortlist

THE SHORTLIST for Australasia’s richest literary prize was announced by the Western Australian Culture and Arts Minister John Day on October 30, 2008. Four novels and a collection of stories were shortlisted from a longlist of 12 books announced a week ago.

The shortlisted books are:
1. The Lost Dog / Michelle de Kretser
2. Blood Kin / Ceridwen Dovey
3. The Reluctant Fundamentalist / Mohsin Hamid
4. Orpheus Lost / Janette Turner Hospital
5. The Complete Stories / David Malouf

The judging panel, comprising Sri Lanka-born, Hong Kong-based columnist Nury Vittachi, Pakistan-born award-winning author Kamila Shamsie and Melbourne-based literary critic Peter Craven, will announce a winner on November 21, 2008, in Perth to coincide with the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

FEATURE Does the Short Story Need Saving?

JANET TAY researches the history of the short story and asks why it keeps playing second fiddle to the novel when it is the prose’s equivalent of the lyric poem

FOR SOMETHING that is regarded as the poor cousin of the novel, the short story has always received mixed reviews. The Arts Council England and Scottish Arts Council funded a research project for it, thanks to a campaign initiated by the writer Margaret Wilkinson in 2002. Jack Livings in Newsweek talked about how Stephen King was yet another author who had commented on the fragility of it. A.L. Kennedy says it gets bad press but mainly no press at all, which is worse. Aida Edemariam wrote in The Guardian in 2005 that the British attitude to it is that it is ‘somehow lesser, a practice space for the real thing ….’

As early as 1909, an anonymous reader wrote to The New York Times Saturday Review of Books that short stories ‘render to the seeing eye the tone of time, the drama of a lifetime, the romance of youth far more perfectly than the crowded canvas.’ The reader wanted to find out why short stories were unpopular when in his or her opinion, ‘a great many writers put a finish and a charm into their short stories which their novels lack.’ Nearly a hundred years later, the reader’s sentiments are still echoed by many writers, readers and even editors and publishers. Bob Thompson in his 2007 article in The Washington Post quoted Margaret Atwood, with reference to the difficulties in trying to début with a collection of stories, who said: ‘With a young writer, they’re always going to say: “Well, this is a lovely book of short stories, dear, have you got a novel?” ’

What is it then about short stories that seem to deter publishers from promoting them wholeheartedly, especially since they seem more accessible to the busy, modern reader who might derive more satisfaction from being able to read and finish one story while juggling a hectic schedule? Assuming that the short story is an easier genre to read or write, however, is a misconception. As Edemariam said in The Guardian, ‘[it’s] like privileging the marathon, or the 1,500m over the 100m. [...] [A] short story is prose’s equivalent of the lyric poem.’

Like that anonymous reader in 1909, I too was curious as to why the short story was in danger of obscurity or at the very least, placed in a position that was precariously second to the novel. If Edemariam’s comparison of the short story to the lyric poem is accurate, then the simple answer to my question on why the short story appears to be less popular than the novel is that it is inaccessible to the majority of the reading public. Perhaps only academicians or literary enthusiasts would revere the short story in the same way poetry has become celebrated by a select few. Julian Gough surmised that contemporary readers don’t seem to like unconnected short stories—as opposed to ‘short stories assembled on an organising principle’—because life is fragmented enough, and people ‘like art to make sense out of chaos but without denying the chaos.’

A project funded by Arts Council England and the Scottish Arts Council included research with over 70 writers, agents, publishers, event organisers and retailers on writing, agenting, publishing, marketing and selling of short stories, carried out by Jenny Brown Associates. Book Marketing Limited (BML) researched publishing, sales and lending figures, as well as reading and buying patterns of short stories across the U.K. The report by Jenny Brown Associates and BML may shed some light on the popularity of the short story. An editor of a small press said that ‘as a reader, you orient yourself in a new world, and your brain has to work very hard until you’re into it. You have to do that work all over again with each short story, but with linked stories you already have the context.’ The general sentiment with editors was that ‘readers are getting lazy.’ An author thought that ‘most readers prefer novels, partly because they can become ‘lost’ in the world of the novel, but partly because they are “afraid” to tackle a short story, feel they won’t “get it” ....’

The fact that the Arts Council England and Scottish Arts Council made the effort to fund the research is to be commended. For those of us who read short stories without realising the danger of its declining popularity, the report by Jenny Brown Associates and BML seems to indicate that it is indeed almost all gloom and doom for the genre, at least in the U.K. The report concludes that the the most effective way of keeping short stories alive seems to be the creation of a major award for a single story or a collection of stories. Happily, the National Short Story Prize (now renamed the BBC National Short Story Award) was born in 2005 with a generous first prize worth £15,000, won by Clare Wigfall this year. There is also the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the world’s richest prize for a collection of short stories, with €35,000 for prize money, which also had its first winner, Yiyun Li, who débuted with A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, in 2005. It seems that in order for the short-story genre to be taken seriously, you have to put your money where your mouth is.

Some independent publishers whose sales thrive on short-story collections feel that the pessimism surrounding the short story by mainstream publishers and editors become self-prophesising. If one thinks that the short story is hard to sell, then little or no effort or budget would be expended into its marketing. Agents and publishers would be less inclined to accept manuscripts of short-story collections from first-time writers, causing the number of short-story collections to dwindle. If these collections fail to make their presence felt in bookstores, readers would not be exposed to them and there would be no opportunities to even try to educate the reading public on the form.

In recent years, thanks to the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, writers like Yiyun Li and Miranda July have had the opportunity to showcase their excellent first collections to the world. This year’s winner, Jhumpa Lahiri, whose first book was a Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories and has won the Frank O with her third book and second collection of stories, Unaccustomed Earth, is a laudable example of how there are success stories despite the short story’s grim outlook. But how many Jhumpa Lahiri’s or Yiyun Li’s are there? Relying on the rare success stories to give one hope is like saying there’s money to be made from publishing books because J.K. Rowling made hundreds of millions from publishing when most writers know that it is a tough business and many writers don’t even earn enough royalties to quit their jobs so they can write full-time.

The reality is, as long as the quality of writing is excellent, it doesn’t really matter what genre you write in. The main problem with this genre bias is that the short-story writer seems to have more of a burden to bear when it comes to even getting a foot in the door of an agent’s office or a publishing house compared to the novelist. This is not to say that novelists can get away with writing bad novels, but rather that novelists would have a better chance of proposing their manuscripts to agents or publishers compared to the short-story writer who would first have to overcome the obstacle of prejudice towards short stories before even having the chance to show their work to anyone.

The problem, it seems, isn’t that the standard of short stories are on the decline. This is obvious even as contemporary award winners still display excellent writing. Tobias Woolf in a July 2008 interview in The Guardian was asked whether he was ‘fearful for the health of the short story’ but stated that ‘it’s as robust as it can be.’ Instead, the problem is declining readership, Woolf says, ‘simply returning to where it was in the past, as something that appealed to a relatively small part of the population.’

William Boyd in his article, ‘A Short History of the Short Story,’ also portrays the short-story market in an optimistic light. He says that ‘the American market is still large and remunerative,’ possibly also shaped by the increasing creative writing courses in the U.S. and the U.K. He believes that more young American writers are turning to the short story and more American publishers are publishing collections, and that U.K. publishers will also follow suit. However, there must be teamwork among agents, editors, publishing houses and even schools and libraries to promote and publicise the genre as well as educate the reading public if there is to be any real progress in giving the short story its rightful place next to the novel. One of the most vital myths to be debunked is that it is a practice ground for budding novelists. Woolf says that some Joyce and Hemingway stories show that ‘perfection is attainable.’ Anyone who has read Maupassant’s ‘The Necklace’ or Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ would agree, and understand the unforgettable experience of reading a literary snapshot of life that provides a sudden surge of clarity or emotion, and leaves an imprint in the mind years after it has been digested.

JANET TAY is a litigation lawyer by training, but decided to leave the legal profession to pursue her first love—books and writing. She is now a book editor at a Malaysian publishing house in Kuala Lumpur. She is also working towards a Master’s degree in English Literature at Universiti Malaya.

Reproduced from the October-December 2008 issue of Quill magazine

Tuesday, October 28, 2008



The “Walking the White Road: Flash, Fiction and Science” virtual book tour kicks off on October 28, 2008! Click here for tour dates and links to participating blogs.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The MPH-Alliance Bank National Short Story Prize 2009

27 October 2008 - 31 March 2009
In Support of Malaysian Writing in English

MPH Group of Companies has collaborated with Alliance Bank Malaysia Bhd as our main sponsor and the Malay Mail as our official media partner to create a national short story prize in support of the creative arts and to encourage Malaysian writers to showcase their literary talents. The Prize is also supported by Reader’s Digest, Seventeen Malaysia, Discovery Channel Magazine, The British Council, the National Library of Malaysia and the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage.

We aim to promote the following objectives through the administering of the Prize:
  • To encourage reading and writing in the English language;
  • To recognise new writers and give them increased confidence to pursue writing as a career;
  • To make more widely known the work of rising literary talents;
  • To encourage more people to write about their lives in Malaysia; and
  • To highlight a diversity of cultures, voices and viewpoints.
We hope that the creation and administration of a short-story competition with substantial prizes, courtesy of Alliance Bank Malaysia, will help foster talented Malaysian writers to move on to publishing books of their own. It is also a platform to encourage Malaysians to write about their lives in Malaysia, overcoming ethnic, linguistic and cultural differences through the common language of English.

Two categories
The competition is divided into two categories: adult and teen. There is no specific theme for the adult category; for the teen category, the theme is ‘Staying and Leaving.’ The Prize is open to Malaysian nationals and residents only. The word count is between 2,500 and 7,000 words for the adult category and between 2,000 and 4,000 words for the teen category. Stories must be previously unpublished and each writer is only allowed to submit a maximum of two entries.

MPH Group as administrators of the Prize will select a longlist from the entries received, from which the judges will select a shortlist of six stories. The winner of the adult category will receive RM5,000 cash, a laptop and magazine subscriptions; the other five shortlisted entries will each receive a laptop and magazine subscriptions. The winner of the teen category will receive RM2,000 cash, a subnotebook and magazine subscriptions; the other five shortlisted entries will each receive a subnotebook and magazine subscriptions.

Entry forms
Entry forms are available at all MPH bookstores and in the October-December 2008 issue of MPH’s Quill magazine or can be downloaded from The competition is free for MPH Readers’ Circle members and Alliance Bank Malaysia cardholders; otherwise, a minimum purchase of RM10 from any MPH bookstore is required. Entries are to be sent by post to MPH Group (M) Sdn Bhd (address below) or dropped off at collection boxes in selected MPH bookstores. Faxed or emailed entries will not be accepted and manuscripts will not be returned.

For full terms and conditions, please log on to

For other information, please contact:

Ms. Kuah Sze Mei
MPH Group (M) Sdn Bhd
Lot 1, 1st Floor, Bangunan TH
No. 5 Jalan Bersatu, Section 13/4
Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Tel: (03) 7960 7334

Mr. Eric Forbes
MPH Group Publishing Sdn Bhd
Lot 1, 1st Floor, Bangunan TH
No. 5 Jalan Bersatu, Section 13/4
Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Tel: (03) 7960 7334

Sunday, October 26, 2008

FEATURE The Insider Deal

What is it like when editors become authors? Do they find difficulty in adjusting when the shoe is on the other foot? JANET TAY explores the pros and cons of editors-turned-authors being familiar with the publishing industry before publishing their first book with three publishing heavyweights

LIKE IT OR NOT, book editors have to be aware of market considerations when accepting or rejecting manuscripts. Sales figures, market trends, how marketable an author is in terms of looks, age and credentials all feature in such decision-making. Profit margins dictate that a publishing house is to be run, to a large extent, as a business like any other, while trying to maintain a balance of integrity, professionalism and profitability.

By and large, publishing can be a hit-or-miss industry. Sufficient market survey or promotion efforts may help in researching buying and reading trends, or even help to determine a pattern by swaying readers to specific genres through extensive publicity events, but it is often difficult to predict what kind of books would sell and to ascertain a pattern in the reading tastes of the book-buying public. One ends up knowing the industry inside out, having to not only be skilled enough to spot a potential bestseller but also know what kind of books to avoid publishing.

What then of editors who make the transition to being a published author? Would the knowledge gained from being involved in the book publishing, editing, reviewing industry be advantageous or an impediment to an author? Offhand, it’s tempting to extol its advantages. It seems natural that knowing the pitfalls of publishing and having the ability to discern good literature from bad should equip potential authors who are editors in the process of writing books of their own. However, a 1989 New York Times article by Eleanor Blau seems to indicate otherwise. Marty Asher, at the time editor-in-chief of Vintage Books, said that “too much knowledge is paralysing” and that “it’s easier to criticize a book than to finish it.” Blau also quoted James D. Landis, who was editor-in-chief of William Morrow & Company then, who said that knowing the publishing industry well would be “a lousy way to go about writing unless you’re writing just to sell books.”

In an interview with, Thomas McCormack, the author of The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist, in reply to the question of whether fiction writers should start a career in publishing to support themselves, said that despite the examples of working editors who were also flourishing novelists (like Michael Korda and E.L. Doctorow), “no signal is given off when a would-be writer enters publishing and his ambition is smothered by the demands of working with the manuscripts of others all the time” and if a writer “can find a sustaining job elsewhere, [he] wouldn’t urge going into publishing.”

I decided to interview Marie Arana (Cellophane, American Chica, The Writing Life and the forthcoming Lima Nights), currently the editor of Book World, the book review section of The Washington Post; David Davidar (The House of Blue Mangoes and The Solitude of Emperors), publisher of Penguin Canada; and Erica Wagner (Seizure, Gravity and Ariel’s Gift), the literary editor of The Times, to find out whether being ‘insiders’ in the publishing industry have benefited them in having their own work published.

When asked whether their professional experience (Arana has been a book editor, publisher, literary editor, book critic and novelist; Davidar is a publisher, an editor and a novelist; Wagner is a literary editor, novelist and short-story writer) was an advantage or impediment to writing and publishing literary fiction, Arana says that in many ways, it is a disadvantage. “When I’m promoting a recently published book, for instance, people in the media are more likely to want to talk to me about my role as a book review editor rather than about the book at hand.” She also has strict rules about conflicts of interest so her book jackets never have blurbs from other writers, only quotes from reviews, and says, “I tell my publisher that as long as I am editor of Book World, authors cannot be invited to praise my books.”

Davidar finds it safer to wear different hats when writing and editing. He says, “I find that as a writer, I need to keep my publishing or editing experience at arms’ length because otherwise I would not actually finish writing anything since I think it’s an editor’s job to try and improve every text he or she works on.” Thinking like a publisher when he’s writing may cause him never to write simply because he is “aware of all the things that could prevent a book from taking off.”

For Wagner, being a literary editor/critic and writing fiction are “completely separate” for her, so there is no question of conflict or juggling the roles. There are slight advantages in “having your name known in some other context when it comes to releasing a novel” although she adds that when her first book, Gravity, a collection of stories, was published, she had only just begun her “so-called career in the ‘literary world’.” Being an editor could mean better editing of her own work, but the help of friends and professionals are still needed. Having an insight into the way publishers work also helps to alleviate unpleasant surprises. Arana says there is some advantage in knowing “the relative strengths of publishing houses” while Davidar points out other aspects of his experience that helps him both as publisher and author—empathy, marketing and knowing how to read a contract and work with agents and publishers.

What about being conscious of marketing? I wondered about how being aware of market sentiments might affect the way a book is written, structured or even packaged so that it would be more effectively sold in the market. Davidar states that it would be “disastrous if a literary writer wrote a novel driven by market considerations.” Arana has “never written a book for its market appeal”—her books are all “adamantly non-commercial.” It really depends on the book, Wagner says. Certain books such as chick-lit, some types of historical romance or thrillers can be packaged for a target readership. But with literary fiction, it’s hard to predict prize-winners and best-sellers. Wagner quotes William Goldman’s famous rule of Hollywood: Nobody knows anything.

I imagined that a literary editor who had reviewed hundreds or thousands of books, a book publisher who had rejected just as many submitted manuscripts, to be subjected to a heavier burden when their own books are viewed. Arana agrees. “It’s a huge liability,” she says, but also that she’s been very lucky and grateful to be reviewed at all. Davidar also believes that it’s harder for critics to write: “I think a lot of my colleagues choose not to write because of peer pressure or the concern that they might not get a fair shake from people with whom they’ve had disagreements in the wider literary world.” Wagner believes, however, that critics and authors are “all in the same game” and disagrees that there is a higher standard imposed on critics.

All three were asked to comment on McCormack’s pessimistic view on fiction writers starting their careers in publishing. Arana agrees—not having “writerly ambitions” when she started working for The Washington Post. “If I had known I’d be a writer at a younger age,” she says, “I hope I would have been smart enough to know that burying myself in the hard work of saving other people’s prose would not be the best way to shepherd my own.” Davidar, while noting that McCormack’s view is sound, says that there are nevertheless many examples of writers who have worked in publishing without compromising the quality of their work—an example would be Italo Calvino whose writing “certainly hasn’t suffered because of the publishing connection.” Wagner humorously suggests that being something “splendidly physical” like a lumberjack might be ideal “so the mind could float free.” At the end of the day, Davidar accurately states that writers have to do whatever needs to be done in order to write. If it means working in a publishing house, reviewing books or even harvesting lumber to pay the bills, authors must ensure that they are detached from anything that can distract them from writing their books by compartmentalising different jobs and responsibilities. As much as one is tempted to assume the benefits of being experienced in the book or literary industry, it is a position of “mixed blessings,” as Arana puts it, that one should be minded to use wisely.

JANET TAY is a litigation lawyer by training, but decided to leave the legal profession to pursue her first love—books and writing. She is now a book editor at a Malaysian publishing house in Kuala Lumpur. She is also working towards a Master’s degree in English Literature at Universiti Malaya. She enjoys reviewing literary fiction and interviewing authors.

Reproduced from the special Ubud issue of Quill magazine

Saturday, October 25, 2008

FEATURE Inside India's Publishing Business

In a publishers’ market, where does the writer stand? ZAFAR ANJUM explores the highways and byways of the Indian publishing world

IN THE LAST FEW YEARS, following Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize win for The God of Small Things in 1997, there has been a phenomenal change in the publishing scene in India. According to reports, the industry is growing at the rate of 25 per cent every year. Many multinational publishers have set up shop in India. Literary festivals at places like Jaipur, Mumbai and Kolkata have created a buzz about writers and writing (and in the process, stoking some controversies, too)—and I am not even mentioning the five-star book launches, peppered with Bollywood celebrities and talkative sound-bite-savvy politicians. Agents and talent scouts have been making trips to India in search of the next Arundhati Roy. New names have arrived in India’s overcrowded literary marquee with a regularity and speed to be rivalled only by the cell-phone penetration rate in the country. If you find that last comparison a bit off the curve, take it with a pinch of salt, but I hope you get the drift of things.

There is a reason for all this rush to the Indian market. According to publishing guru David Davidar (who established Penguin India some two decades ago and now heads Penguin Canada and the author of The House of Blue Mangoes and The Solitude of Emperors), the English-language publishing scene in India in 20 years’ time will be the second or third largest in the world overtaking Canada and Australia. “From about seven to eight million, India will go to 30 to 40 million in the space of 15 to 20 years, which means it’s just going to explode,” he said in an interview.

In a scenario like this, one would be forgiven to assume that young Indian writers today—boys or girls or their adult versions—have the world at their feet: talent hunters stalking the wannabe literary superstars, literary agents wooing the parents or grandparents of their literary children or grandchildren, hoping to help them snatch the next literary deal of the century, publishers laughing their way to the bank as they sit atop an inexhaustible literary goldmine of unsolicited manuscripts.

However, the truth is as far from the reality as it can be. The publishing scenario in India, especially the fiction side of it, is still a nightmare for young Indian writers, far removed from the fairy-tale scene painted above. When it comes to publishing, an aspiring Indian writer (sans any literary pedigree or fancy degrees in creative writing from the U.K. or U.S.) is—yes, you guessed it correctly—much on his own: no agents, no literary scouts, and no willing publishers.

Well, actually there are some, but the scene has perhaps not changed much since the days of an upstart R.K. Narayan (Malgudi Days, The Guide, The Man-Eater of Malgudi, The Painter of Signs) when he had to ask his friend to tie a stone to his unpublished, much rejected manuscript and throw it into the Thames. Now that the big brand global publishers are in India, new Indian writers don’t have to go to the Thames; they have their Ganges or Jamuna waiting for their precious offerings at a stone’s throw.

The only difference between now and then is that there may now be more awareness about publishing, especially about the million-dollar advances that some writers get in the West. There are some websites and e-mail groups too that help writers share information and advice with each other—a soothing atmosphere for the wannabe novelist to cool his heels and let his hair down and cavil and complain until he sets off for another wild-goose chase for a publisher.

In the given situation, is anybody doing anything to help the poor writers come out of the shadows? I was surprised to find out that an agency—Writer’s Side—is actively seeking to help new writers reach publishers in India and abroad.

“Writer’s Side has been set up to counterbalance the increasing inaccessibility of Indian publishers, especially the global conglomerates that are setting up divisions here,” says the founder editor of Writer’s Side, Kanishka Gupta.

Kanishka was attached to an agency based in Jaipur before he took the plunge into an inkpot to start a new literary chapter. “It took me just seven months to grow out of the concept of literary agencies in India and evolve a model that was more holistic and profitable,” says the literary entrepreneur.

His company now provides editorial and market assistance to writers. In addition, it introduces very promising talent to their contacts overseas. He, however, clarifies that he is not a typical agent. In fact, for India’s unhealthy publishing scene, he pins some blame on the agencies. “I think the origin of agencies in India was largely an offshoot of the growing interest of foreign markets in Indian fiction,” he says. “Sadly, that interest is very volatile and fluctuates from time to time. Also, agencies in India as a business model are not viable. Apart from Osian’s, a Delhi- and Mumbai-based literary agency, I’ve not encountered a single agency that works with proper infrastructure and support. Thus, the business model of agenting that was started to become lucrative ultimately ends up seeing the agents drag themselves into a metaphorical space of literary martyrdom. That’s not something we can afford.”

“I would also question some of the choices the agents are making. It not only fails them in their cause but also makes Indian writing look increasingly suspect to foreign markets,” he adds. “One has to be very patient and has to stop hanging on the coattails of The God of Small Things. The market has become insanely competitive and somewhat unreliable.”

To prove his point, Kanishka gives the example of a major publishing house [he does not want to disclose the name] which has been in operation in India for over two years. “Other than established names in fiction and commissioned titles in nonfiction they haven’t been able to do anything substantial,” he notes. “Most of their time is spent in formulating innovative marketing campaigns—again a very shortsighted approach for a publisher, especially one who purportedly claimed to be here to find unique voices in the country.”

Kanishka thinks that for the benefit of writers and the industry, publishers should start taking serious initiatives to nurture talent rather than simply work as money-making corporates. “It’s one thing to justify your salary at the end of the month, and quite another to do it at the cost of thousands of writers who are waiting to get some sort of direction in their careers,” he points out. “I hold publishers responsible for writers abandoning their careers prematurely. In the West, consultancies like the TLC, several freelance editors and book doctors are there to help writers but there’s no such system in India, maybe not even in Asia.”

I guess writers will welcome that kind of approach in India. And Indian writers won’t have much to complain about if more agencies like Writer’s Side stood by them.

So, what’s his advice to aspiring writers? Kanishka ferrets out a long list: “Don’t follow trends. Inoculate yourself against rejections. Don’t get paranoid. Always be on the lookout for a novel idea or a novel way of telling a story. Find a mentor or a reader to nurture your talents. It may take five years to see your work in print but it’s worth all the effort.”

Well, it’s not that long a list, but it makes immense sense. If you are not in a hurry to become famous, make those five years into ten. As Davidar said, the Indian market will start to mature by then, and even international writers will have to vie for a little shelf space for themselves in the Indian market.

ZAFAR ANJUM (, a Singapore-based journalist, has published two books and is working on his third. His short story, “Waiting for the Angels,” was shortlisted for the TLM New Writing Prize 2006 by The Little Magazine, India. It later appeared in an anthology of fiction by new Indian writers, First Impressions, published in 2006. Zafar’s journalism and fiction has appeared in periodicals and websites in India, the U.S., the U.K., Hong Kong, Singapore and other countries. He is the founder-editor of, a website dedicated to Asian writing in English. He also edits a website for writers in Singapore,

Reproduced from the special Ubud issue of Quill magazine

Friday, October 24, 2008


The Literary Goddess of Ubud
When JANET DE NEEFE stepped off the plane in Bali in 1984, she not only fell in love with Bali’s culture and its warm people and mouth-watering cuisine, she married one of them, SHARON BAKAR discovers

JANET DE NEEFE, the founder of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, is a Melbourne-born artist and restaurateur who has made Bali her home for more than 20 years. She is the founder of two restaurants in Ubud, Casa Luna and Indus, as well as the Casa Luna Cooking School which attracts hundreds of visitors each year, all eager to learn the secrets of Bali’s spicy cuisine. Casa Luna is famous for being the first restaurant to fuse Balinese and Western cuisine. Her memoir cum cookbook, Fragrant Rice (HarperCollins), is a fascinating account of her personal journey into this most exotic of islands, interspersed with mouth-watering Balinese recipes and insights into Balinese culture and traditions. Having had a passion for cooking from an early age, this youngest of three siblings spent most of her preschool days in her mother’s kitchen, watching her cook casseroles, puddings and cakes. She lives in Ubud with her husband Ketut Suardana and their four precious children, Dewi, Krishna, Laksmi and Arjuna.


Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to make Bali your home?
I first came to Bali in 1974 when I was still at school. I returned 10 years later and met my husband Ketut on the second day of my holiday. (Why waste time, I always say!) One chapter of my life closed and another opened. I decided that Bali was where I wanted to be and slowly made Ubud my home. I decided to research Indonesian cooking in order to write a cookbook and figured I would spend the rest of my time painting. Of course, that dream didn’t last long and in 1987 we opened our first restaurant and the rest, as they say, is history!

How did your book, Fragrant Rice, come to be written and can you tell us a bit about it?
I began writing Fragrant Rice in 1985 as a cookbook but it evolved over time. I wasn’t in a hurry. By the time I started teaching Balinese cooking in 1987, I realised there was so much I didn’t know. So I kept it on the back burner while I attended to business. Then I married and started having babies. In the cooking classes I started to incorporate stories about raising children here and people said, you must include these in the book. So I began jotting them down. Over time the stories kind of took over! And the book became a memoir with recipes. I was editing it when the first bombing occurred, so had to hold it back—and the preface documents my experience during this sad time.

How and why did the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival begin?
The festival grew out of the first bombing on October 12, 2002—nothing more than that. It was such a sad, sad time, and for the first time I realised how cruel the Western world can be in times of hardship. No one wanted to know about us. It’s as if the big door was slammed shut in our faces and we were told to fend for ourselves. I still feel a little emotional when I think about this time and I guess it sealed my identity as an Indonesian-Australian—and not the other way round. I realised that I had to do something to help the people of Bali because nobody else would. I started to think about events that would bring people back to Bali and since I had been invited to a few literary festivals as a writer, I figured that would be the thing. After I appeared at the Melbourne Writers Festival, I decided, yes, this is what I will do. I jumped in at the deep end and have been swimming strongly ever since!

The number of people attending the festival has been growing each year. How much larger can it grow? Would you ever consider putting your events in marquees (as it happens in festivals in the U.K.)?
The festival has been growing constantly. I would love for it to eventually take over Ubud, like the Hay Festival although, of course, we would need to do our logistics on that one to make sure that Ubud can cope. However, I am not sure I want to go down the marquee road, especially if all the other festivals use them. I think we can do better than that! I prefer to keep it in the intimate, elegant spaces of Ubud so we can maintain our distinct personality. My focus is on venues and captivating the wow factor, so we use the best that Ubud offers and also those places that are particularly charming. We are constantly seeking new places to fit that bill. I imagine we will run more events outside Ubud as it grows.

Most festivals struggle with funding. How do you get yours, and is it a constant worry?
Funding is always a problem and I constantly lose sleep over it. I personally float a lot of the costs myself and look forward to the day the festival becomes self-sufficient. We spend many days in Jakarta throughout the year begging and pleading but the food in Jakarta is wonderful so I rather enjoy these jaunts, no matter how exhausting they are!

Over the years you’ve had some pretty big names gracing the festival. Who have been your absolute favourites?
I adore Michael Ondaatje; he’s such a sweet man. Amitav Ghosh was also an angel. My favourite last year was Richard Flanagan and the Egyptian women, Iman Mersal and Somaya Ramadan. I also loved Anita Desai and Kiran Desai, you don’t get writers who are kinder and more humble than this mother-and-daughter team. When I interviewed Anita Desai, some of the things she said made me want to cry.

Do you have any amusing stories of disasters or close disasters?
Only writers who didn’t show up because they were walking in the rice fields and Nury Vittachi and the faux lovemaking session! Otherwise not much goes wrong.

What were some of the biggest lessons you learned from running a festival like this?
I am learning so many life lessons with this festival, although sometimes I wish I wasn’t! I have to deal with all sorts of egos in a loving, friendly way. It can be extremely exhausting!

How does the festival benefit the local community?
It brings people to town, the kind of people who appreciate Bali. Everyone benefits as the festival not only boosts the Ubud economy, but that of Bali as well.

What are your particular wishes for the festival?
I would love to see the festival grow and take over all of Ubud but retain that lovely intimacy that has become its trademark.

Organising a literary festival, particularly one of this scale, must be very stressful, yet I don’t remember seeing you frazzled at any point. How do you cope with the stress?
Stress? What’s that? I don’t see the point of being stressed out. It’s counter-productive, but luckily I have never been one to worry too much about things. I even enjoyed taking exams when I was at school! Luckily I am pretty easy-going.

Apart from your own literary festival, which others have you particularly enjoyed going to?
I love going to any festival because they all do things in their own unique way. My favourites are probably Adelaide and Byron Bay. I also enjoy the Perth and Sydney Festivals.

Anything else you would like to say to your Malaysian readers of this magazine?
I am really excited by the support of our festival by our Malaysian neighbours and hope we can develop stronger links in the future.

What are you reading at the moment and which of the books you’ve read this year would you most highly recommend?
I am reading Preeta Samarasan’s Evening Is the Whole Day at the moment and thoroughly enjoying it. My absolute favourites are Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger and Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People and of course, I love Vikram Seth’s work. Carrie Tiffany’s Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living is marvellous, as is Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria. And I love the work of poets Bejan Matur, Péter Zilahy and Bali’s very own John O’Sullivan.


SHARON BAKAR is a freelance writer and teacher trainer in Kuala Lumpur. Her work has appeared in a number of Malaysian publications, including The Star, Off the Edge, Men’s Review, Quill, and Chrome. She is also the editor of an anthology of short fiction, Collateral Damage, published by Silverfish Books. She teaches creative writing in partnership with the British Council, and organises Readings, a monthly event for local writers, at Seksan’s Gallery in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur. Her blog on writing and publishing in Malaysia,, attracts a wide readership.

Reproduced from the October-December 2008 issue of Quill magazine