I must be bizarro world’s Arundhati Roy. Opening up the weekend paper a few days ago, there, spread across four pages was every minute detail of Roy’s new book, from how the cover got made to how many translations were in the works. It must have induced the green-eyed monster in me to open up its beady little jade eyes. Hence the following.
We only ever hear stories of success, also known as the survivorship bias, and never hear from those who failed. Well, I failed, and even if my story does not inspire anyone it could perhaps contain a kernel of value. My book did not get published. Although its manuscript was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary prize in 2009. Immediately after this announcement, a leading Indian literary critic wrote in a column that a manuscript longlisted for the Man Asian Literary prize does not mean much. Though she did not say so in these exact words, she more or less said only the shortlist that follows matters as it weeds out the chaff. After the shortlist came out, I realised I was human chaff. Ultimately, only getting published is of merit. But in India, perhaps elsewhere, getting published is about effective networking. This means that the writer either needs to market themselves, move in the right closed-publishing-group circles, know the right people, so that the powers-that-be will give you a reasonable hearing.
By now any objective reader will be questioning the fermented nature of my sour grapes. There is always the possibility that my manuscript had no merit, and this was why I was not able to crack the tough nut of Indian publishing. Dear reader, I do remind myself of this likelihood all the time. But then, there are also the tells and clues that cannot be ignored. Most of the people on my longlist, except for a couple, were outsiders to the close-knit publishing world. And the ones who were not upstarts on this list were of course the ones who eventually got published the usual way. That is, the publisher takes your manuscript, edits, then publishes it, without demanding any money from the despairing author in lieu of their publishing services. Whatever money is earned is supposed to be earned through royalties and book sales.
I read an amusing story about an English literary agent being accosted by an aspiring writer in the loo of a famous Indian literary festival. I laughed to myself thinking how low can a writer fall? My nadir came in 2011 when I pounced on a publisher at a literary festival in my home town. I confined my pouncing, however, to an area outside the loo hoping wretchedly to salvage some dignity despite the burlesque in my situation. I waited till the panel discussion was done and then bounded up to the woman. She stopped, turned around to look at me with an expression of pained patience. I had previously written her an email detailing my situation to which she had very kindly replied. But my pouncing act ruined my prospects forever with her, I knew this at that moment as her facial muscles tightened.
After querying everyone on Earth with an email address, and a short-lived interval in which my attempts at getting published almost succeeded then came a cropper, I decided to put my tome up on Kindle in 2013. My husband painted me a couple of options for a beautiful cover for the e-book version. Of course, this was an attempt at an eye-ball catching stunt. Perhaps a passing publisher would take note. But in the end, not a soul in publishing showed interest, mostly on account of the author being a nobody completely lacking marketing ken. And probably, I tell myself, a minor part of it being the book is bad. But who knows, really? These matters are entirely subjective. I have had mails from literary agents, where I have been told these are the ‘charges’ if I want to get published. I ignored mails when it sounded to me like vanity publishing. I have not yet resorted to paying up for their services. But a lot of agents have also sent me very kind replies, some of them said my tome had good writing but it would break their banks and business models. One agent said it had no closure. I sent back no reply to this one, though I will say here today that a book with or without closure is okay by art. As we have seen, century after century, eventually hard and fast rules of art are always upended.
There is no convenient moral as I reach the end of my own little publishing tale. Thus far, perhaps like all stories in the book of life, the end is still being written, and so it remains a story without closure.