by Zeenat Mahal @zeemahal
Genre writing in English by South Asians is a comparatively new phenomenon. Though there are writers like Shobhaa De who have been writing popular fiction for the last two decades, most writers want to be known as ‘literary’ authors. The common belief in South Asia has been, until now, that in order to have any merit, writing in English has to be ‘literary,’ a term used to signify art. A literary book is supposed to have finer prose, important themes and most of all, it is expected to be a piece of such crafted excellence that it can withstand the test of time. Traditionally, value has been placed with this form of writing, while all other forms of writing are dismissed as worthless. This prejudice is true anywhere in the world, but it has lasted far longer in South Asia. Popular literature by South Asians has only recently found an audience in South Asia.
There are two phenomena at work here. Homi K. Bhabha suggests that the fascination with the written word leads to the ‘book [being regarded] as wonder.’ The other is the fascination with a person who can make a story out of nothing, or worse, ‘put you in a book.’ There might be remnants of post-colonialism working here as well. Writers who can employ the language of power, i.e. English, to write and to capture ‘truths’ and ‘reality’ are celebrated more than those who write in local languages, not counting the great poets and classical writers. The idea that the revered written word may be ‘reduced’ to nothing more than ‘pulp’ appal these gatekeepers of ‘taste’ and ‘merit.’ The written word as entertainment is frowned upon, because reading as a leisurely habit has been associated with rich, well-educated people who want to come across as intellectuals.
South Asians writing in English mostly cater to this ‘class.’ However, with the publishing boom in India, readership has increased manifold. It might be the Chetan Bhagat effect. Pakistani writers have benefited from this publishing boom too. So, readership has suddenly gone from selective to easily accessible. It has largely become youth-oriented. Readers want fun stories which portray their own culture, their own countries and societies in a positive, healthy light. They want to see themselves in these stories, rather than sad victims or evil aggressors with fiscal problems and low self-esteem.
This is the readership that has taken the publishing world in India by storm. Mills and Boon, Harlequin, Penguin-Random, and many other publishing houses are publishing for South Asians and there is no question that these romances, thrillers and fantasies sell. They feature on Amazon India’s bestseller list on a regular basis, along with books by Julia Quinn, Nora Roberts and E.L. James.
Furthermore, this new body of readers expect to be entertained. They expect to have choices in reading material. Along with the beautiful literary fiction coming out of South Asia, readers are looking for different perspectives, nuances and variety in a familiar world. The idiosyncrasies of a South Asian family, the humour and frustrations that come along with it, parental pressure versus peer pressure and so on – these are the themes this growing readership is attracted to, and it gives them a sense of sharing.
E-publishing offers the same choice. It has made reading easier and cheaper. Although it is still not as popular as it is in the west, e-publishing is certainly growing here. Choices are now being offered to South Asians – in genres, in the manner of reading, in convenience and taste – and they love it. The South Asian publishing landscape has changed because the readership in this part of the world has evolved. They don’t see themselves in the narratives into which so many writers are still trying to fit them. These narratives no longer hold true for most readers. They identify more with day-to-day issues, falling in love, a crazy boss, a cheating boyfriend. Or they prefer to lose themselves in mythological worlds, horror, thrillers, and fantasy.
As social dynamics change, so does the written word. This is the beauty of literature of any genre – that it shapes, and is shaped by the world around it.
Zeenat Mahal has published two e-books with Indireads, in 2013. The latest is coming out in February, 2015. Zeenat has just finished her MFA in creative writing with a distinction. Zeenat lives in Lahore.