A time to scribble and revel
PERHAPS nowhere else, for now, is the printed word in such rude health as in South Asia. The region’s writers have much to cheer. Readers have a raging appetite for text on a page, and they are happy to spend money for it. (Most gratifying, at least for a journalist, is to see the old-fashioned newspaper industry flourish as literacy levels rise and a middle class grows.) Advertisers and sponsors are hungry to reach book readers, reckoning that they are among the region’s wealthier and better educated consumers. As a result, cash-rich banks, insurance and construction companies, among others, fall over each other to stump up for literary festivals and book prizes.
Take the announcement today that 16 novelists have been put on a prize longlist for writing on South Asia. DSC, a big Indian building firm, sponsors the prize and is also part of the largest annual literary festival in India, in Jaipur, which burst at the seams with 200 authors and nearly 100,000 visitors this January. The firm is also involved in a South Asia writing festival that will be held soon in London. This is only the second year of the DSC prize, so it hardly has the pedigree of the Man Booker one, say, which has been around for over four decades. But measure it in hard cash—$50,000 for the DSC award, £50,000 for the Booker—the South Asian award starts to look serious.
What is puzzling about the DSC longlist, however, is how old most of the entries already seem. With a couple of exceptions, they were published, read, talked about, reviewed, submitted for other prizes and then shelved in 2010. In at least one case—Jill McGivering, a BBC journalist nominated for “The Last Kestrel”—the author already has a newer book doing the rounds. In another case—Kishwar Desai, for “Witness by Night”—the author already won a big prize for her book, at the start of last year.
Perhaps timing explains the absence from the list of some excellent, recently published novels, such as “The Wandering Falcon” by the Pakistani writer Jamil Ahmad (reviewed by The Economist here) or “Last Man in Tower” by India’s Aravind Adiga (reviewed byThe Economist here). Both deserve attention. Presumably they will be considered for next year’s longlist. Since the winner of the current award will only be announced in January 2012, at the Jaipur festival, the risk for the prize is that it is seen not as a guide to fresh, strong, new writing from South Asia, but as something of an afterthought, a verdict delivered too late to be relevant.
Regional book festivals are popping up all over the place. A planned one in Kashmir wasrecently scrapped amid political controversy, but there are many alternatives. Those keen to talk books in the Himalayas might instead nip to Kathmandu which holds its firstliterary festival at the end of this week. Beach lovers could try one in Kerala, south India, in November, which has ties to Britain’s Hay Festival. More adventurous urban souls might risk a visit to Karachi’s book festival, in southern Pakistan, in February.According to an Indian paper, Mint, at least ten big literary festivals are scheduled in India over the next four months alone.
With luck, all this activity will encourage even more good book writing. Presumably economic incentives work on budding and established novelists as on anyone else. The status or cash that may be earned from winning a big prize, or getting well known on the literary circuit, might lure more people to pick up their laptops.