“The Best Editors are Always Invisible”: Kitaab Interview with David Davidar

David Davidar has been a publisher for over a quarter of a century, first of Penguin (India and Canada) and later as co-founder of the New Delhi based Aleph Book Company. He has also charted out a successful writing career with novels such as The House of Blue Mangoes and Ithaca. He has recently edited A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces: Extraordinary Short Stories from the 19th Century to the Present. Below, he shares snippets of his life and work with Kitaab’s Interviews Editor, Dr. Debotri Dhar.

DavidPlease tell us something about your childhood and early experiences – the sights, the sounds, the anchors and the excursions that have sculpted your identity.

A lot of my childhood revolved around books. My maternal grandfather was the first person to introduce me to the joys of reading but there were books in my parents’ house and in school my English teacher, Mrs Murphy, would constantly unearth great books for me to read. Besides my interest in books I was a solitary child as my father was a tea-planter and we lived rather isolated lives. Our nearest neighbours lived miles away but if you loved nature and the hills, as I did, it made for an idyllic existence. When my sister was away in boarding school I would often spend the whole day on my own, wandering around with my dog, a fox terrier called Asha, and an air-gun with which I would try to shoot all manner of birds—fortunately they would usually escape.

A renowned publisher, you were also able to chart out a successful writing career. What, according to you, are the gaps and overlaps between your craft as an editor and a writer? How have the sensibilities of one shaped the other?

I have found that in order to be a novelist and a publisher you necessarily have to compartmentalize the way you deal with writing—your own as well as that of others. If I started editing my own work during the process of creation I wouldn’t get much done. The way I usually work is to give my imagination free rein while I’m composing a first draft; I then revise and edit the first draft three more times to arrive at the final manuscript. As a professional book editor it is imperative that I work from within the voice and technique of the writer whose work I’m editing. It wouldn’t do for me to try and impose my own style on the work of other writers. The best editors are always invisible—that is to say, their contribution towards improving the writer’s work is never obvious. I believe my work as an editor has helped my career as a writer, especially when it comes to things like concision, building plot and characters and so on.

As an editor, did you ever find particular themes compelling even while being committed to publishing an eclectic set of works? As a writer, are there any themes and perspectives you feel particularly drawn to?

I am a generalist by nature and omnivorous in my taste in books. However, I’m partial to literary writing (where both fiction and non-fiction are concerned) and that is why Aleph’s focus is on literary publishing.

ClutchTell us something about your recently edited collection of short stories, A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces.

I decided to put together A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces because I felt there was a definite gap in the market. There are dozens of anthologies of Indian fiction available but none in my view offered the reader a broad, readable selection of the greatest literary stories from most of the major languages in which Indian literature is created. I make no claim that Clutch is the definitive collection of modern Indian short stories; indeed, I hope there’ll be a dozen more, a hundred more anthologies that do a good job of showcasing the enormous richness of Indian literature. In this anthology we took great pains over the way the translations read; the problem with several of the anthologies that are available is that the translations are too literal or are otherwise poorly executed—as a result they are less than satisfactory.

From nineteenth century masterpieces to twenty-first century offerings, is there a common thread linking the stories together?

The modern short story in India is not a very old form, and has only been around for about 150 years, which is nothing compared to some of our creative art forms that have been around for thousands of years. The stories in this anthology are as varied as the writers who have created them. The only thing that ties them together is that they are, in my opinion, remarkable examples of literary creation.

Conventional wisdom considers the short story less marketable, as a genre, than the novel. What are your views?

I have no idea why short stories are usually less successful than novels and I haven’t yet come across a single plausible explanation from either writers or publishers on why this is so. One unsatisfactory explanation is that readers would like to immerse themselves in capacious imaginary worlds, which is why they prefer novels, but then there are those who say that given our dwindling attention spans short stories are the perfect literary form for our time. As I said, nobody really knows.

Do you see any major changes in the field of contemporary publishing? Does the move towards e-books render traditional publishing vulnerable?

Yes, of course there are changes in format, pricing, the way books are delivered to the reader, marketing and so on and all these are very visible. However, I do not think that publishing, as we know it in India, is going to change dramatically, especially in the short and medium term. Do I know this for certain? No, I do not, and I’m not sure that anyone else can forecast the future with any certainty because the data we have is scanty and our conclusions are usually extrapolated from whatever we have seen in our own companies as well as the extremely suspect information that is available in the public domain. In other words, what I’m trying to say is that I don’t set much store by what the pundits have to say. To reiterate what I have said earlier, I think one can be reasonably sure that the Indian publishing scene is not going to change dramatically overnight. Prices will continue to stay low, only a few writers will sell huge quantities, the business will continue to be under-capitalized, a significant proportion of retailers will not pay their bills on time, most trade publishers will continue to publish too many books and remain unprofitable, book review pages will continue to dwindle, e-books sales (which are currently under 5% of total sales) may not get to the level they have reached in the US and so on. And, despite all the problems, the Indian book market will continue to grow which is in stark contrast to most of the major markets in the world. So, to resort to cliché, the more things change the more they remain the same.

You have come a long way. If you were to write the story of your life, how would you approach it? As the tracking of routine sadness and the recovery of little joys, or as the luminous triumph of a heroic imaginary?

My life is not that interesting which is why I write fiction.

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