Celebrating the Birth of the Reader and the Publisher
“. . . historically, the reign of the Author has also been that of the Critic. . . . the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author” (Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author, 1977).
The last couple of years have witnessed the emergence of a new kind of writing in the subcontinent, classified as Young Adult literature, targeting the segment of young adults aged between 14 and 21 years. While there is little or no response to this new writing from the traditional critical establishment, the new age media have been celebrating its entry and tracking its development. This paper tries to argue that the emergence of this new trend is also symptomatic of a shift in literary reception where the reader and the publisher have gained prominence over the author-figure and the literary critic. The origins, trajectory and dominant concerns of young adult fiction in India are outlined through the writings available on it. It also draws attention to the significant departures from the conventions of IE fiction, thereby posing new questions and challenges for Indian Writing in English. Here, we attempt to travel through the narratives about young adult fiction, as they are available in book reviews and short articles published in print media and online in order to understand how the genre is being constructed in the popular imagination. The journey through these sporadic narrations could be bumpy and often fraught with discontinuities; nevertheless it enables us to ask significant questions about the challenges that lay ahead for IE fiction, three decades after its re-emergence and resurrection in 1981 with the publication of Midnight’s Children.
The contexts of production
There was a time when Malgudi Days, Ruskin Bond’s stories or Amar Chitra Katha series were considered as foundational in the development of young adult and children’s literature in India. That was, however, way back in the 1970s and 1980s when Indian English fiction (IE fiction) had not yet witnessed the literary explosion and the publishing boom that followed. The post-1990s changed almost everything we knew and thought about Indian fiction written in English. It saw the emergence of a vast variety of ‘new writing’ in the form of chicklit, graphic novels, detective fiction, pulp fiction, campus fiction and the latest entrant seems to be ‘Young Adult fiction’ or ‘YA fiction’ as it has come to be known. YA fiction is not entirely a new genre in world literature though in India it is just a few years old, still fighting for recognition within the establishment. In the West, a number of studies have already been published since the 1990s, demonstrating how YA fiction could be used in classrooms and in curricula, to teach not only subjects such as social studies, literature and history, but also to inculcate core values and cultivate the reading habit i . Incidentally, our knowledge of YA fiction in India is limited to the media reports and occasional book reviews on this young genre which has caught the imagination of the publishing world, if not the critical establishment, in a big way.
It is difficult to trace the origins of this genre in India to a single moment in history. While the studies on the genre have not yet emerged in a systematic fashion, there are some observations that one could anchor on in order to understand the starting points. A brief survey of YA fiction, published in sify.com points out that Indian publishers such as Children’s Book Trust and National Book Trust were among the first to bring out fiction targeted at adolescents.
However, the segment ‘young adults’ gained visibility only when the so-called mainstream publishers in English turned to YA fiction in a really big way. YA fiction in India is generally considered to have been inspired by YA fiction in the West characterized by ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Twilight’ series. Accordingly, an article which appeared in dailybhaskar.com titled “Books for India’s Young Adults Turn New Page” observes, “The genre of contemporary young adult in India took off around 2007 when the ‘Twilight’ series of vampire romances landed in Indian bookstores, much to the delight of young urban readers”. The response of the young adult segment to these new kinds of fantasy adventures was so promising that several Indian publishers and authors began considering producing desi versions of the same. Madhusree Chatterjee makes a similar observation and points out, “Boy wizard Harry Potter, youthful criminal mastermind Artemis Fowl and vampire Edward from the Twilight series – the neo-adolescent heroes of the West – have spurred the creativity of young Indian authors . . .” This view is shared by Priya Kapoor, the director of Roli Books as well who maintains, “. . . the success of Harry Potter has helped Indian publishers to encourage the genre.” (suhaag). What gets termed as ‘success’ is now being measured in terms of the number of copies sold, thereby allowing a voice and respectability to the ‘ordinary reader’ rather than the critically informed ‘serious reader-critic’ upon whom the powers of canon formation and literary appreciation were hitherto vested.
The birth of the reader and the publisher
It is important to understand why there is a sudden interest in YA fiction in India, leading to a number of media reports about its emergence and popularity. One must admit that the media interest in YA fiction is largely due to the kind of profit and new market avenues that it promises the publishing houses. Most of the leading publishing giants such as Harper Collins and Penguin now even have a separate imprint for the books on YA series, a telling statement on its distinct literary identity that is already in place. The number of forthcoming titles is also quite impressive that it has even become ‘a news item’ in national dailies and news channels.ii This trend increasingly reflects the post-1990s phenomenon when, for the first time, economic factors began to play an influential role in determining the dominant literary genre of each period, depending on the statistical figures related to publication or the publicity generated through awards and international book fairs. That the media reports focus largely on the publishers and their responses (and not on critics or authors)is an addendum to this assumption. Here, we find the buyer-reader emerging as the decisive figure negating the very existence of critics and authors. This is an obvious contradiction to the earlier practices where the reader responses that signified any kind of ‘popularity’ among the ‘masses’ led to the work being almost ‘dumped’ into the category of pulp fiction or popular fiction that apparently did not deserve any serious attention from the informed reader-critic.
The confident articulations of the publishers, based on statistical figures and popular responses, seem to suggest that the initiative of the publishing industry is one of the major driving forces behind the emergence of YA fiction in India. Publisher and chief editor of HarperCollins, V.A. Karthika observes that the increase in the number of Indian young adult books was due to the sense among publishers that ‘there was a gap in the market’. In what sounds as an echo Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, the editorial director of Penguin-India Young Adult, says that the YA series would be closing a ‘gaping hole in the Indian publishing scene for books for people between 15 and 20’. Thus, unlike the 19th and 20th centuries when Indian English fiction emerged as a byproduct of colonial-nationalism and as a creative response to the need to imagine and forge the yet-to-be-born-nation into being, the 21st century genres are born out of market demands. Similarly, instead of the young aspiring writers on the lookout for publishers, we now have an entire publishing industry on the lookout for prospective authors. Interestingly, there are even certain criteria that the publishers have fixed in terms of the authors’ background and the content of the novel – for instance, ‘if not Indian, then ideally the book should have an Indian or a subcontinent connection’. Publishing and reviewing which were hitherto considered as ancillary activities have now, therefore, emerged to the foreground acquiring a stature that enables them to break old myths and invent new ones. Perhaps, we are one step closer towards realizing, as well as acknowledging, the ‘death of the author’ with the literary space getting invaded by the constituents of global economy and popular culture. This new found focus on the publishing industry and market trends does call for an in depth study on the politics and ideology of literature being dictated by the forces of global economy and popular culture, which, however, cannot be pursued within the framework of this paper.
Though YA fiction in India owes its origins and inspiration to their counterparts in the West, there is very little that the Indian version shares with the ‘original’ in terms of themes and content. The discussions on YA fiction in the West seem to engage with a variety of themes including individual issues in growing up, such as potential career choices, dealing with parents and their expectations, relations with siblings, sexuality and also more profound issues such as the reality of adult life: death and dying, drugs, alcohol and substance abuse; divorce; spousal and child abuse; race and class discrimination etc which have a bearing on young adult minds. However, this almost holistic representation has not yet arrived in YA fiction in India iii. The YA fiction in India seems to be radically free from the tangles of moral, ethical questions and focuses mostly on ‘magic and vampires’. A very recent article that appeared in The Hindu Metroplus even expresses concern over the ‘temptingly threatening illustrations’ in the vampire-based novels that dominate the young adult section in bookstores. The publishers seem to be responding to the demands of the new generation teenagers who perhaps find the children’s books too childish and the adult fiction too serious. As one of the YA authors Shinie Antony puts it, "Desi young adult fiction so long was more a clumsy attempt between juvenile chick-lit and over-mature kiddie books, so the new crop is welcome. Vampires, ha-ha books and adventures are upon us and not a bit too late”. Inspired by the Harry Potter and Twilight series, the YA fiction in India, (at least the visible and more popular titles, if not all) seems to be limited to the world of fantasy where the mundane and the ordinary have no room. There are of course questions raised about the moral and psychological implications that the overdose of violence could have in the young adult minds; however, the powerful market that sustains YA fiction feels and proves otherwise.
Though YA fiction in India is relatively young and not yet fully formed, one cannot say that the young adult reader in India is new to the genre. Sudeshna Shome Ghosh maintains that here have always been books for this segment but it is only now, that they are marketed in this genre. Many readers and publishers maintain that a fertile socio-cultural milieu for the reception of this new genre was already prepared in the urban centres from the 1970s onwards with “a steady flow of foreign teen thrillers into the country”. Accordingly, it could be argued that just the ‘distinction of the genre’ is new as titles such as Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigator series were never pitched as titles for young adults. Thus, replicating the turn of events in the 18th and 19th century, having fed on the western literary models we find the desi writer getting empowered to write her/his own fiction using the raw materials from her/own own milieu. Accordingly, YA fiction could be seen as yet another way in which young Indian writers are ‘writing back to the empire’. Madhushree Chatterjee reminds us that till the late 1990s the young adult readership was traditionally served by books imported from the West. What is remarkable about the emergence of YA fiction is the fact that the publishers have successfully re-directed this readership to feed on desi authors who offer Indianised Harry Potters and Edwards modeled on Ravanas, Krishnas and Kamsas. The desi touch could be seen in titles such as Swayamvara: The Return of Ravana by David Hairiv ; The Slayer of Kamsa by Ashok Bankerv and On the Yeti’s Trail by Shoba Naiduvi . This return to epic themes and heroes could actually be read as an extension of IE fiction’s tendency to exoticise the mythical past. However, this is not to say that the themes in YA fiction are restricted to fantasy adventures. There are also works such as Real Men Don’t Pick Peonies (Sirish Rao, 2004), a novel about Himalayan expeditionvii or Skunk Girl (Sheba Karim, 2010), the story about the angst of growing up in an open world. At the same time much of the attention is drawn to those novels which deal with fantasy adventures, as if re-living the mythical past that is embedded in the collective memory of the nation.
One of the most remarkable features of YA fiction is perhaps the non-existence of a gendered identity in terms of authorship or readership. The writers such as Sheba Karim, Shoba Naidu, Shreya Mathur, Trisha Ray, Shinie Antony, Sajita Nair etc. get talked about without any reference to their gender, and they find acceptance and recognition as YA fiction writers and not as ‘women YA fiction writers’. This is significant, especially when one reads this trend against the male-dominated nation-narratives that get canonized in Indian Writing in English. Given the recent attempts in the post-1990s to foreground women in Indian writing in English through feminist publishing houses and anthologies that reserve literary/critical space for women-writers, one could even read YA fiction as a platform to abate and eventually negate the gendered literary spaces. Even in the narratives there are deliberate attempts to look at gender from a critical point of view . There is also a complete disregard for the ‘age’ of the author with the publishers willing to promote authors who are as young as 16 or as old as 58.
At this point, in spite of the many possibilities of liberation offered by YA fiction, we need to pause and ask whether the target readership, which is definitely the young adults who inhabit the elite urban centres, eventually reinstate the prejudices and biases that IE fiction always operated within. Even while being excited about the ‘new writings’ it needs to be pointed out that IE fiction as a whole does not, and perhaps cannot, cater to the demands of or address the vast young adult population which live outside the boundaries of modern, secular, elite, urban spaces which also invariably belong to the upper castes and upper class. As we celebrate the death of the author and the critic, and the simultaneous birth of the reader, it is slightly disturbing to note that the subject position of the young adult reader is predictably urban and upper class. This also acts as a pointer towards the evident urban, upper class bias with which the so-called mainstream publishing houses are forced to operate.
Why has the literary critical establishment not yet opened up to analyse and interpret YA fiction? We would say that the dominant critical enterprise seriously lacks the tools to engage with the kind of products endorsed by the economy-driven agencies which do not operate within the boundaries set by ideologies and theories. As long as the critical frameworks remain confined to the yardsticks that ignore or even dismiss the reader and the publisher from the site of IE fiction, new writings such as YA fiction would be impossible to critically engage with. Unless the new writings are critically accommodated and engaged with, IE fiction would not be equipped to face the new challenges in print. One needs to wait and see whether YA fiction would have a sustainable future or whether it would be washed away in the sea of new writings. However, what interests us at this juncture is not the future of YA fiction, but the questions that the genre raises. One, how do we understand YA fiction in the context of contemporary literary studies which work best within the paradigms and complexities of ‘–isms’ constituted by the postcolonial and postmodern constructs? Two, how do we position YA fiction in the contemporary where there is an increasing demand and need to access literary and cultural products from the insightful perspectives enabled by gender and caste? Three, is YA fiction representative of the post-Rushdie era where literature is just another cultural artifact that obeys the dictates of the global economy? There may not be conclusive answers that one can forge immediately. Nevertheless, it is important to ask them; in these answers lie the future of IE fiction, which ‘resurrected’ in the 1980s after the near-death experience of the 1970s.
i. See “Using Multi-Level Young Adult Literature in the Middle School American Studies” by Andi Stix and Marshall George (1996) http://www.interactiveclassroom.com/pdf/Using Multilevel Young Adult Literature in Middle School Social Studies.pdf; “Young Adult Fiction: Playing with Big Kids” by Ian Bone (2005); “A Bifocal Lens on Islamophobia: Using Young Adult Fiction as a Teaching Tool” by Krista Riley (2010); “Enhancing Literary Understandings Through Young Adult Fiction” by Maia Pank Mertz (1993); Teaching Young Adult Literature to ESL Students: An Experiment by Yongan Wu (2008); Young Adult Literature in the Classroom: Reading it, Teaching it, Loving it ed. by Joan B. Elliott& Mary M. Dupuis (2002); A Literary Analysis of Young Adult Novels with Multiple Narrative Perspectives Using a Sociocultural Lens by Melanie Debra Koss (2008); Teaching Through Culture: Strategies for Reading and Responding to Young Adult Literature by Joan Parker Webster (2002);
ii. See the news reports published in The Hindu <http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/metroplus/article2298989.ece>; IBN Live <http://ibnlive.in.com/news/magic-vampires-stir-indias-young-adult-literature/168017-40-100.html>; and NDTV <http://www.ndtv.com/article/cities/the-new-phenomenon-called-young-adult-fiction-50596>.
iii. One of the responses to Bhimayana, the graphic novel published by Navayana, does indicate that the best response has been from young adults and college students; other than this meager pointer we do not have any substantial evidence to argue that the YA readers respond to narratives built around contemporary issues related to caste or politics. See <http://navayana.org/?p=1304>
iv. Swayamvara published by Penguin-India is a fantasy adventure that re-narrates the lores of the Ramayana and Prithviraj Chauhan, a Rajpur king of Kannauj, in a contemporary context. The author, David Hair, has just completed the fourth and final book of The Return of Ravana series.
v. The Slayer of Kamsa, published by HarperCollins India is a racy account of Lord Krishna and his battle with the demon-king Kamsa, a story narrated with the intent of reconnecting Indian young adults to the mythical traditions of the past.
vi. Shoba Naidu is also one of the YA authors who advocates ‘books rooted in Indian culture and ethos about growing up pains in the Indian milieu written by Indian writers’ (in “Indian Publishing’s New Phenomenon”).
vii. One could perhaps cite V.Geetha’s interview with Sirish Rao as one of the earlier instances of recognition of young adult fiction India, when the interview with the 22-year old was published <www.tarabooks.com/2_02_01f.pdf>
vii. Sirish Rao, the author of Real Men Don’t Like Peonies, critiques the language of mountaineering for being ‘macho and militaristic’ with the usage of terms such as virgin peak, assault, peak attack etc. According to Rao who seems to be open in his criticism, “Men’s attitude to nature in general, seems a bit like their attitude to women” (interview given to V. Geetha). Similarly Trisha Ray, who wrote a novel about guns, martial arts and blood battles, The Girls behind the Gunfire, rewrites the notion of violence and its agencies. She says about her protagonist, “The tough girl in this book is into fighting because she likes it” (ibnlive.com)
1. Barthes, Roland. “The death of the author” (1977). Trans. Richard Howard. n.d. Web. 27 July 2011.
2. “Magic, Vampires stir India’s young adult literature”. ibnlive.com. 16 July 2011. Web. 26 July 2011.
3. Nofil, Zafri Mudasser. “Indian Publishing’s New Phenomenon: Young Adult Fiction”. sify.com. 9 August 2010. Web. 3 March 2011.
4. Vakkalanka, Harshini. “Buried in Dark Pages”. The Hindu Metroplus. 27 July 2011. Web. 29 July 2011.
5. Verma, Varsha. “YA – the new genre of books is here”. Allaboutpublishing.com. July 2011. Web. 27 July 2011.