Just found a hilarious article by Manu Joseph in the New York Times about the upcoming Jaipur Literary Festival. "Like Lord Voldemort’s soul, Delhi’s pre-eminent annual literary event is not held within." Any article about a serious literary festival that starts by referencing JK Rowling is immediately tops in my book. What started as a small writers' conference in Jaipur has become an international media event. Against the pink forts of the city serious literary luminaries meet to talk wordcraft. But there's also the celebrity factor. Oprah is attending (see some photos of the glitterati of Bollywood coming out to meet Oprah on The Daily Honey). And there's the ever present protest over Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses- Muslim groups have asked him not to come because he's slated to speak on a Friday. For a book published in 1988 with a rather slim chapter that was the initial cause of all this tamasha, I give Rushdie some credit. He's got staying power.
But mostly the Jaipur Literary Festival is an opportunity for unpublished Indian writers who write in English to get close to those who might potentially publish them. It's a bitter affair: prospective writers corner literary agents in toilets, literary agents snub their noses at legitimate writers they don't know... but the one thing everyone agrees on is the low quality of most Indian writing. And apparently it's all due to the whims of the British and American literary markets. "The interest of British and American publishers in India, and the success of a handful of Indian writers abroad, has had the most corrupting influence on Indian writing in English. There is a surge of Indian writers who are trying to sell the great Indian exotica to white people, and they guess that what the foreigners love is tradition, poverty, wedding scenes, burning widows, rebirths and talking monkeys, among other things."
I'll take a good wedding scene any day and I love my talking monkeys, but I've got to agree with Joseph that picking up a novel written by an author with a South Asian last name that's not Rushdie or Naipaul or Ghosh or Desai or Lahiri can be a dangerous proposition (and Rushdie and Lahiri definitely hit or miss, depending on the book). Especially if it's a weighty book, you could be committing yourself to a great deal of pain and frustration. I've gotten myself into a couple books (which will remain nameless) replete with technicolor dream sequences, grinding poverty, intervening gods and goddesses, and evil extended families that I've had to abandon within 20 pages because... there... was... absolutely... no... plot. Beware of all that glitters with a "South Asian lit" tag on the front. Sometimes there's some actual substance underneath. But mostly the literary establishment figures you can be distracted out of $15 with a talking monkey and some tinsel. Is it the fault of western book publishers? Partly. Is it the fault of mediocre Indian writers? Partly. But we might as well enjoy the hullabaloo. I want to see if Rushdie speaks or not.