In the constant conversation about a technologist (by which I don’t mean technology per se but an approach that thinks a technical system can be found to solve everything) solution to the ideologically weighted issue of access and agency, the internet has taken up a lot of time, space and importance. People are always talking about how blogging creates an alternative media or leads people to showcase (and refine) their abilities so that it leads to a publishing op.
At one level there is no denying this – just as there’s no denying that digital technology allows more people to make films than costlier technologies did. At another level it seems to me this is neither here nor there.
I’m thinking of this because in the last few months I’ve read the two much publicized examples of bloggers turned book writers: You are Here by Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan and My Friend Sancho by Amit Varma.
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan writes the fabulously popular blog Compulsive Confessor. I was once a pretty regular reader of it – it was very frankly sexual and honest, sometimes very well written if occasionally twee, although I suppose that’s allowed if you’re a young girl in these Cosmopolitan times. It’s true I got a bit bored of its sameness after a while, but the blog can’t be blamed for that. It’s purpose was not to entertain me but for the writer to write a sort of diary. MRM then went on to write a book that seemed to want to be the blog grown big. I think it’s a good idea – we don’t really have a good chick-lit book in Indian writing yet (more on that in another post). There are some reasonably engaging books – The Zoya Factor and Almost Single, but we don’t quite have a Bridget Jones’ Diary or The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing here). But what a book! I found it unreadable because of very poor quality writing and an inability to actually strike a consistent tone. Somehow in not wanting to be exactly like the blog it seemed the book hadn’t managed to figure out what it wanted to be itself. It had next to no sex – and I mean come on, we need someone to replace Shobha De’s embarrassingly manohar kahaniyan sex scenes. In all the book just did not have a wholeness, an idea at the centre, a narrative plan, a definite individual world view and I dragged myself through to the end because I needed to read it for my own academic reasons, but also, because I wanted it to get better.
I had much higher hopes for My Friend Sancho – and it disappointed me less. This is commensurate to the ability of the blog to keep me interested. Amit Varma as many might know, writes the tremendously engaging blog India Uncut. The blog’s ability to be steadily provocative, liberal, rational and just very very funny is truly admirable. There is a great generosity in the blog’s construction – a desire to inform, entertain and invite the reader; to be accessible without being dumbed down; to treat everything from politics to cinema to the lunacy of the Bombay Times with an equal measure of intelligence and irreverence.
The book, as per the writer’s interviews, had much the same intent. To be an intelligent, well written popular novel – not attempting literary greatness (or obscurity) and not descending to the bad English and obvious plotting of Chetan Bhagat type books. I could use some books like that. I read a lot of popular fiction – among my favourite books in the last couple years have been the first two of Steig Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy – and I don’t find enough Indian ones.
While the book was decently written and often funny, nice enough in being so determinedly Andheri (W) I found it never managed to transcend the blog (not least because it was mentioned 4-5 times in the book, a most non-funny thing). It purported to be a love story but never seemed to involve itself with the nitty gritty of the relationship between the two characters. There was a certain aimless quality to it, yet aimlessness was not the point of the book, which might have been interesting at least. It was too caught up in being clever and it did the one thing that good popular fiction never does – it lacked plotting. In fact for the longest time I thought that it was a mystery novel because the female character was like a classic noir element – she was opaque, feminine, playing on the hero’s sympathies because her father whose life had a shadowy quality had been killed by a cop, he never met her in her context and she kept trying to call some friend who apparently never answered, thus compelling the male protagonist to ask her to stay with him. While staying with him she casually left her underclothes on the bathroom hooks, cooked and generally acted all girly so that he fell in love with her. Now, if you were reading this, wouldn’t your popular fiction mind with its awareness of certain popular narrative conventions stay on the alert waiting for a twist in this tale? But no, apparently it was all just as it is. I ended the book feeling mildly annoyed at its inability to tell a story. As people love to say – it was an easy read. That’s like when they talk about an ugly girl and say – she’s a nice person. So, my basic feeling was, whatever.
But what it does make me think is – perhaps blogs are an audition of sorts. They allow for some of the pleasures of performance, a display of verve, an essential quality that is your individual style. But longer pieces of work can’t be so off-hand. They require a lot more hard work in terms of understanding some idea or experience at the heart of human existence, even if it is rendered in the lightest of styles. The point about froth is that it’s on the top and below there’s something you can actually drink! There is also a need to really grapple with form – in this case the popular narrative novel.
In the rhetoric around the release of both books, the writers seemed to dismiss “serious” Indian writing as the somehow pretentious, self-indulgent work of the Nehruvian elites. Yet, both of them freely resorted to the non-narrative, character is destiny, plot-ignoring tendencies of literary novels, without any of the facility or hard work found in good literary work. Neither of them met the basic requirements of their chosen forms. Why is it that they feel free to hunt with the hares and run with the hounds like this? The truth must lie somewhere in the middle(class).
Meanwhile blogger turned good bookwriter – I’m waiting.