Monday, October 3, 2016

A writerly rant

If only I had known that they had totally changed the job description of an author, I may never have set foot into this area. From childhood onward, I had always lagged behind in being up to date with the latest trends but never has it cost me as much as it has now.

When I was young (Yes, I WAS! I did not spring up, all bald and pot-bellied, one fine day), the most difficult thing about the job was the writing. Editors in publishing houses were these all-knowing chaps who could see the merit in a piece of writing and selected or rejected based on quality. So, once you had the writing done well and pushed it off to these paragons, your work was done. If they rejected, no problem. You just sent it on to the next guy and then the next guy till you got tired of enriching the post office. (Oh! There was that issue - no email submissions)

If you got selected, there could be a problem. The editors could well say, "This scene needs a bit of tightening" and such other things that editors are wont to say. It is not like you can say, "Oh! I take in a couple of inches around the waist?" and get on with the job. You probably engaged in a ding-dong of either discussion or multiple rewrites and, eventually, end up with a finished product.

THEN, you can heave a sigh of relief and let the publisher unleash the book on the unsuspecting populace. Even mysterious incognito authors were still in vogue in those days. So the author did not need to walk the ramp, have pics taken in suitably intellectual poses, rub shoulders with Page 3 people and things like that, in order to be accepted as an author. It was enough if he had written a book that was accepted for publication and THAT, by any standards, was as difficult a job as any you can think of, so he was entitled to relax, one would have thought.

Then, apparently, readers were not content with what the book had to offer. They wanted to know the so-called face behind the book. And you know how it goes...if you do not KNOW the author, you could sort of presume you would like him and, thus, buy the book. If you actually MET the damn guy, THEN you really needed to like him and be impressed by him. (You don't think so? Ever heard of an author's personal enemies buying his book? So, there).

So, then there were the book launches, book readings, book signings and all that. You know, in selling other products, things are easy. You can always pick an attractive model to front for the product - it is not like the chemist who worked on 'Fair and Lovely'  had to be its Brand Ambassador as well. With a book, though, the author HAS to be the Brand Ambassador, apparently. AND, if I held a book launch and expected my charm and personality to enthuse people, my charm would certainly ensure that they queued up - to inquire whether they could turn in their copy and get a refund. This need to have charm and presence, in addition to being able to write, had me on the ropes already but that was not the end of it.

Apparently, like they used to say about women in the male chauvinistic days, an author's job is never done. He also needs to give a hand to the over-worked publisher in marketing his own book. You know the problem, right? If you are selling MTR pickles, you are a professional doing your job. If you are selling YOUR own pickles, you are a nuisance, at best, and...well, let us leave it lie about what the worst is. So, what would come easier to the publisher - and would seem a professional discussion - comes laden with all sorts of emotional overtones, when the author has to do it.

To be sure, there are those authors who can push their book with an air of doing YOU a favor by allowing you to buy their work. They may well seek a review from you in such a manner that you feel grateful to them for having given you the privilege. Alas, THAT is another of those seemingly necessary attributes of an author that seems to have bypassed me. Consequently, when I was faced with the situation, I had nightmares of starting my day, begging bowl in hand, crying piteously, "Review de de, Behenji! Bechaare author ko review de de, Bhai sahab!" and have responses ranging from "Aaj nahin hai...kal aanaa" to doors slammed in your face; then, after pausing a bit to wryly smile at all those daydreams of people chasing you with autograph books and pens (Yeah! Old fashioned, I know! My brain talks of selfies and all, but it has still not permeated my dreams), metaphorically pushing my cart of books on Social media, screaming, "Books for sale! Great satire, Goodreads 4.6 Stars, 50+ ratings, only Rs. 99/=", to the tune of people saying, "Here he comes again, making a nuisance of himself!" (Thank God! All nightmares do not come true.)

AND then I ran into this other requirement. This taking criticism thing. No, I am not even talking of the fact that someone will trash your book with a 1 Star rating on Amazon because the distributor delayed delivery - something like trashing the book because the salesperson was rude in the bookstore. (Not a huge issue for someone who gets ratings in bushel loads but to someone who gets them in the tens at best...) I am talking about the fact that everyone and his uncle tells you that, as an author, you need to know how to take criticism. As though learning from criticism is the peculiar need of authors alone.

You know what, I have not seen ANYTHING in life where constructive criticism will not help you grow. Like, when I joined an office, I obviously was learning the job and, as obviously, I had my boss come down on me at times. Naturally, if I took every criticism of his as a personal affront and refused to learn from my mistakes, people used to tell me that I needed to know how to take criticism. But there was a difference.

If my boss just said, "You are an absolute idiot" without any specific reference to the particular idiocy that had prompted the comment and, more so, if he could not point out any such idiocy, I could always scream and rant about it to my colleagues. They would say, "Yeah! He is a jerk. Know what happened the other day..." and things like that. There would be none of this "It is his right to voice his honest opinion. You need to know how to take criticism." If I had found a damn good negotiation point in an ongoing deal and put it up, and all that my boss had to offer was, "In that third sentence, why have you typed 'oguht' instead of 'ought'? Why can't you be more careful?", I could find comforting shoulders when I rant about the lack of appreciation for the work done, and would get none of this, "Don't you see, you should have taken care. Obviously, if he has not criticized your negotiation point, he must have appreciated it." AND if my boss did it to everyone, someone above him would pull him up and say, "YOU need to learn how to criticize people...how to manage people better." So, it was permissible to react differently to different types of criticism, and it was acknowledged that the fault in how you react to criticism may not always be yours; that the fact that you rant does not necessarily mean that you are not learning from the criticism; and THAT the people who criticized did not think that they were always in the right and were absolved of any need to take care in how they criticized.

I know, they probably mean that it is counter-productive for YOU to rant, as an author, because there could be too many such comments and to take them all to heart would stress you out; to ignore all of them would stunt your learning; and, theoretically, it is YOU who are better known and your ranting would spoil your image. But what seems to have happened is that people think it does not matter what or how they write about a book; the author is not supposed to be hurt or angry about anything, failing which he is NOT really an author!

A person who grins and bears abuse, and continues to care for the abuser; pleases everyone around, no matter how arrogantly or abusively he gets treated; never gets angry and never hates anyone no matter how they behaved - the last I saw such a paragon was in the yesteryear Indian movies playing the 'Sati Savitri' style wife. Apparently, now that they are looked down upon as characters in movies, they have shifted to books - as authors! Or so the world seems to think.

So there was the description of this ideal author. You needed to be good enough with the written word to bring to life your fictional world; sufficiently sensitive to get to the emotional pith of your characters BUT insensitive to hurt from criticism; with the charm of a Brand Ambassador; and the persistence and thick hide of a door-to-door salesman. It would help if you are also a Saint, since you need to turn the other cheek, and then be grateful, too, for the learning.

In other words, a good author is someone with the writing ability of a Shakespeare, the charm of a George Clooney, the salesmanship of a P.T. Barnum and the serenity of a Buddha.

I look in the mirror. What looks back at me does not seem to tick any of these additional boxes that an author is supposed to tick. As in everything else, I am late on this - I should have been born half a century back! THAT way, the only thing that may have happened is that my manuscript may have bounced on my face on its way back from the publisher.

22 comments:

  1. You know it is incredibly hard to sport a rueful/wry smile and chuckle at the same time, but I accomplished this Herculean task without too much of a problem.

    Days have changed, haven't they? I wonder how many truly talented people have fallen by the wayside because they haven't been able to sell themselves? I wonder too how many have become overnight celebrities in spite of them lacking the skills required just because they were whiz kids at marketing. Some authors are truly blessed with the (and I quote) 'writing ability of a Shakespeare, the charm of a George Clooney, the salesmanship of a P.T. Barnum and the serenity of a Buddha' and to be in step with the times the talented ones should seek to emulate these paragons to survive and flourish. There is no turning the Wheel of Time back.

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    1. Ah! I hope not - else the world shall be deprived of a lot of good books because it is a very rare occurrence for all four to be present in one person :)

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  2. Fantastic post. You've captured the quintessential dilemma of so many of us and in so eloquent a way. Is it all truly hopeless? I'm quite sad now.

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    1. Ooops! What an outcome for a supposed humorist to bring about

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  3. Authors need to be more than human these days!

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  4. I hear you, Suresh. It is really tough to be an author these days. With all the SM engagement, hardselling, book launches that they are expected to do to sell their book, it is really tough. Very valid point about the criticism bit as well. But I really wonder what one must do if asked to review a book which you do not like? Should you not mention what you didn't like. Should you not criticize at all? Look at how we thrash movies or books of authors we don't know. Even the best of authors get thrashed. So then why should an blogger turned author feel that they should not be criticized? They have the choice to reject the criticism is what I feel.

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    1. Criticize all you will. But don't tell the author that he has no right to feel hurt or angry about it with that pious 'You should learn to take criticism' :) If you can understand how people who get criticized on other things can rant and rave, why expect the author to be some semi-divine chappie who can take it all with a smile? If you can tune your words to criticize your friends without wounding them, and will not take the care in doing the same with a book, expect the author to get hurt/angry just as your friend would, if you did not pick your words carefully while criticizing her cooking :) It is your right to express your opinion however you will and it IS the author's right to react to it as HE wills, so do not go around faulting him for it.

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  5. God help all prospective writers! Well, I tried desperately to be sympathetic towards your condition and failed miserably with a thoroughly irrepressible bout of laughter while reading this!

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  6. Sad though it is--these days branding and marketing are more essential than true worth.But that is everywhere,good genuine people don't command as good a fan following as the crafty ones.

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    1. Don't know how widespread it all is, Indu, but I daresay there are not many areas where the same person is expected to produce, front for, market and take consumer complaints too :)

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  7. Very true,a writer needs so many skills in order to succeed today.You have good reasons to rant.

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  8. ha ha, a candid insight. time for all to instrospect.

    you may check out my blog at www.yesteethatsme.com

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  9. The Fair and Lovely chemist does not have to be the Brand ambassador for it ;) You couldn't have truly used a better analogy for the inherent 'unfairness' in being expected to write AND market one's own product.

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  10. And here we were thinking Chetan Bhagat has paved the way and made it easy for all of us who are to follow.

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    1. Well - He it was who made the publishers think that it was the AUTHOR's job to market the book :) Made it easy? Bah!

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  11. This sums it up perfectly. Couldn't help laughing.

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