Packaging Commonwealth Literature

In August 2013, the Commonwealth Writers organisation announced that it was discontinuing the prize it had awarded since 1987 (first as the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and then the Commonwealth Book Prize). Instead, they instituted the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Not long after, in September 2013, the Man Booker Prize was opened up to include all novels published in English in the UK, which effectively means it has been opened to US authors. Since 1969 it had only been open to writers from Britain and the Commonwealth. These are dramatic shifts in two of English-language publishing’s most prominent prizes, so what could all of this mean for South Asian literature? I would add the disclaimer here that these developments are largely only pertinent to South Asian literature in English, a booming but niche industry, especially within the region itself. However, I think the two announcements do potentially have a broader impact on South Asian literature in a range of languages.

The Man Booker Prize is “abandoning the constraints of geography and national boundaries”, said foundation chairman Jonathan Taylor, in an effort to enhance the prestige and reputation of the prize. Possible effects of opening the Man Booker Prize to American authors are obvious: there will be more competition for the prize. But it is the changing face of the Commonwealth Prize that provides the most complex and interesting commentary on the state of the literature business in 2013.

The Commonwealth Writers organisation itself has announced that the Short Story Prize will aim to “identify talented writers who will go on to inspire their local communities”. They also announced that the change would enable writers from countries where there is little or no publishing industry to enter, in languages other than English. One could perceive the change, then, to be altruistic. Short stories are often the way budding novelists begin. The presumption here is that the novel genre is the epitome of literary achievement (entirely debatable, subjective tastes aside), and that by encouraging the writing of short stories around the world, the future of diverse World Literature is being assured. Glancing down a list of past winners of the Commonwealth Novel Prize, the UK, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and India emerge the most frequently. This over-representation of the metropole is not necessarily indicative of where actual literary talent lies, but is more to do with access to publishing centres. In this case, the Commonwealth Writers’ decision to move towards a supposedly more accessible format could certainly be seen as an encouraging, democratising move, the opposite of the Man Booker’s inclusion of American literature, which may have the effect of further marginalising Commonwealth literatures.

But it is also a rather strange move considering that short stories are harder to sell than novels. One could argue that the Commonwealth Writers organisation is not interested in profits for itself or its writers, that they would rather emphasise literary merit and develop talent around the world. But there is another side to this change in focus. Ahmedabad-based scholar of literature and translation theory, Rita Kothari, has written that in this era of print capitalism, anthologies of short stories tend to be pitched as “celebratory… user-friendly, ‘good-value-for-money’ kits that comprise ‘diverse’ voices.” It is possible that the Commonwealth Writers organisation will anthologise their finalists in some way, perhaps similar to Delhi-based publisher Katha’s annual collections of prize-winning translations from a wide range of Indian languages. Indeed, this would be a good idea, as one can imagine readers from London to Mumbai to Wellington picking up an anthology of short stories from Commonwealth countries, being attracted by the possibility of reading a story from Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, or any other of the literarily under-represented countries. A compact kit of diverse voices, indeed, and good-value-for-money if locally priced.

There is certainly nothing inherently wrong with readers wanting such compact introductions to regions that had not been on their radar. But is that where engagement with other literatures—and thus other societies—stops? Will the prize’s new form really mean that writers from first-world Anglophone countries are at no more of an advantage than writers from South Asia or Africa or the Pacific Islands? Or will it just mean that western, Anglophone readers get a more diverse bunch to sample and feel good about ‘doing something’ about the problems of the world, how the ‘other half’ lives, by reading about them? That is a cynical view, but I am not alone in suggesting it.

In a September 2013 review essay in Open magazine, Devika Bakshi argues that the proliferation and popularity of novels about India—by Indian authors, nonetheless—based on the hackneyed trope of the ordinary folk struggling to make do in the dog-eat-dog, neoliberal world that is contemporary India amounts to “looking smugly through the peephole of education and privilege into ‘the world’ and patting oneself on the back for accurately characterising it, for being able to sum it up in so many words, to lay it bare and walk away, as though the mere act of documentation constitutes a resolution for whatever conflict is observed.” Bakshi is not suggesting that such books are written for a primarily Western audience, but that in the contemporary global marketplace—where India is the third largest producer and consumer of English-language books—the class position of readers is more pertinent than location per se. Bakshi believes that upsetting encounters between the (comparatively) wealthy writer and the poor subject leads to writers’ attempts to resolve the uncomfortable situation through penning fiction. When it seems that the task of tackling South Asia’s poverty and problems seems too large, fiction is a form of bearing witness. Bakshi’s view is not simply a snobbish dismissal of ‘bad’ books, as many books widely considered quite ‘good’ fit this category. Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger comes to mind, as does Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us, and that reviewed by Bakshi, Lavanya Sankaran’s The Hope Factory (and, of course, these books’ filmic counterpart, Slumdog Millionaire).

This trend seems to be particularly strong in India, as the liberalisation of its economy in the 1990s both stimulated the publishing industry there, and perceptibly widened the gap between rich and poor, providing fruitful material for such middle-class, metropolitan works of literature. But the trend is not limited to India, particularly if we look to diasporic authors, with Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner being an Afghan example.

Bakshi’s critique focuses on the writer, but the reader, too, is part of this feel-good literary (non-) activism. Undoubtedly reading geographically widely can be enormously beneficial to one’s understanding of the world, of places that will not be known any other way. But geo- and publishing-politics are tied up with what people want to read. The most popular writers are not necessarily the most original, innovative or even ‘inspirational’ for their communities. The enormous success of Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (2003) is evidence of this. The author hit upon a topic that was appealing to western readers at the time—Afghanistan a couple of years after the US invasion—and was possibly just the best example of its type, rather than truly well-written or innovative on its own terms. It may have been inspirational to diasporic Afghans, but I find it difficult to believe it was an inspirational book to those within Afghanistan. The judges of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize must include a range of people knowledgeable of what is going on in literature within the countries that the nominations come from if it is to avoid selecting style over substance, the trendy over the long-term valuable, and ultimately a ‘dumbing down’ of literary quality throughout the world.

The enormous proliferation of literary festivals around South Asia in the past five years suggests the difficulties of striking a balance between literary merit and populist appeal. Literature is to be made appealing to the ‘masses’, but much literature is simply unappealing to them, so other means are sought to reel in large audiences and convince them that books are worthy of time and money. I do not wish to be misunderstood: I attended the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) in both 2011 and 2013 and thought it was an amazing event, so inspirational and exciting. But I am a middle-class, western, native Anglophone, and what I find inspiring in literature is likely to be vastly different from what the majority of South Asians (and other citizens of Commonwealth countries) do. Literary festivals can be inspiring to writers, intellectuals, scholars, teachers, but to spark interest (and attendance) from the ‘average citizen’, such festivals have opened up to include figures only tentatively considered writers.

A major figure at the 2013 JLF was Javed Akhtar, Bollywood screenplay writer; Oprah Winfrey drew massive crowds in 2012, and Gulzar, film-song lyricist, has made regular appearances. In 2011, Kathmandu’s NCell Nepal Literature Festival’s inaugural year, the festival’s magazine featured actor Rajesh Hamal on the cover. As the 2012 magazine’s editorial stated, putting an actor on the cover of a magazine purporting to be about books caught many by surprise: “our idea was to draw people’s attention to Rajesh Hamal, the reader and not Rajesh Hamal, the actor, thereby encouraging them to take up reading.” It seems that what ‘inspires’ many people is not literature at all, but other forms of entertainment. That is fine, and is the way it always has been. But is the Commonwealth Writers organisation naïve in thinking that privileging the short story will give more people access to literary inspiration? That short stories from the Commonwealth will be able to transcend that conception of ‘showcasing’?

There is nothing to say, of course, that the finalists for the Commonwealth Short Story Competition will fall into the voyeurism of the rich over the poor. However, the fact that the organisers wish to find authors who will inspire their communities runs the risk of fostering a developmentalist attitude that could lead to a dumbing-down of literary merit by finding ‘worthy’ or ‘representative’ authors. Bengali feminist literary critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has warned against mining the literature of the “third world” for its message rather than its merit. She warns that this happens when insufficient care is taken in translating, so that a type of “translatese” is developed, a phenomenon in which language is flattened and a Palestinian woman’s prose comes to resemble a Taiwanese man’s. Will the Commonwealth Short Story Competition be accompanied by a Commonwealth Translation Competition? Unless it is, the well-meaning aims of the organisation to encourage writers from a broader range of nations may end up contributing to the developments of Commonwealth literatures in ways they perhaps did not intend.

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Elen

Travel writer at www.wildernessmetropolis.com. Editor, writer, traveller, reader, literary critic.

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