Am not sure how other Booker nominees fare, but every time an Indian author gets their novel nominated for the Man Booker prize, there is always criticism, often the severe sort. So there I was, DNA Sunday Mag open, ginger tea in one hand (you are correct to sense a pattern here), reading the column Telliscope, by Delhi based Gay activist Ashley Tellis. His article, named Nothing to get Booked up about, recalls a time when the Booker prize meant something, namely 1972, when John Berger won the Booker, criticized the sponsors for having made their prize money from unfair trade, and then donated his prize money to the Black Panther party in England and to migrant workers. According to Tellis, the Booker prize seems to have now lost all sense of literary merit. How exactly? Tellis shares with his readers:

Today, the Booker is a joke. At 60,000 pounds, it may be a hefty prize but there is no real sense of the literary in it. In relation to India, it is like the literary equivalent of the beauty contest syndrome. It seems like the odd Indian (or Third worlder) needs to win it now and then to keep the book industry, like the cosmetic industry, going rather than because there is any literary merit in the writing. Absolutely appalling novels like The Inheritance of Loss and The White Tiger have won it. Arundhati Roy’s pathetic The God of Small Things, written in illiterate non-English, started the trend and now every other year has an Indian on it.

I am not very familiar with Mr. Tellis’s literary qualifications, but his criticism seems infantile, at best. All of us in the writing world (and many of those not in the writing world), know how to use adjectives such as appalling, pathetic and non-literate. In fact, those are adjectives I could very well fit in while describing Tellis’s aforementioned article. I am not against what Tellis has to say. There are many others who feel the same way about literary prizes in general. But there is a way to say things, a way in which people might take another person’s opinion seriously. If the Booker is a joke, how so? Why?

Tellis goes on to share his opinion about Indian poet and writer Jeet Thayil’s novel Narcopolis being long listed for the Booker:

Jeet Thayil’s appalling Narcopolis has made it to the long list and he’s about as radical as a stale carrot. In a recent interview, he spoke of how all those drugged days were a waste of time and how he’s so glad to be given a second chance! He’s been producing books like a popcorn machine and one worse than the other. His lobbying with the Western world means that they think he’s the bee’s knees when he’s only a washed out pseudo-junkie. He pretended to be radical by reading out from Rushdie’s novel and then ran out of Jaipur with his radical cohort for fear of being arrested at that national farce called the Jaipur Literary festival. John Berger would barf.

Yes, yes, here is yet another appalling novel, apparently of the stale carrot variety. Run out of adjectives Mr. Tellis? One can’t help but think there is a personal attack here, within Tellis’s words. And that is truly sad. I’ve often seen that when a poet crosses over to fiction, he is met with more scrutiny, with purists from both genres breathing down their throat. Will it be all imagery and no plot? Will it be just flowery language and word play? Personally, I love poet turned novelists. Michael Ondaatje is probably one of the most successful examples. I have not yet read Narcopolis, but have come across very mixed reviews. In fact, I remembered reading a particularly scathing review of Narcopolis after it had just been realeased. On tracking it down, lo and behold, guess who had written it? Tellis, at the beginning of his review, declares Narcopolis to be “one of the worst novels written in the English language anywhere.”

Perhaps all of this is just as good an excuse as any, to debate what constitutes a good novel, and to revisit the ‘Indian novel in English.’ Changes are happening in form, content and readership and along with that expectations.  I would also be very interested in knowing how judges in literary competitions come to a consensus. On their website, the Man Booker Committee seem quite transparent on how they choose their books:

Since they began reading shortly before Christmas the judges –Dinah BirchAmanda ForemanDaniel Stevens and Bharat Tandon – have met regularly but informally. They have discussed, debated, even argued (but amicably) about the entries…For this year’s prize, Peter Stothard (The Booker Chair) chose a different approach. Every novel on the agenda was first discussed with debate in each case led by one of the judges. What rereading quickly proved was that not every novel can stand up to being read even a second time so soon after the first…It took the best part of three hours for the longlist – or Man Booker Dozen – to emerge. I can testify that the process had been vigorous. Passion proved important. By the end novels by eight former winners had fallen by the wayside; only three out of fifteen works entered by previously shortlisted authors survived.

All said and done, judgments are made on opinions and in the case of literary committees, a consensus of judgments. The world pretty much works that way.  If you don’t like the book, stop reading. I have many half-read books on my bookshelves. If you want to write about a book, show us you know your stuff, without the pejoratives.

I am really happy that an Indian writer has been nominated for the Booker. I wish Jeet Thayil the very best. This week, I plan to buy Narcopolis, and I promise to read it with an open mind.

Oh, and one last thing. Mr. Ashley Tellis, if you happen to see this, I strongly recommend that you read John Berger’s Ways of Seeing.


  1. Jessu John says:

    I liked your post here, Shikha. I think some people are critics, but only that. Writing a book, even writing one little poem means doing the time. The time required to come up with as great a piece as one can manage. Any good writer worth his salt can only do that. Nothing more. Nothing less. The Booker list has some great novels and some not so great ones. But all of them are by people who did the time. For that, I admire them all. I’ll be picking up Narcopolis after the noise around it has died down. That is the only way I can enjoy any book. And Jeet Thayil will always have my respect for being brave enough to come up with his novel over time and not debut with one for the sake of a grand debut and some press. I want to know for myself how much of the poetic lingers in his novel, if it does at all. It will be an interesting study.

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