My first novel, The Book of Answers, was today officially one of 19 novels shortlisted for the international 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize. It is a sweet moment in a novelist’s life, especially one who wrote his first novel kicking and screaming that he couldn’t.
It is also a time for some reflection.
In the 10 months since The Book of Answers was published, I have realized one abiding truth — you can never ever know if your book was good or not. While writing it, I received extreme criticism at both ends of the spectrum. Some thought the style pretentious and bombastic, the satire heavy-handed, the plot convoluted, the use of the first person too distracting. Others used words like compassionate and engaging, said they’d savored the characters, laughed a lot and so on. My agent, the unputdownable Nathan Bransford of Curtis Brown Limited, was politely ruthless and his compass always true every time. My brother, who can be piercing when he decides to be, had his own very influential views, usually at odds with everyone else’s. In between the artillery fire of so much advice, my book only improved.
However, its author, like a lover who has viewed his loved one’s face too close, had counted every pore and blemish. Beauty was in the eye of the beholders, but other beholders.
So when people talk about The Book of Answers, there is a frowning fellow inside me, who dismisses it all as merely one person’s view. At the launch of the book in Delhi, at the Habitat Centre, on July 5, 2011, the usually sharp-tongued Mani Shankar Aiyar waxed lyrical about the quality of writing and read out a certain selection — twice, the second time to point out what he considered literary gems. But that, my inner skeptic says, is merely Shri Aiyar’s point of view.
The same frowning fellow reads the reviews, frowning. Ipsita Chakravarti, of The Telegraph, found the satire feeble, and the story a disconnected collection of incidents. Arcopol Chaudhuri of uread.com thought it was a fine tribute to George Orwell’s 1984. Dharmendra D, writing for Business World, noted that “the fervent readers hopes of an engaging read are quickly dashed”. Most mainstream newspapers and magazines, such as The Times of India, Hindustan Times, Indian Express, Outlook, and India Today did not even bother to review it.
Of my friends who had bought the book, there were three kinds — those that are still meaning to get around to reading it; those that read it and loved it; and those that have been quarter-way through the book for the last six months. From the latter group, I begin to suspect that my novel is not an easy read. Mani Shankar Aiyar might very well have savored certain turns of phrase, but those same phrases were indigestible to others. Once again, my friends are no use at all in helping me decide if the book is a good read or not.
Of course, you are shaking your head by now and saying to me, “It isn’t what others think, it’s what you think that matters.” Alas, I am permanently crippled in that regard. I look at this book and see only the nuts and bolts and hinges of the story, not the entire gleaming body. Every time I sit down to read it as though for the first time, out comes the blue pencil after a few minutes and all I can think of is how a certain sentence or plot detail should have been done differently, or where there is an extra comma.
AND NOW THIS. The 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize, given for the best first novel and the best short story every year, from a crop of published works from 54 commonwealth countries including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Australia, India, Pakistan and many others. A bunch of regional prizes of £2,500 each and a grand prize of £10,000. An international panel of judges from Ghana, Jamaica, the UK and Pakistan, put the shortlist together. The frowning fellow inside me points out that a different panel of judges, in 2011, had not deemed the book worth even longlisting for the Man Asia Literary Prize.
For an author who anxiously scans the faces and words of his readers for clues of what to make of his own writing, this is what being on a shortlist feels like.
Firstly, a nice warm feeling in the stomach. In today’s self-published world with tens of thousands of books pouring out of anyone with a keyboard to type on, even a recognition as humble as this serves to set the book apart. Something to be grateful for, that the roll of the dice fell this way. Even before the shortlist was announced, two UK publishers had gotten in touch, making tentative exploratory sounds.
Second, it makes me suddenly feel that with a little more effort, perhaps the next time one might go beyond just a shortlist, even though even being on a shortlist fills me with more than I can express. Every writer needs to feel that for a while, even those who write for their own pleasure.
More than anything, though, the frowning fellow inside seems to have for just a moment stopped frowned. He knows that it is only a first book, and that writing is a long journey undertaken entirely on foot, but this seems like a wonderful place to stop and sit in the shade of a tree for a while and just enjoy the light breeze.