2 b or nt 2 b: d gr8 txt spk db8

Picture courtesy: http://www.mathworks.com

In the Westland office, a week ago, we discussed the ‘words’ we often come across these days in manuscripts – IMHO, LOL, BTW, ASAP, BFF. A few of our titles have gone on to publish some of these, unedited, especially if the style of writing happens to be casual, or the context demands text-speak, or the market includes the young, college-going audience. Siddhartha Sarma’s East of the Sun is an example of a book where textese  appears almost offhandedly. The same holds true for Parul Sharma’s By the Water Cooler.

There have been mixed reactions to the inclusion of text-speak in published books. On the one hand, John Humphrys says, ‘It is the relentless onward march of the texters, the SMS (Short Message Service) vandals who are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours eight hundred years ago. They are destroying it: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.’ On the other hand, Dennis Baron avers that technology, and the changes it brings with it, ‘is making us better writers and improving our ability to reach out to our fellow man.’

Even as the debate continues, the international publishing world keeps throwing surprises. In Japan, an author known as Yoshi was hugely successful with his novel composed of text-messages, Deep Love. In Finland, in 2007, Hannu Luntiala published The Last Messages, and the entire 332-page narrative consisted of SMSes. Earlier, in 2004, French novelist, Phil Marso,  published a book written entirely in French SMS shorthand, Pas Sage a Taba vo SMS; the next year, he produced L, an SMS re-telling of French poetic classics. So the President of Goma Books, Masayoshi Yoshino, declared in a manifesto that he was determined ‘to establish this not simply as a fad, but as a new kind of culture.’

It is this culture that  worries John Sutherland of University College London. He believes that the growing dominance of text-speak will lead to the degeneration of language. In his view, textese is ‘bleak, bald, sad shorthand. Drab shrinktalk. Linguistically it’s all pig’s ear; it masks dyslexia, poor spelling and mental laziness. Texting is penmanship for illiterates.’ Humphrys agrees when he points out, ‘The danger – for young people especially – is that [netspeak] will come to dominate. Our written language may end up as a series of ridiculous emoticons and everchanging abbreviations.’

It isn’t merely the slow decline of language that worries critics. Some suggest that granting text-speak legitimacy will dumb down society at large. Since text-speak relies on brevity, simple word choice and sentence fragments, critics believe it will adversely impact people’s intellectual endurance. Ruth Maenpaa says, ‘Text-speak offers immediate gratification, but learning is hard work. A generation that is  content with five-minute research sessions on the Internet and communication based on sound bytes will definitely struggle with abstract concepts and commitment as they encounter more rigorous educational environments and the expectations of demanding employers.’  Barbara from Phreelance Writers agrees: ‘Complex language structures enable complex thought.  An era of simplicity in thought […] leads to, quite frankly, stupidity. It is hard not to fear that text-speak […] contributes to the inability of people to concentrate over a reasonable length of time, or enjoy the privacy of their own complex thoughts.’

Then there’s the problem of ambiguity, when it comes to textese. Humphrys says sardonically, ‘With my vast knowledge of text language I had assumed LOL meant “lots of love”, but now I discover it means “laugh out loud”. Or at least it did the last time I asked. But how would you know? Instead of aiding communication it can be a barrier. I can work out BTW (by the way) but I was baffled by IMHO U R GR8. It means: “In my humble opinion you are great.” But, once again, how would you know?’

Yet for all this criticism, there are those who view the inclusion of textese in texts as nothing short of blessing. For one, they hold that English’s beauty is that it is infinitely adaptable, open to modification, to variations in spelling and syntax, so the purist’s resistance to change is a disservice to a living language.

For another, they point out that the inclusion of text-speak makes books accessible to a wide audience. Martin Baum certainly belongs to this school of thought. Baum  has re-written Shakespeare’s plays in text-speak, and has now translated Dickens into ‘yoof-speak’, the language of the street. He says, ‘There are many people who love and understand great literature but many more who don’t. My book is the bait to draw them in and get them interested in some wonderful stories.’   Baum’s adaptation of Shakespeare, To Be or Not to Be, Innit, sold more than 1,0,000 copies. “I was criticised by some people for my last book on Shakespeare, but many more congratulated me, and a prison education officer said how useful it had been [… ] at breaking some of the barriers and making some of the text less intimidating while still retaining the beauty of the original stories.’

Furthermore, a few linguists argue, that far from being an over-simplification of speech, textese possesses unusual complexity. David Crystal says, ‘When we look at some texts, they are linguistically quite complex. […] Some of their juxtapositions create forms which have little precedent, apart from in puzzles. All conceivable types of feature can be juxtaposed – sequences of shortened and full words (hldmecls “hold me close”), logograms and shortened words (2bctnd “to be continued”), logograms and nonstandard spellings (cu2nite) and so on. There are no less than four processes combined in iowan2bwu “I only want to be with you” – full word + an initialism + a shortened word + two logograms + an initialism + a logogram. And some messages contain unusual processes: in iohis4u “I only have eyes for you”, we see the addition of a plural ending to a logogram. Some people dislike texting. Some are bemused by it. But it is merely the latest manifestation of the human ability to be linguistically creative and to adapt language to suit the demands of diverse settings. There is no disaster pending. We will not see a new generation of adults growing up unable to write proper English. The language as a whole will not decline. In texting what we are seeing, in a small way, is language in evolution.’

Ironically, the use of abbreviation in literature  isn’t new. Eric Partridge published his Dictionary of Abbreviations in 1942, which contained dozens of SMS-looking examples, such as agn “again”, mth “month”, and gd “good”– fifty  years before texting was born. Indeed,  people have been initialising common phrases for centuries. “Cos” has been found in books dating back to 1828, and “wot” in a text dated 1829. Of course, all of this has been severely criticized. As early as 1711, Joseph Addison complained about the way words were being ‘miserably curtailed’ – he mentioned pos (itive) and incog (nito). And Jonathan Swift thought that abbreviating words was a ‘barbarous custom.’

Such arguments are unlikely to die soon.

What we’d like to know is this:

Do you view text-speak as an assault on English? Or do you see it as a stage in the evolution of a language?

Does the inclusion of SMS-spelling in a book offend you? If yes, why?

Would you consider reading a book written entirely in text-speak? Give us your reasons!

We love hearing from you!

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Reading Tomorrow: The Great E-book Debate

Select Westland/ Tranqubar titles are now available as e-books! In fact, we are amongst the first Indian publishers to upload digital versions of some of our titles. From bestsellers such as Rujuta Diwekar’s Women & the Weight Loss Tamasha, and Bishwanath Ghosh’s Chai Chai: Travels in Places Where You Stop but Never Get Off to detective fiction (Sudhir Thapliyal’s Mansuri, Macabre), to literary writing (Mridula Koshy’s If it is Sweet), to memoir (B.G. Verghese’s First Draft) – a range of our titles are available as e-books on Amazon Kindle. In fact, readers can download a free sample chapter before they decide to buy a book.

While we are proud of this development, we are also curious about what such technological changes portend. For one, what happens to books as we imagine them to be – sentient beings of paper, rich with the scent of ink?

The opinion is clearly divided. New York-based Bob Stein asserts that in our postmodern world, books are outdated, almost as obsolete as certain architectural forms: ‘I love gothic churches and I’m sorry we don’t build them anymore, but we don’t. They’ve served their function and so has the novel. […] Humans were not born with a gene that made us gravitate to print.’ Still others suggest that books are likely to become as precious, as rarefied as works of art. Jacob Weisberg of Slate says, ‘As the Gutenberg era draws to a close, books take on greater magic as artifacts. What no longer serves as technology lives on as art.’

Indeed, as early as 1979, Christopher Evans in the The Micro Millennium predicted that due to the electronic media, the 1980′s would  see ‘the book as we know it, and as our ancestors created and cherished it, begin a slow but steady slide into oblivion.’ More recently, Nicholas Negroponte agreed when he averred, ‘The physical book is dead in five years.’

Others are less quick to write obituaries. Christopher Mims says, ‘If the bustling, recession-inspired trade in used books tells us anything, it’s that old books hold value for readers in a way that not even movies and music do. That’s value that no e-book reader can unlock.’

And still others believe that books and e-books can co-exist. According to Brett Osmond, ‘There is a school of thought that e-books may actually create more demand for the paper version. In the future you may simply buy the book and you are able to read it in a range of formats. You might begin with the paper version, then take a chapter on your e-reader while you’re walking the dog or pick it up on your computer.’

While the printed book’s survival chances are being debated, another area of discussion is whether e-books are an evolution, an improvement on the physical, hard-bound novel. Are e-books in fact superior to the printed book?

Several voices suggest they are. For one, e-books are praised for their portability.  Jacob Weisberg says, ‘Among the other places I have been reading Slate, Salon, an electronic version of the Wall Street Journal, and the e-texts of various novels and short stories, in last couple of weeks: aloud to my wife in a car at night; in a taxi, again at night; while brushing my teeth; on a plane without an overhead light; standing on the subway; in bed; while eating Chinese food with chopsticks. These are situations in which reading is ordinarily either awkward or impossible. They present no challenge, however, to my new favorite gizmo, the Rocket e-Book.’

For another, e-books are enhancing the speed and ease of accessing information. Gloria Mark, Professor at the University of California Irvine, says,  ‘It’s the entire experience. […] Hypertext offers loads of advantages. If while reading online you come across the name “Antaeus” and forget your Greek mythology, a hyperlink will take you directly to an online source where you are reminded that he was the Libyan giant who fought Hercules. And if you’re prone to distraction, you can follow another link to find out his lineage, and on and on.’

Then there are the environmentalists who highlight that e-books save trees; there are the readers of say, erotica, who point out that e-books allow them to read titles in public that they would not normally peruse; there are publishers who praise the e-book’s basic inviolability, for each book is encrypted for a single user, and can’t be copied, forwarded, or resold; there is the cost-conscious buyer who avers that e-books are obviously cheaper than paperbacks, for haven’t publishers eliminated expenses such as paper, printing, binding, and warehousing? And finally there are new writers who assert, ‘Unless you were Stephen King or Margaret Atwood, most stores would spend more time[dismissing] your book than carrying it – making it fairly impossible to get your work into the hands of each reader who wanted it. Suddenly, with online booksellers and ebooks, new writers’ work is nearly as accessible as the old established guys.’

But for all the clamour in favour of the e-book, there are an equal number of dissidents. Often, one hears the voice of the sentimentalist, or the reader who shares an abiding emotional connect with books. Pooja Mazumdar says, ‘I still remember the first time I had (note: “had”) to pick up an e-book. […] The soft riffling noise of flipping from one page to another was replaced by carefully scrolling down the page with the help of an irritating mouse, the pages were stark white, and yes they gave me a headache! What’s more, there was no way I could earmark a few pages so that I could turn to them later!’

David Leek emphasizes that it’s almost impossible to live imaginary lives, adopt imaginary countries, while reading an e-book. ‘It’s hard to get lost in an e-book. Often, the print is small and you might be reading on a laptop, phone or other device where you could get interrupted by phone calls or e-mails. A printed book, on the other hand, is actually a great form of escape from the world.’

Still others point out that e-books really aren’t as cost-effective as we’re given to believe. Dan London says, ‘The Kindle 2 costs $359. Each book costs $9.99. The last 6 books I bought at the bookstore cost me a total of around $95. To read those books on the Kindle 2 it would have cost me around the same amount. Add in that I’d have had to pay the $359 for the Kindle and we’d be looking at $455. In fact, the book Reality Check by Guy Kawasaki costs $18.65 for the hardcover and $16.47 for the Kindle version. For two dollars more, I have a version that I can let my wife read, give to a friend, take notes in the margins or even sell.’

And others protest that e-books slow reading speed. Sandra Aamodt, former editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience, says, ‘People read more slowly on screen, by as much as 20-30 percent. Fifteen or twenty years ago, electronic reading also impaired comprehension compared to paper, but those differences have faded in recent studies.’

But perhaps the most significant argument deals with the impact that e-books can have on language. Seven Birkerts, author of The Gutenberg Elegies says, ‘There is no question but that the transition from the culture of the book to the culture of electronic communication will radically alter the ways in which we use language on every societal level. The complexity and distinctiveness of spoken and written expression, which are deeply bound to traditions of print literacy, will gradually be replaced by a more telegraphic sort of “plainspeak.” Syntactic masonry is already a dying art. Neil Postman and others have already suggested what losses have been incurred by the advent of telegraphy and television – how the complex discourse patterns of the nineteenth century were flattened by the requirements of communication over distances. That tendency runs riot as the layers of mediation thicken.’

Jacob Weisberg, though, strongly disagrees. ‘The notion that physical books are ending their lifecycle is upsetting to people who hold them to be synonymous with literature and terrifying to those who make their living within the existing structures of publishing. As an editor and a lover of books, I sympathize. But why should a civilization that reads electronically be any less literate than one that harvests trees to do so? And why should a transition away from the printed page lessen our appreciation and love for printed books? Hardbacks these days are disposable vessels, printed on ever crappier paper with bindings that skew and crack.’

Admittedly, no one can predict how the average reader will adapt to technology, or even if she will. As publishers, we can only hope that no matter what the future dictates, words thrive.

We’d like to open this debate to you:

Do you think the book, as we know it, is dead, or dying?

Would you read your favourite novel, or that title you’ve been yearning to read, on an e-reader? Why?

Which do you find more convenient? An e-reader or a paperback? Give us your reasons!

Do you own an e-reader? If yes, what genres do you read on it? If no, why not, and would you consider buying one?

We do wish to hear from you!

Fictive Sex: What Works for You?

Erotica, as a literary genre, has fascinated us at Tranquebar. Last year,  we published  Electric Feather, a collection of erotic short stories edited by Ruchir Joshi. This year we plan to bring out Slither: Carnal Prose, a series  of short stories by Urmilla Deshpande; an anthology of Sri Lankan erotica; as well as a sequel to Electric Feather to be edited by Amit Varma.

Literary erotica has had a long history. While the Kama Sutra is widely acknowledged as one of the earliest and best known examples of the genre, there are  several other early treatises worth mentioning, from the Ananga Ranga– an Indian love manual written around 1179 CE, to the Japanese  pillow books produced between the twelfth and the eighteenth centuries – used by concubines in geisha houses. Even Victorian England, for all its moral rectitude, found its share of explicit writing being published, in the form of a sexual memoir attributed to John Spencer Ashbee, and the magazine, The Pearl. While it may seem as though men have controlled the production of erotica, the Greek poet Sappho stands out as an exception with graphic love poems to a young girl, and Anais Nin with novels such as Delta of Venus and  House of Incest.

Writers such as Nin and Sappho are viewed with the highest regard, which brings us to a seminal question: can erotica be distinguished from pornography? The  general view is that while erotica has artistic aspirations, pornography is purely of a commercial nature.  Jug Suraiya, who is soon to be published by us,  agrees when he says, ‘Erotica represents the complex cartography of desire, full of hazard and mystery, inviting endless exploration. Pornography is a dumbed-down diagram leading to a cul-de-sac whose only destination is libidinal claustrophobia.’ Gloria  Steinem, in her essay, Erotica vs. Pornography, believes that the distinction lies in the representation of women, and where pornography is seen as objectifying its female characters, erotica liberates them. In her view, ‘Pornography is about dominance. Erotica is about mutuality.’

The area of debate has even found its way into court-houses,  with the Canadian Supreme Court wrestling with the fine  line between the two terms way back in the 1960’s, when discussing D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In deciding whether  Lawrence’s book was obscene, the court noted that it had ‘none of the characteristics that are often described in judgments dealing with obscenity– dirt for dirt’s sake, the leer of the sensualist, depravity in the mind of an author with an obsession for dirt, pornography, an appeal to a prurient interest, etc.’ In 1992, the Canadian High Court further emphasized that a work would only be labelled as  pornographic if  it happened to be ‘degrading and dehumanizing.’

Others however are quick to dismiss such distinctions between art and smut. Andrea Dwokin suggests, ‘ Erotica is simply high-class pornography; better produced, better conceived, better executed, better packaged, designed for a better class of consumer,’  and Walter Matthau avers, ‘ One man’s pornography may be another man’s poetry.’ Russell Smith on his part goes on to say, ‘I have always hoped and believed that pornography would eventually become more literary and literature more pornographic.’

While the debate over the distinction between erotica and pornography continues, another area of contention is what makes for an accomplished piece of ‘fictive sex’. Salon recently ran a contest for good sex writing, and even while declaring the winner – John Hynes, the judges described the aspects what worked for them.  Laura Miller says, ‘One of the things literary writing about sex ought to do [is] describe not just the fact of sex, but the way how it happens changes how characters understand who they are. […] One of the ironies of desire is that it’s often more powerful when it’s denied, and in a way this is both fulfillment and languishing in a single act. I love the combination of emotional intensity and physical detail, which are all reasons why it was my first choice.’

However it’s interesting to note that even amongst critics and writers there is little agreement. On the one hand, Walter Kern says, ‘My favorite sex scenes are the blunt, depersonalized, pornographic ones (Bret Easton Ellis is the master here) that allow me to fill in the sensory blanks myself. I almost always prefer something like “He fucked her hard” to a gourmet, gynecological, Updike-ean presentation of the various sights and sounds involved.’  On the other hand, Howard Jacobson believes that it is the discussion of sex that is the intriguing part, not its depiction. ‘The only point in writing a “he puts that in there and she puts this in here” scene is to arouse, and I’m not interested in doing that.’ He goes on to say, ‘To a novelist – to me, anyway – the “about” is more interesting than the thing. Explicitness almost invariably takes you to bathos. The great sex scenes in literature for me don’t show sex at all – Dorothea in Middlemarch, for example, registering the sexual horror of her marriage through her revulsion from Roman art… It isn’t morality that determines this preference in me, but aesthetics.’

Similarly, on the one hand, Russell Smith says : ”Miranda July’s short story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You is a model of how to write sex in fiction. The sex occurs, as does everything else in her fictive universe, neutrally; that is to say, it occurs without any change of language or tone. It is described in exactly the same way – in her case, a rather detached way – as is every mundane activity.’ On the other hand, Rufus Griscom avers, ‘All the best pieces we’ve published deal with what I refer to as the blush zone. If either the writer or editor loses their ability to blush, then it’s boring and they should get out of the business. Appreciating and teasing out the subtleties and complexities of the writer’s relationship to internalized taboos and their own sense of shame is the beauty of the exercise. If they can simultaneously throw in some humor and some poignant revelations about the human condition then that’s a masterwork. That’s the Holy Grail.’

And still others suggest that  references to sex should deleted entirely. Melissa Katsoulis, a literary reviewer for the Times of London, says, ‘Sex is a subject best avoided altogether. If I was writing a novel, I wouldn’t attempt to write it except in the most Victorian and prim way, because it’s awful. It’s a cliché, but the moments of genuine frisson in books are when hardly anything happens.’ It is a view that Auberon Waugh, the founder of the annual Bad Sex In Fiction Awards is accused of holding, for having said that his team hopes ‘to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.’

Over the years, there are writers who have tried  compiling a list of guidelines on writing erotica. Utne for instance advices,  tongue firmly in cheek, ‘Step 1: Never compare a woman’s nipples to: cherries; cherry pits; pencil erasers; Frankenstein’s bolts.’ Jennie Nash, on her part, says  somewhat more seriously, ‘Focus on the dialogue. Why? Because it’s pretty easy. No one’s giving a long soliloquy in this situation – or if they are, they’re a very strange duck, which would actually give you a lot of material to work with.’

Perhaps the only point of agreement is this: writing erotica is  fraught with difficulty. Russell Smith says part of the challenge lies in the pervasiveness, even everyday-ness of sex: ‘Everyone has sex, just as everyone eats, yet we talk all the time about what we eat. To talk at work about last night’s sex would be like talking about the morning’s bowel movements. So of course it embarrasses novelists as well.’  Others suggest the problem lies in the attempt at verbalizing what is too profound to articulate. Anthony Lane says, ‘One of the great glories of sex is the difficulty of talking about it – no other human activity, not even love, is so resistant to the assaults of language. Talking during it has never been easy, either, especially if you were brought up not to speak with your mouth full, but nothing can quite match the verbal shortfall of erotic anticipation and remembrance; struggling to say what we feel, we plod from the lachrymose to the smutty via the obstetric, and never seem to get any nearer.’

David Amsden suggests that the act of writing is in itself at odds with the act of sex. ‘[Writing and reading are] the least instinctual of activities and therefore less than ideal for expressing our most basic instincts. And then there’s the nature of those who choose to write about sex: Thanks to some Darwinian law, they tend to be of the hyper-curious, exhibitionistic sort that make for good drinking companions, and even better lovers, but not necessarily the subtlest of prose stylists.’

And still others blame the English language and its glaring flaws. As Russell Smith says, ‘English is a difficult language to write sex in. It is hard and Germanic. It sounds either clinical or comical. Or, if you choose to use slang terms for body parts and activities instead of proper terms, it sounds rough and crude.’

Even while these debates rage, Doris Lessing seems to have the final word. She suggests that erotica is not just titillation. ‘The description of what happens in the bedroom, between the sexes with all the power-play between the genders is a vital and valid documentation in literature.’

Which brings us to a list of questions for you:

Would you make a distinction between pornography and erotica?

What do you think works in a piece of erotic writing? What jars?

Would you say that sex is best left out of  novels and poems?

Do you like reading erotica? Which was the last piece of erotica you read?

We hope to hear from you.

A New Chapter: Pakistani Writing in English

Between the the 14th and the 16th of January, Karachi  came to Kolkota as a part of the literary festival. To our absolute delight, a number of Tranquebar writers from Pakistan were invited. Shehryar Fazli – whose debut novel Invitation has been received with curiosity and enthusiasm; Nighat Gandhi – whose manuscript, Alternative Realities, on Muslim women and sexuality, is soon to be published by us; and Bina Shah – who wrote Slum Child – were amongst the guests. While Bina was held back because of a visa delay, the other authors engaged in an enriching conversation about Pakistani writing and its place in the literary firmament.

It’s fair to say that Pakistani writing has come a long way. From Zulfikar Ghose’s The Murder of Aziz Khan, published in 1967 – the first cohesive, modern English novel written by a writer of Pakistani origin, to the work of Bapsi Sidhwa, Adam Zameenzad and Sara Suleri, to the present-day novels of Kamila Shamsie and Mohsin Hamid, there has been a gradual blossoming. So today Pakistani literature is being lauded with terms such as ‘a corona burst of talent‘.  Pakistani writers are being feted, their novels being ravenously consumed, their work being applauded by critics the world over. Mohsin Hamid was shortlisted for the Booker in 2007 for The Reluctant Fundamentalist; Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes won the overall Commonwealth Best First Book Prize in 2008; Daniyal Mueenuddin was nominated for the Pulitzer in 2010 for In Other Rooms, Other Wonders; Kamila Shamsie’s novels have been nominated more than once for the Orange Prize.

Some would suggest that the fate of Pakistani English literature is closely entwined with that of Indian writing in English, that the popularity of literature from India acted as a springboard for Pakistani writing’s success. As Kamila Shamsie says, ‘Pakistani writing is like the new young fast bowler on the scene but Indian writing is like the spinner who’s been going for years and whose greatness is assumed.’

Would it be fair then, to compare Pakistani writing in English of today with Indian English writing of the 1980s? Some would think such comparisons are justified, especially if one looks at the milieu of the writers in question. For one, much like the Indian writer of the 80s and 90s, several Pakistani writers come with a complex heritage, without a definite place to call home. Humera Afridi, for instance, published in anthologies such as Leaving Home, was born in Pakistan, raised in the UAE and is now based in New York; Sabyn Javeri-Jilani lives in London; Shehryar Fazli spent many years in North America. Afridi says, of this legacy, ‘I don’t know whether I would have become a writer if I hadn’t been torn from Pakistan. I began writing poetry when I was 16 and, ever since, writing has become a sort of home. The UAE was a hostile and alien environment, where my identity was always being questioned. The desire to compensate for my dubious identity became an impetus for my writing.’

The second point of similarity of course is that much like the Indian writer of the 80s and 90s, limited to the boys of St. Stephens’, Pakistani writers are viewed are coming from backgrounds of privilege.

But Shamsie is quick to emphasize that the trajectories of Pakistani Anglophone writing and Indian Anglophone writing cannot be compared. ‘I don’t think there’s been “the Midnight’s Children” moment in quite so dramatic a way [with Pakistani literature]. Instead we’ve had a cluster of writers publishing and being acclaimed within a condensed space of time. Mohsin Hamid, Nadeem Aslam and I had our first novels out quite a while ago, and Aamer Hussein’s first short-story collection was published in the 1990s. So I think we need to guard against the sense that there was a void until 2-3 years ago which is suddenly crammed full of books that people are talking about.’

Daniyal Mueenuddin, goes on to suggest that it is important to bear in mind the distinction in style between Indian and Pakistani writing. In his view, Pakistani writing is grittier, with a tougher emotional core than its Indian counterpart. He says, ‘We’re not lying in sort of a bath of warm water and reflecting upon, you know, our sort of quirky, funny families. There’s an edginess to our writing, I believe, which is distinctive.’

It is this edginess that leads to the next area of debate – of whether Pakistani literature is reflective of the political climate of Pakistan, and if great writing is born of social or economic chaos. Llosa certainly thinks so when he says that great traumas are stimulating for literature, harbingers of a good period for creativity. Shehryar agrees.  And the Asia House goes on to say, in this context, specifically of Pakistan, ‘with almost 200 million people speaking nearly sixty languages, conceived under the auspices of a single religion, but wracked with deep separatist fissures and the destabilising forces of neighbours Iran and Afghanistan, Pakistan is one of the most dynamic places in the world.’

Not surprisingly, Pakistani literature finds itself trying to understand its politics and its society, through stories of religious extremism, class divides, war, dictators and love. Mohammad Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a satirical portrait of the Islamic fundamentalist rule of General Zia ul Haq in the 1980s; Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil chooses modern Afghanistan for a setting; Shehryar’s debut novel is set in a Pakistan only just coming to terms with the political upheavals of the 70s.

Yet Kamila Shamsie argues that not all Pakistani literature engages directly with the politics of the land or the country’s vexed relationship with democracy. She says. If you read Aamer Hussein – who I think is an extraordinary writer – you’ll see that very often he takes another route, highlighting the quieter domestic lives of characters –  often women. In some of his stories the grand politically involved figures are men on the periphery of the story and it’s in the internal and domestic sphere that the stories find their charge. And I think that’s also a very necessary component of writing. There’s also a very fine writer called Imad Rehman who grew up in Karachi before moving to the US for university, and staying on there; his short story collection I Dream of Microwaves – very funny – is largely about Pakistani migrants to America, and engages with American history – the migrant dream – far more than Pakistan’s history.’

The third area of debate, predictably, then is whether it’s even fair to pigeon-hole Pakistani literature based on the diktats of geography. The style and thematic concerns of Pakistani writers, from Zulfikar Ghose to Hanif Kureishi, differ so considerably, that it’s easy to ignore the fact that they owe their origins to the same nation. As the blog, Sepia Mutiny mentions, ‘The category “contemporary Pakistani writer in English” holds together as a kind of geopolitical marker, but perhaps it doesn’t correspond to a real body of texts as well as it ought.’

We thought we could throw open the debate to you:

Do you think there similarities between Pakistani English writing today and the early Indian English novel?

Do you believe that great art is born of chaos?

Do you think a category such as Pakistani English writing is even fair?

And finally, which Pakistani English writers do you enjoy reading?

We look forward to hearing from you!

The Literary Glass Ceiling: Fact or Fiction?

When we survey our catalogue, we at Tranquebar are enormously proud of the women writers we have had a chance to represent. In the past we have published Mridula Koshy’s If It is Sweet, which went on to win The Shakti Bhatt Prize, and Padma Vishwanathan’s The Toss of the Lemon, short-listed for The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book Award. In the future, we hope to release titles across genres by women writers, from erotica (Urmila Deshpande’s Slither) to travel (Swapna Liddle’s Fourteen Historic Walks in Delhi), to chick-lit (Kiran Manral’s The Kay Woman) to non-fiction (Nighat Gandhi’s manuscript on sexuality and Muslim women, Alternative Realities) to cookery (Tara Deshpande’s Sense and Spice).

We started conducting a mental check-list recently of the women authors we publish, following a rather disturbing survey conducted by VIDA. The organization, that closely studies the reception of women’s writing across cultural spaces, analyzed fourteen literary publications, and reaffirmed what has long been suspected – that women are severely underrepresented as writers. The Atlantic had 154 male contributors as opposed to 55 women contributors; The New Yorker, 449 male contributors as against 63 women contributors.

The figures are damning. But numbers, at the end of the day, are only representative of broader prejudices. Several cultural theorists, academicians and authors have tried to arrive at why women writers are possibly getting marginalized in publishing. Laura Miller is one such feminist critic.  She says that while women may form the bulk of the reading population (58 percent of adult literary readers are female), their selections aren’t sex-specific. Women read across genres and gender categories, and are as likely to buy a novel by Dumas as one by Jane Austen. Men, on the other hand, tend to display a definite bias, preferring male authors and books about swashbuckling heroes.

In 2005, at Queen Mary College in London, when a hundred academics, critics and writers were asked to discuss the books they’d gone through most recently, four out of five men said the last novel they read was by a man, whereas women showed no specific predisposition for male or female authors, and were almost as likely to have read a book by either. Chris Jackson, in The Atlantic, corroborated such evidence when he admitted, on being asked of the last time he had read fiction by a woman, that he ‘couldn’t come up with anything for a few minutes. It was a pretty shameful moment, in part, because I started wondering about early onset memory loss.’

Consequently, an agent is known to have said, ‘From my personal experience (and I really can only speak from that perspective), I truly believe that for literary fiction, it’s much easier to sell boy writers than gals. I know. Who can possibly make such a general statement but I have to say that I’ve encountered several worthy manuscripts that I’m rather convinced that if the writer had been male, the novel would have sold.’

There is also the subject of style, and according to Tracy Bowling, women writers find themselves being pushed to the periphery because they are perceived as flirting with ‘uncharacteristic and/or uncategorizeable forms and genres.’

If there is a dearth in the numbers of women getting published, a matter of equal concern is the reception that women authors get. Slate learnt that of the 545 books reviewed between June 29, 2008 and Aug. 27, 2010 in The New York Times, 338 were written by men (62 percent of the total), and 207 were written by women (38 percent of the total). At Harper’s, 69 percent of the books reviewed were by male authors; at the London Review of Books, 74 percent; of the 64 titles reviewed in The New Republic, nine were by women. Worse still, the reviews often displayed a definite linguistic bias. Tracy Bowling states, ‘In the wake of Jonathan Franzen’s glowing reception, many writers have discussed the infrequency with which the word “genius” is applied to women writers; I’d be curious to see if the same is true of words like “breakthrough,” “innovative,” and “new”.’

Some critics go on to suggest that when women are published/ reviewed, they find themselves being slotted within easy categories – ‘chick-lit’ with its manicured protagonists, or ‘mis-lit’ with its perpetually despondent characters. Elizabeth McCracken says, ‘Books by women are marketed as magical and quiet and lyrical; they have covers with portions of body parts – the side of a face, a pair of hands – the parade of headless and/or faceless people who have appeared on these novels.’

A direct consequence of this, some would say, is that in a bid to avoid such categorization, women writers feel compelled to suppress their identity (J.K. Rowling, with her gender indeterminate writing-name, being a case in point) or natural voice. Julianna Baggot says, ‘If I’d learned nothing else, it was this: If you want to be a great writer, be a man. If you can’t be a man, write like one. No one told me this outright. But I was told to worship Chekhov, Cheever, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Carver, Marquez, O’Brien… women were listed as concessions.’

Of course, there is also the claim that fewer women seem to be writing than men. And that those who do face challenges.  Don Share says, ‘Women are still doing more to manage the mundane details of life than men – from doing dishes to planning travel itineraries – and that leaves them less time. […] To put it succinctly: all of the women writers I know have had to work in the face of one form or another of disadvantage.’

Which leaves us with these questions, and we’d love to have your answers:

Would you judge a book based on whether the author was a male or female?

Would you, the male reader, consider buying The Kay Woman, for instance, an upcoming Westland chick-lit title? Would you, the female buyer-of-books, consider getting yourself Kenny Deori Basumatary’s Chocolates_Guitars_Momos, which could best be classified as lad-lit?

Would you make a gender distinction while buying literary fiction?

Also, do you feel that there aren’t enough women writers on bookshelves? Do you feel women are under-represented in the literary arena?

Do you think the reception women writers receive is prejudiced, biased, or non-existent? And do you think it’s tough being a woman writer?

Finally, which was the last book you had read by a woman? And when was this?

Do give us your feedback! We’d love to know.