Thursday, December 11, 2008

Do Literary Agents Read Novels? "What Happened Here?"

It's weird and its upsetting. Yeah, it is. These days people jump to conclusions about a book or novel before they read it. I participated in a discussion on an online forum and most of the participants hadn't read the book but seemed so knowledable, in fact, more knowledgable than the author himself, or Poovannamnilkunnathil Mathaichettan himself. Back and forth the arguments went about semantics, motives, author's quirks of language, endless arguments over grammar, but nobody had read the book, and I am sure nobody will.

Says Mathaichettan, "You know there is a section in the novel "White Tiger" which goes as follows":

"One day, as I was driving my ex-employers Mr. Ashok and Pinky Madam in their Honda City car, Mr. Ashok put a hand on my shoulder, and said, "Pull over to the side." Following this command, he leaned forward so close that I could smell his aftershave -- it was a delicious, fruitlike smell that day -- and said, politely as ever, "Balram, I have a few questions to ask you, all right?"

""Yes, sir," I said.

""Balram," Mr. Ashok asked, "how many planets are there in the sky?"

"I gave the answer as best as I could.

""Balram, who was the first prime minister of India?"

"And then: "Balram, what is the difference between a Hindu and a Muslim?"

"And then: "What is the name of our continent?"

"Mr. Ashok leaned back and asked Pinky Madam, "Did you hear his answers?"

""Was he joking?" she asked, and my heart beat faster, as it did every time she said something.

""No. That's really what he thinks the correct answers are."

"She giggled when she heard this: but his face, which I saw reflected in my rearview mirror, was serious.

""The thing is, he probably has...what, two, three years of schooling in him? He can read and write, but he doesn't get what he's read. He's half-baked. The country is full of people like him, I'll tell you that. And we entrust our glorious parliamentary democracy" -- he pointed at me -- "to characters like these. That's the whole tragedy of this country.""

I find this amusing. What I am also stumped and stupefied as to how these days people discuss a book even before reading it. But then neither do the literary agent and editor. Then

I read this here

"The first line and first paragraph should demonstrate great writing ability and the knowledge that the author knows how to write a hook. If it's a romance, it would be nice if the hero/heroine meet on the first page or close to it."

I have suspected this for a long time. These days writers write a stunning first paragraph, the agent after reading the bombastic first para, is so inspired that he/she rushes to the editor at the publisher and say, "Look here, this is a sure Booker/Pulitzer/Commonwealth prize winner. The editor is suitably awed and assigns the newly recruited fine arts graduate editor to edit it. The book is published, critics are invited to the wine, cheese and dinner party with lot of wine, and people read the first ten pages and start denigrating/deriding/sniggering/character assassinating the book/author/editor.

Exactly what Ashoky said to Pnky madam about Balram Halwai:

"The country is full of people like him, I'll tell you that. And we entrust our glorious parliamentary democracy" -- he pointed at me -- "to characters like these. That's the whole tragedy of this country."

Once again Mathaichettan reminded me of this dialogue when I read the reports in the press about the terror attacks. Some say we should become a dictatorship, some say bring back the emergency, some say hate them and love ourselves more, some say we need more Hindu fundamentalists, some say we need more Naxalites, some say the law-keepers should be shot, some say politicians are dummies and duds and they should be sent to the wilderness of the Sahara, etc. etc. Where's the voice of reason in this cacophony, where's the tranquility that we need to mull over and do something constructive.

I am overwhelmed, my senses are reeling, I am flabbergasted, the numbness hasn't ended, the solutions aren't found, and every evening after I leave the office for home, I weep. Yes my eyes become moist for all those people who died, so close, in the heart of a heartless city, because of the callousness of a few.

A few ministers have resigned and we hope order has been restored. But one indication of nothing having changed is that the metal detectors at VT station are still unmanned and the policemen/policewomen still gather in a bunch and chat. As if nothing ever happened here. I am reminded of Elton John's song "What happened here, as the New York sunset disappeared" about the death of John Lennon a friend. It's as if nothing happened in Bombay. We are no respecters of history, we sneer and snigger at history and don't learn from its lessons.


sarah islam said...

An excellent read! I agree with you: we do not bother to read anything in detail or persist with any of our passions and that is what i think is going to happen to 26/11 too.

I remember debating The Satanic Verses with my college buddies in Pakistan and halfway through that infuriating interaction it dawned on me that NONE of them had bothered to read it! Well, well!

So we can riot on the streets to have books banned but can't concentrate for 2 hours straight to read it first. hmm!

John said...

HI Sarah,

Thanks for commenting!

Yes Balram Halwai in "The White Tiger" gets all his information from gram wrappers and newspaper wrapped around samosas and such like.

The chatter around the terror attack reminded me of this section of the novel.

I guess if the denigrators of "Satanic VErses" read the novel it would have given to a much healthier discussion than what ensued.

Do come back and comment,