I WAS RECENTLY ON THE JURY for a literary award and made my way, with growing panic, through a few dozen new works of fiction in English. A hundred-odd books from any culture at any time will inevitably reveal something of the soul of that culture. The essence of this particular swathe of literature was that it was resolutely not literary. With some exceptions—which were the best books on the list—the impulses behind writing and reading lay elsewhere.
I don’t mean that the writing was poor. At the level of pacing and plot, a good deal was in fact impressive. Knowing English well and being skilled in these aspects of the craft seem to go hand-in-hand; over the decades, so much Western pulp fiction has been circulated here that Indian writers have now imbibed the form completely. The imprint of, say, Dan Brown on these books was obvious. There is much mystical fiction—“ancient enigma” or “hidden treasure” are the usual preoccupations—that draws on Indian mythology and blends it with incongruous tropes. Notions of secrecy and heresy, for instance, part of the Christian past, are combined with more local lore in Raghu Srinivasan’s Avatari, MN Krish’s The Steradian Trail, Sudipto Das’s Ekkos Clan or Christopher C Doyle’s The Mahabharata Secret, to name just four recent books.
To call these writers un-literary is therefore not to imply that they aren’t reading other writers. Many, in fact, demonstrate an extreme sensitivity to what sells: they seem to be thinking of a genre novel as a replicable product, rather than the outcome of individual imagination. But there is a difference between writing a novel patterned on the best-seller of the moment, and writing one in dialogue with other books and authors. It is in this difference that what I’m calling the “literary” subsists. There were plenty of imitations on my list, but no echoes. The great majority of these novels exist in the vacuum of an eternal present, where the marketable is endlessly duplicated but not necessarily worked on, extended, or questioned.