I was at a coffee shop in Mumbai. In tables around me sat about 30 of the city's young and cool, guys with gals, dudes with prudes. My friend Sumit, a self-made brand marketing guru, told me that these were the real audience for The Book of Answers, my first novel, which was recently shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize. "They read Chetan Bhagat," he said. "And they would love you."

I did a spot poll right there, going to each table and asking the following five questions —

1. Have you heard of Chetan Bhagat?

2. Have you read his novels?

3. Do you like his writing?

4. Would you read his next novel?

5. Have you heard of C Y Gopinath?

All 28 people at the café had heard of Chetan Bhagat, and about 60% had read his books. Every one of them thought his writing was terrible, but added that they would still buy his next novel. None of them had heard of C Y Gopinath.

The Chetan Bhagat of the west for the moment is E L Jones, whose Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy is a runaway best-seller. Variously called mommy porn and Twilight fan fiction, the book — a non-stop paean to sexual submission and domination and pleasure through pain — seems to appeal to young and successful single American women in their 30s. Apparently what they like more than anything after a hard day of making profits and laying off men, is to get spanked by their stay-at-home husbands. Jones, like Bhagat, is candid that the writing is mediocre and neither has literary pretensions.

I am best described as a struggling author, despite my fifteen minutes of fame last week when my novel was shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize. I wonder — why must a serious writer struggle so much more for so much less than an E L Jones or a Chetan Bhagat? And why, despite all their labors, will they never sell, while much less competent authors sell in the millions?

I have a theory about why bad writing sells more and faster than 'good' writing. Today's reader is a turner of pages who reads in the train and on the potty. He or she needs a story that can be read staccato, where even skipping a few chapters will make no difference. A book that does not need a companion dictionary, does not make allusions that require eclectic knowledge to understand, and one that is not built on nuances and hints. Broad strokes, easy English, straight talking, no literary handstands or somersaults. Above all, a book that does not talk down to the reader but stays poised at his or her reading and speaking level. These seem to be the requirements.

Come to think of it, wouldn't Hemingway's best writing fit that description? Why is he a master and Bhagat an imposter then? Is unpretentious straight writing necessarily poor? How are E L Jones or Chetan Bhagat different from Hemingway or Jhumpa Lahiri? Or me, for that matter?

Do writers who want to survive through writing need to dumb down their work and cultivate a line of sellable trash?

Talk to me.

The Book of Answers
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Published on May 23, 2012 19:30 • 344 views
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message 1: by Ratna (new)

Ratna CY,we don't write because we want fame or fortune. We have to write because we have to, because we have a story to tell.
Even if someone gave me a million bucks I would not attempt to write like Bhagat who I wish well.
And yes the younger generation has a different reading list than what I would read.

message 2: by C.Y. (new)

C.Y. Gopinath @ Ratna. Some of the best writers I've read desperately needed to earn from writing. Anthony Burgess began writing because he thought he had cancer and didn't want his family to suffer after he had gone. His books are masterpieces — but he certainly wasn't writing so much because he had a story to tell as much as he desperately needed the money. (It's a happy footnote that though he made no money, his cancer diagnosis was later reversed.)

And in my case, I wrote my first novel not because I had a story to tell, or wanted to make money or get famous. I kicked and scream all the way that I could not write fiction. I enjoy the process now and am working on my second novel — but I do differ with you when you say that "we" write because we have to or have a story to tell. I think reality is a more complex mixture of creativity, craft, economics, ego and politics. But that's only my view.

message 3: by Shiva (last edited May 24, 2012 02:38AM) (new)

Shiva Dear Gopinath,

You touched a nerve there... this is something that always gets my goat - the fact that people like Bhagat, David Baldacci (I mention him because I interviewed him) among loads of others seem to make tons of money with their sloppy work while better writers fall by the wayside. I must confess here that though I've attempted writing novel(s) for almost two decades now, I've never progressed beyond a few pages, so maybe I am jealous of these people who seem to churn out stuff with clockwork precision.
It's not just that we have less time to read these days. After all, I remember reading books on buses and trains as a kid, and certified classics at that. I still do when I can. My children - 19 and 12 - do too. So, I doubt if it's a generation thing.
I think generally standards have come down in all fields of life. Also, the reason could be economic. Now with the population explosion, and people with plenty of disposable income in their early twenties, the market has increased for bad fiction. If you remember, even as kids the ones that sold really well were the pulp masters like James Hadley Chase and Alistair Maclean. Kushwant Singh's books sold as much for their prurient bits as much as for their literary value (you may want to argue this!). The same was the case if you look at fiction in other Indian languages too. 'Detective fiction', crime and 'socials' were paid by the word in magazines. 'Time pass' is what they were called.
I've also noticed that Bhagat is a guy courted by the people who want to be seen as reading English fiction - easy reading as you mentioned.

I probably veered way off the topic.... anyway to answer your question, all of you writers are different. How you connect with your reader is what makes you different.

So things may

message 4: by Shiva (new)

Shiva May be of interest to you. http://nyti.ms/KwccNz

message 5: by Jiteshch (last edited Oct 10, 2012 11:38PM) (new)

Jiteshch The society is reflected by the creation it does. Let it be movies/tv-soaps/books. And I do agree that inferior quality books/movies are making good bucks since they understand the readers/viewers.
But I disagree to the point that the master-pieces don't gain alike heights. Ramachandra Guha, Devdutt Patnaik, Amish, Ashwin...undoutedly they have invested their time to come up with unusual subjects but they are getting due recognition. The game changer is the way to reach to the reader and tell him that there is a book which is a master-piece. Though its an effort from the author not only to create a master-piece but also tell the readers about it...but who can do it better than the creator of it?

message 6: by Garima (new)

Garima Gupta Dear CY. When I read your column as an adolescent, I fell in love with life and with undefined relationships.
In my 40s now, I've published a book, have touched hearts too; but not before being asked to re-work on my language to write like... you guessed it, Chetan Bhagat. I cringed but worked hard for 2 years. Now we have a book.
My book's (The Body Nirvana)'s gratitude page makes a reference to your words when I thank a friend for being the drummer girl who kept knocking. Will I EVER preserve Chetan's words or chapters? No.
That's why you've got to be you.

message 7: by C.Y. (new)

C.Y. Gopinath Garima wrote: "Dear CY. When I read your column as an adolescent, I fell in love with life and with undefined relationships.
In my 40s now, I've published a book, have touched hearts too; but not before being as..."

Thanks for your kind words. I just browsed through your amazon book page, and it does sound very inspiring too. I hope you reach many.

May I ask which writing of mine, read as an adolescent, made you fall in love with life and undefined relationships? You use the term drummer girl, and I do remember writing a very personal piece called The Little Drummer Girl .

Warm regards and best of luck,


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