A survey on trend in novels’ readership by Vidyadhar Steinbake

A few years back Sir Vidia (V.S.Naipaul) and Salman Rushdie (had not been knighted till then) came to Calcutta in quick succession and I had the right clout to attend the gatherings they addressed. Both of them talked about the future of literature and somehow the discussions drifted towards longer narratives and thus novels became our main focus. Last month, a few of us (already facebook friends) decided to study the trends in reading habits vis-à-vis novels and facebook became the obvious choice as the medium to conduct the survey.

I requested (posting on my wall and through personal message as well) each of my F-b friends to send a list of the best 5 novels which have been published recently (within the last 20 years) and which they have read. The novels can be in any language.

Out of my 65 friends at that time, 35 of them responded and out of these 35, 32 have actually sent anything like a list. Those who could not offer any list or a few who could not come up with the full quota of 5 have mostly cited as reason their reading habits which mostly comprise reading non-fictions. I personally know many of them and I can readily accept it. Only one friend, I truly value my friendship with him and his opinions in this regard as well, found it hard to name many novels (published within the stipulated period) as worth reading and recommended only one novel on quality ground.

As for those who failed to respond, to quite a few of them I sent requests time and again and even directly had a few words about it. I heard that once a young man who was lucky enough to stand in front of and see the famous painting ‘Guerrnica’ was found in a mood of approving its class and someone standing beside said,” young man, you are no longer in a position to judge it, this paining actually is supposed to judge you now.” My fear is that perhaps nearly all my friends, who didn’t respond, heard at least the last part of this story. They feared the list might not adequately represent the standard of their erudition and quality of their taste. Some of them probably used this occasion to convey their contempt for me by refusing to respond even through a single sentence. Surly I deserved it (many of these friends solicited my friendship without citing reasons and are from Bangladesh, was it language that spoiled the sport)!

The findings can be interpreted in the following terms:

i)       Regular readers have almost abandoned reading vernacular novels; a overwhelming majority of their choices were foreign novels whether in English or translated into English.

ii)      Orhan Pamuk has been found by far the most widely read writer in spite of the relative obscurity of Turkish literature in the world scenario! Is it because he deals with the isolation of Muslim minds from the West dominated global mainstream of civilization? Is the topic so much on the surface of every mind that he becomes almost a compulsory item among the regular readers of serious novels?

iii)     Those who responded readily (the earliest entries) who can safely be considered relatively more focused and confident of their opinion preferred:

Orhan Pamuk

Amitav Ghosh

Haruki Murakami

Jhumpa Lahiri  and

Shuvadeep Barua

iv)              Please don’t be impatient, I’m going to explain this unheard of  author

Shuvadeep Barua’s case. It’s a pity that we cannot send all of you his novel

‘Nisshobdo Pahar’ (in Bengali) in PDF format simply because of the very

real threat of plagiarism, the novel has not yet found any publisher

(another feather in Bengal’s publishing industry’s hat)! But all who have read

the novel ‘Nisshobdo Pahar’ necessarily included it in their list and these were

the people who responded promptly.

v)                  Interestingly, among those who took a bit longer to respond, many sent lists

which could not be considered in their entirety. Many of the novels in those

lists were actually published long before the set deadline of 20 years e.g. Gora

(Tagore’s) or ‘Things Fall Apart’ (Chinua Achebe) or say, One Hundred Years

of Solitude (Marquez, 1967). Precisely for this reason we decided to consider

early responders more focused.

vi)                 We are extremely curious to know the mystery behind a queer tendency!

There is a combination! Those who liked one in the set had to like the others

of that combination! Marquez, Arundhati Roy and Akhtaruzzaman Illyas. We

are truly pained to see the plight of Marquez that none likes any other book

than ‘One hundred years of solitude’ and their other choices would necessarily

include books by Arundhati and Illyas! Is it a dictum of sort, a conscious

attempt at promoting a political group’s propaganda (still unknown to us)?

What kind of obligation is it? More interestingly, each of these entries wrote

the book’s name as ‘hundred years of solitude’ and almost never ‘One

hundred…’!!

vii)               A good number of relatively late responders are young and by profession

teachers of English literature. We note with some concern that a majority of

them included novels by Chetan Bhagat and Aravind Adiga alongside J.K.

Rowling who is spread more or less uniformly over all categories like Paolo

Coelho. Thus the statistics for international authors in terms of how many

times they have been cited becomes:

Pamuk – 11

J.K. Rowling – 6

Chetan Bhagat – 6

Amitav Ghosh – 6

Haruki Murakami – 5

Arundhati Roy – 4

Jhumpa Lahiri   4

Paolo Coelho – 4

Vikram Seth – 3

viii)     Now, the poets! A large number of my f-b friends are poets by passion.

And what do you call it, The Scorched Earth Policy, or Virgin Mind Policy?

None except two or three responded to my request! Those who conveyed

inability more or less revealed that reading long texts over days if not weeks,

is totally out of question, they are not prepared mentally for such applications.

Poets are as pure as they are ever thought to be! We have decided to drive

ramrods through the throats of those who will claim poetry reading sessions as

Literary Events!

ix)                 As for the authors of Bengali novels, only four names got repeated at all, they are:

Akhtaruzzaman Illiyas – 2

Mustafa Siraj – 2

Taslima Nasreen – 2

Nabarun Bhattacharya – 2

Where are Ananda’s heroes  in this scene? We saw a significant signal to Ananda emerges out of this but all is not lost for them as yet:

x)      Don’t you see that all the international writers who were placed much above the local ones have actually been mentioned in local press especially in Anandabazar’s pages on quite a few occasions? Where are Saul Bellow, Peter Carey, Atwood, Phillip Roth, Roald Dahl, Eco, Ben Okri, Rohinton Mistry or even the other  pulp fiction writers? It seems, in coming days people will cease reading vernacular writers but the market of the international writers will be controlled by the local press through varying degrees of coverage. Is it a good omen?

Vidyadhar Steinbakeis an professor of a university in Kolkata

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