Writerly Envy

Amish Tripathi is the new Chetan Bhagat. Neither man may like that statement; Chetan may protest that he’s still ‘in’ and Amish may say that his brand of literature is more ‘serious’ than Chetan’s, but in the sense that Amish is to Indian Writing today what Chetan was to it six years ago, it is true. The much-publicized million-dollar deal that Amish signed with Westland last week only made it official. (If you haven’t yet heard of it, you have now. Go google.)

I got to know of this thanks to the television screen they mounted in our cafeteria at work. My boss and I were having our daily breakfast, and I was in my usual sunny mood prattling along about something or the other when he pointed to the screen and said, “Hey, you’ve got to get yourself one of those.” When I raised my head I saw Amish Tripathi in pleasant conversation with an NDTV reporter who was asking him all sorts of profound questions. (‘How are you feeling?’ ‘How much are you selling the movie rights for?’ ‘Has it sunk in yet?’)

The sun in my mood went down rather quickly. I replied with ice and indignation in my voice: “I don’t think I will ever be in his situation.” And then I added a few well-chosen barbs hinting at the immaturity of Indian society and how Ekta Kapoor and Shah Rukh Khan become icons here (with due apologies to fans of both). I did not rant, but I came close.

Envy, for those of you who’ve never experienced it, is an emotion that eats at your soul and spits it out half-chewed and dripping with spit. All that day I could think of nothing but Amish and his brand new million-dollar contract. There were no two ways about it; after all that is said and done, if someone offered me a contract of that size for my finished books, let alone those I have not even thought of, I would sign my name twice over without even glancing at the fine print (providing, of course, that the check doesn’t bounce).

But this wasn’t just envy. I feel envious of people all the time. This time I was also conscious of a deep sense of resentment, a bit like back in college when the guy who failed all his papers in our class got a job before everyone else. The rest of us didn’t just feel jealous. We wanted to wring his neck. It’s not just the person’s success that gets to you; it’s the added perception that the success is undeserved that puts you on slow roast and burns you.

Even in this Chetan and Amish are twins. Both come from non-literary backgrounds. In fact, both openly snub the ‘snootiness’ of mainstream literature. Chetan has gone on record saying that a writer doesn’t need good grammar to be a good storyteller. Amish has repeatedly been unapologetic about his writing in interviews. Here are two guys that have nothing but the most rudimentary skill with language making a killing at writing books. And that just kills us. If Salman Rushdie got a million-dollar contract for his next book I don’t think I would have felt as bad.

The good thing about knowing envy when you feel it is that you can work around it. Some of the publicity that Amish got for his deal, I reasoned with myself, must have rubbed off onto the industry itself. It must have gotten some people thinking about Indian books and Indian authors, and who knows, some of these people may chance upon my name and pick up one of my books. So looking at it that way, whatever Amish sells indirectly sells my books, and those of all the other writers that make up the market. Whether this line of thinking is logical or not, I don’t know. But it has made me a lot less miserable.

I also realized that whether his success is deserved or not, the resentment that I felt for him isn’t. I may believe that I can write better than him, but the truth remains that I cannot write like him, and therefore I cannot walk in his path. In fields like this each one of us must define our own parameters that define ‘success’. The world may delight in telling you that fame and money are the only two true arbiters of success, but there may be others that matter more. You may find them if you look deep enough, and perhaps when you do the noise from the outside world will matter a little less; maybe then you can turn the volume down, put your head down, and get to work.

But turn the volume down on a million dollars? Not easy.

Comments

  1. Like the way you fleshed out this emotion and finally came to some sort of a conclusion 🙂

    If it helps, I have my instances of fml here

    fc*klove

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  2. Amish had a decent story yo tell. He atleast had imaination going for him. Chetan, god save us if he’s the poster boy. Just see the blurb of half girlfriend. And its going to sell million copies.

    I don’t think language should define a writer. After all writing is also about entertainment and not just art. And entertainment demands a little lucidity. Its like louvre feeling bad because a lot of people are going to Paris Disney.

    By saying language should dictate literature, you are throwing baby out with the bath water. After all classics hardly entertain. Fitzgerald might make you go wow but only stephen king entertains completely. And it needs to be understood that people want entertainment (not the Akshay Kumar one though).

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    • Hi Hari,

      Thanks for the comment. I agree with you that certain parts of language are subjective. For instance, word-choice. As an author, I may think that ‘strode’ is a better verb for a given sentence and another author may think that ‘amble’ is better. Who is right? Neither. The words I use define my voice, and the words he uses define his. To each his own. Great.

      But there are parts to language that are not subjective. For instance, grammar and spelling are non-negotiable. Either your writing is grammatically correct or it isn’t. Then there are matters of style. Either your paragraphs are well structured or they’re not. Either your writing is tight or it is not. In ‘Elements of Style’, you see a lot of these little rules in writing English that all writers worth their salt must follow.

      I think you mistakenly assume that I’m rooting for complex language. I’m not. My literary idols are Isaac Asimov and Agatha Christie, both of whom wrote in simple, lucid language. But did they write loosely? They didn’t. Did they make compromises on the basic elements of style? Not at all. In fact, they were both great stylists.

      Grammar and style makes your writing clearer, your reader’s experience deeper. Not adhering to these principles has the opposite effect. Have you ever come away from an Amish or a Chetan Bhagat novel deeply stirred? Have they ever given you a sensory experience that is as strong as some of your ‘real’ memories?

      And Stephen King is an excellent stylist. He’s also one of my literary idols. He pays much more attention to his writing than do Chetan and Amish.

      So is language important? Yes. For a writer, language is the only tool at our disposal. We don’t have a set department who will design lavish sets for us. We don’t have actors who will bring our words to life. All we have are our words to engage, entertain, and possibly inspire our readers.

      So yes, language is extremely important. And I think every writer should make the basic effort to get the fundamentals of language right. That means grammar, and basic elements of style. Not bothering to do so – and blithely announcing that they don’t have to – betrays a disrespect for your craft, and to the language.

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      • You and I were on different ‘understandings’ of language. What I meant was language of Agatha Christie (simple) vs language of Gabriel Marquez (artistic). I agree about paragraph structuring and grammar. Those should be in place. But you also need to understand that readers have learnt to accept flawed art. All anomalies get glossed over as long as the heart is meaty. For them, it’s substance over form.

        I’ve not come back from any CB book with anything stirred. But that’s more because I don’t like the genre he writes on. Or any other cheap paperback kings of India. I find the aspirational stories very fake, contrived and juvenile. The sense of drama and conflict in them is at a pedestrian level. So for me it fails at substance level, I never reach the form.

        As for Amish, he has imagination, but he just couldn’t build the intrigue in the Meluha story. It should have been a great tale, but for a large part the story rambled on without a sense of coherent direction. Also, I hated the bit that everyone who saw Neelakantha fell to their knees and shed copious amounts of tears. He’s written that line probably 20 times, like a stock reaction for everyone who saw Neelakantha.

        Maybe he’s more of a culprit of what you’re suggesting, though I don’t think better grammar or paragraph structure could have saved the story.

        Anyway, this is just you and me ranting. In my family everyone swears by CB (because he gets the pulse of the nation, his language is simple and fast, and there is humour in his writing). They even like Amish because he portrayed Shiva like a ‘rockstar’. This shows that in age of hyper-connectivity (with watsapp, FB, games, idiotic movies), people are NOT going to bother about form. Only substance. They are just too busy to be bothered about form.

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      • Haha, I love your final paragraph. This is just you and me ranting. How right that is!

        But on a serious note, I think this ‘ranting’ is important, if not to get through to each other, to sometimes get things clear in our own minds. What’s the alternative? Not rant and allow ourselves to be brainwashed. Isn’t this better?

        I’m okay with substance taking precedence over form. But the most famous pieces (and practitioners) of art in India have no substance. Whether it’s a Karan Johar movie or a Chetan Bhagat novel.

        That’s also okay. If you notice, this post was written more than a year ago. I’ve since made my peace with envy. I’m hardly afflicted by it any more. You could say I’ve become detached 🙂

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  3. //But there are parts to language that are not subjective. For instance, grammar and spelling are non-negotiable. Either your writing is grammatically correct or it isn’t. Then there are matters of style. Either your paragraphs are well structured or they’re not. Either your writing is tight or it is not.//

    Agree with every word in there! (I am an Editor by profession; that should explain it.)

    //In ‘Elements of Style’, you see a lot of these little rules in writing English that all writers worth their salt must follow.//

    Well, Strunk and White are a different story, altogether:
    http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/strunk-and-white
    http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497

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