Notes on Literature: A ‘Planned Novel’ and its Critic

My thoughts on Latha Anantharaman’s review of Ashwin Sanghi’s novel, Chanakya’s Chant, as jotted down in my notebook on 3rd April 2011, the day I read the review. I’m posting it here almost verbatim and hasten to add that I haven’t read the novel myself. My thoughts, therefore, correspond to Latha’s review and the issues raised therein.

Today I was rather surprised to read Latha Anantharaman’s scathing review of Ashwin Sanghi’s Chanakya’s Chant–surprised because I was at the Chennai launch of the book, organised by the Madras Book Club, where the general tone of the readers’ responses was very positive; both during the conversation (with Anuradha Ananth and journalist Vaasanthi) and the Q&A session. The book launch conversation revolved around the ideas and issues–political and philosophical–underlying the novel and the author’s own views and opinions. I can’t remember anyone having an issue with the construction of the novel or its language (with the exception of Vaasanthi who couldn’t help pointing out the recurrent usage of the F word in the novel) or the writing. But these are the very aspects of the novel that seem to lead Latha Anantharaman to take Ashwin Sanghi to task; And it seems to me that the flaws she zeroes in on are not only very real, but pertinent as well.

What Latha seems to be taking exception to is, in my opinion, the rather explicitly apparent ‘constructed’ or ‘planned’–in a very project managerial sense–nature of the novel. With the profusion of internet links in the sources section of the book, it is, I think, easy to imagine the novel as having been put together using open-source off-the-shelf modules of information and imagination on a tight deadline. And the writing doesn’t make things any better for Latha

The dialogue is what reminds the reader so much of Ayn Rand. Most of the characters are gormless cardboard cut-outs who say, “But why, Acharya?” or “And then what?” so that Chanakya can answer them with one-liners. The same happens with Gangasagar and his entourage. Those one-liners are not only from the Arthashastra. They are formulas from management books, Dilbert jokes, chicken-soup platitudes, Jewish-mother aphorisms, things you see on the bottom of the page in Reader’s Digest, and the stale sentiments that your unemployed friends forward to you by email.

But a couple of sentences right at the end of the review offer an insight into the reviewer’s mind and her attitude towards fiction of this kind

All this makes one wonder why paperback writing is not seen to have its best practices, like law or accounting. Businessmen and medical students write what they consider novels, but surely someone would yelp if, say, Sydney Sheldon picked up a scalpel, or even attempted to file a company’s tax returns. Even the kind of fiction that is sold off a cart on a railway platform ought to offer more than scraps collected from Wikipedia.

This leads to a few open questions:

  1. Is not the very phrase ‘Best Practices’, with its emphasis on modularity, efficiency, and re-use, at odds with the creative nature of story-telling?
  2. Does this mean that someone wishing to publish a novel shouldn’t be allowed to do so until subjected to these best practices?
  3. Assuming they exist, what could these best practices be?
  4. When my father spun bedtime tales for me over a decade and a half ago, he used to pick up bits and pieces of images and ideas from movies, video-games (!), and anything and everything he could think of that could grab and hold my attention for half an hour. So is it a bad thing if an author uses “scraps collected from Wikipedia” to write a novel as long as it intrigues and holds the attention of the kind of reader it is aimed at?
  5. Does it matter at all?

Thoughts? Comments?

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One Response to Notes on Literature: A ‘Planned Novel’ and its Critic

  1. Latha Anantharaman says:

    Valid questions, and your answer is right there in point 4. Almost every story feeds on our collective cultural inheritance and builds on it. But it must be done well, it must be done elegantly and/or entertainingly, it must hold the reader’s attention. That’s where Sanghi failed. Read the book, it means much more than attending the launch and listening to the marketing department’s opinions.

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