It’s the Economy, Stupid

Will the legitimisation of Asian literature through the proliferation of book prizes lead to changes in our conception of the novel?

What is it to be Asian amid varying award criteria for prizes? FJONA HILL FOR THE CARAVAN
01 January, 2011

Cherchez la femme goes the pulp fiction cliché: look for the woman, and you’ll discover the cause. When it comes to the novel as a genre, one could say, cherchez l’argent: look for the money. To know where the novel is headed, move away from the fiction section of the bookstore and look instead at the business books. The number of titles with ‘Asia,’ ‘India’ and ‘China’ in them confirms once again the little secret at the heart of the novel’s rise. Like the football star in Jerry Maguire, it’s always been hollering, “Show me the money!”

After all, the novel’s recognition as a distinct genre came about in 18th-century England with the pecuniary rise of the middle class, becoming a mirror to reflect a society’s growing and secure awareness of itself. (Wealth gives rise to leisure as well as education; both of these give rise to the urge to read fiction.) It’s no coincidence too that the so-called boom in Latin American writing in the early 1970s came at time when Latin American economies were themselves going through a boom. (Their debt crisis was still some years away.) And now that the economies of Asia are set to outstrip the rest, it’s the literature of this continent that is being given legitimacy. Something one can see in the Asian Man Booker, the inaugural DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, the rising number of Western authors at the DSC Jaipur Festival and the recent Hay Festival in Kerala, for example.

A look at the business operations of the sponsors of such activities is instructive. The DSC website proclaims that it is “one of the fastest growing infrastructure developers in India,” and the Man site announces itself to be “a world-leading alternative investment management business.” Infrastructure, investment: as the sign that appeared in Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters during his 1992 campaign so pithily put it, “It’s the economy, stupid.” No wonder they’re keen to seek cultural legitimacy in Asia. By no means, however, is such patronage to be frowned upon: the arts have always depended on wealthy backers in order to flourish, as Michelangelo, among other Renaissance

masters, well knew. Besides, any activity that brings the attention of the public to the written word has to come under the heading of A Good Thing.

Which brings us to another knotty issue: how is ‘Asian’ defined when it comes to such awards? Clearly, there’s no homogeneity in the continent in the way there is in, say, the United States. Given also that knowledge of and writing in English is widespread largely only in the Indian subcontinent coupled with a lack of good translations—and the means to make such translations happen—how representative can such awards be? There are no easy answers to this and it’s certainly something that must have exercised the minds of the organisers a great deal. The Man Asian rules simply specify that the author be a citizen of an Asian country, but it’s the DSC Prize that’s come up with an ingenious workaround: their award is open to any book by “an author of any ethnicity from any country which predominantly features themes based on South Asian culture, politics, history, or people.” Had it been published last year, then, Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, revolving around Western classical music and based in London, Venice and Vienna, would not have been eligible. Perhaps that’s a petty cavil and an exception, but it does highlight one of the issues that such awards will increasingly face.

Take the recent charges leveled by some at the International Prize for Arabic Fiction supported by the Booker Prize Foundation and thus known as the Arabic Booker. It’s not really representative, say some. There’s a quota system favouring some countries, others assert. Inevitably, there are harsher voices accusing the prize of pandering to the West, ignoring women and—but of course—“corrupting culture.” Fortunately, the Asian Man Booker and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature have stayed above such


The question worth asking, though, is whether such legitimisation of Asian literature—however you categorise it—will in the long term lead to changes in our conception of the novel as we recognise it today. Will European linearity and causality give way to circular serpent-eating-its-tail narratives? Will realism and the plight of the individual yield to a flatter, multi-layered perspective as in a Mughal miniature?

This will form an increasingly visible part of a re-forging of Asian identity in the decades to come. As Patrick Smith points out in his Someone Else’s Century, one of the things that Asia will have to now grapple with is the question of how to be modern without reference to the West. It’s an especially pertinent query as, even in the West, there are signs of exhaustion with the novel as we know it. David Shields’ Reality Hunger is the most recent megaphone for such concerns, and recent novels by Damon Galgut, Jennifer Egan and Geoff Dyer—to take just three disparate and random examples—represent a branching out from convention. Will an ‘Asian way of thinking’ lead to more re-evaluation? Happily, of all art forms, it’s the novel that’s most suited to such malleability, being from the start a protean genre. Somewhere out there at this very minute there’s an unpublished author grappling with these very questions, and his or her novel will probably show up in a future Asian shortlist. If the economy doesn’t tank, of course.