DSC Prize shortlist points to looming literary fiction crisis

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With a cash prize of Rs 25 lakh and a carefully selected jury each year, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature is arguably the preeminent literary prize for this part of the world. The 2016 Prize Shortlist Reveals a Surprisingly Familiar List of Books: Akhil Sharma’s Family lifeAnuradha Roy’s Sleep on Jupiterby KR Meera hangedby Mirza Waheed The gold leaf bookby Neel Mukherjee The lives of othersand Raj Kamal Jha She will build him a city. With the exception of Meera’s extraordinary novel, the others are all handy fruit when it comes to identifying the most interesting literary fiction about the peoples of South Asia.

Several of the shortlisted novels have also been shortlisted – and at least one has already won – prestigious literary awards in India. There is no doubt about it: they are certainly among the best novels written in the period in question. But, and this is a huge but, why are there so few of these novels that the same ones keep showing up over and over again on longlists and shortlists?

Frankly, there has come a point in Indian publishing where a discerning reader can predict a shortlist of literary awards with a high degree of accuracy, just because there are so few to choose from. Are our publishers shunning literary publishing in response to what they perceive to be declining markets for “good” fiction and playing it safe with more clearly trade-oriented listings?

So what do they post?

At least two major multinational publishers in India – Penguin Random House and HarperCollins – publish dozens of original Indian novels every year. Three other international publishers that also publish in India – Hachette, Bloomsbury and Pan/Picador – have a shorter list of such titles, as do local publishers like Rupa and Aleph, among others. And yet, these are the same few books that appear to be among the finalists for the Fiction Prize.

After all, most, if not all, of these publishers are publishing fewer works of literary fiction than before. With the exception of established literary names – an Amitav Ghosh, a Jhumpa Lahiri, a Kiran Nagarkar, a Manu Joseph or an I Allan Sealy, for example – publishers are increasingly reluctant to experiment with new writers in this form of fiction.

Indeed, print runs for literary writers who have yet to create a canon for themselves have been reduced to 3,000. Even well-known names are selling fewer copies than before. It’s not hard to see why publishers are turning to commercial fiction titles with the potential to sell over 20,000 copies and popular non-fiction with a focus on politics and current affairs.

Give up space

The problem is that by responding to the market instead of trying to restructure it, publishers are further narrowing the space for anything other than commercial or genre fiction in India. The former is sadly mired in a swamp of campus romances, fumbling sex, unimaginative corporate ambitions, and unchanging male egos. And the latter has yet to take off significantly – India has yet to produce a Stephen King or John Grisham, let alone a Stieg Larsson.

The parallels with the Hindi film industry are too obvious to ignore. Smart cinema is increasingly squeezed out of theatrical releases and lives its life on the festival circuit and, eventually, on YouTube. Like major producers and distributors, English-language book publishers are also withdrawing support for books that might last, as opposed to books that will be forgotten as soon as the next one by the same author arrives.

Of course, not all publishers are in the same place on the road away from literary fiction. Some have made tangible progress, while others have barely started. But everyone is going in the same direction.

But if publishers are going to cede most of the place of “good” fiction to the needs of the market – where the taste for the commercial has always been stronger than that for the literary – they will also give up their right to complain about readers’ preferences. Because if they don’t publish enough of these books that they want readers to buy, how are tastes going to change?

Note to editors: publish more literary fiction, not less. Take more risks, don’t play it safe. Shape demand, don’t follow trends.

And a question to CEOs of publishers: is your mission to publish good books and make money from them, or just books that make money?

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