Monday, January 28, 2008

So there's this question that has bugged me (and many others) for a while: why isn't there 'genre' fiction in India? Why no science fiction, no fantasy, no noir, no horror? Or cyberpunk, splatterpunk, steampunk, alternate history, space opera? Why are Indian writers so dumb, why can't they write in all these cool genres that we read about on Boingboing?

To answer this question, we'll have to step back a little. You'll notice that the second list of genres above - starting from cyberpunk - sounds somewhat unfamiliar. That's because these are comparatively modern additions to the 'genre' set. Cyberpunk was popularized by William Gibson, Steampunk by China Mieville and co., Alternate History by Philip K Dick and many others, Space Opera arguably by Star Wars and E.E. Doc Smith, Splatterpunk by Clive Barker. These are very rough pointers, so no nitpicking, please. My point is, we're able to generally identify one or more writers as creators of a 'genre' here. These were good writers, and the concepts appealed to people, and they formed a genre.

What does it mean when a concept appeals to people? As a layman, I'd answer that it suggests answers to the questions that a society is currently asking itself. Cyberpunk is an answer to the question, "Is new technology really going to make the world a better place?", for example. As an member of society, I want to know this and will want to explore possible storylines around this topic.

Look at the 'original' genres for confirmation - sci-fi, horror, fantasy, noir. Do they follow the same pattern? They do. Fantasy as we know it today was almost completely defined by Tolkien. H. G. Wells and Jules Verne were the original Sci-fi writers. Poe, Lovecraft, M.R. James, Sheridian Le Fanu kickstarted the horror genre, which really didn't exist as a genre before then. Detective fiction - Doyle, and before him, Somerset Maugham. Go look up these names on wikipedia or something - hardly any of them are more than 200 years old - which sounds surprising. And all of these were as equally a response to the public opinion of the day, as Cyberpunk is. Science fiction has always been a response to the technology of the day, fantasy explores all the 'what-if's that don't fit under science, and perhaps alternative social histories and hierarchies. Horror? Look up the monsters in M.R. James' work, and the ones in, say, Bentley Little's work, and work it out.

During these past 200 years, what were the concerns of the average Indian? Everyone will have a different answer, but I doubt it was extra terrestrial beings or a recreation of a heroic past. Why, then, would anyone expect these genres to take root in India? The way the very word 'genre' is understood today is extremely eurocentric and amru-centric (if I may coin a phrase). We have our own genres, probably multiple genres per language, though they aren't a part of any ISBN classification scheme. What 'genre' does Manohar Kahaniyan publish in? What about the mountains of religious literature published in Gujarati? Dada Kondke movies? It would be unfair to coerce these into the categories that English literature is broken up into. If anything, there should be new names for these.

Let's take a somewhat parallel example: Japanese literature. To make the issue easier, let's focus on only the Manga/Anime. There's one category of manga that I personally enjoy: what's called seinen manga. This is 'mature' manga, not 'mature' as in sexual or violent content, but as in complicated themes, realistic scenarios, darker subject matter. There's no real equivalent in the English classification spectrum. Yet, because this style of manga is popular in the US, American publishers publish it in translations, with a ridiculous genre notation like 'fantasy/conspiracy/horror/scifi' on the back cover. The Japanese don't distinguish between these so-called different genres - there are seamless blends of all of these and more, in most long-running manga series. I don't see (perhaps because I can't read Japanese) teenagers there decrying the lack of hard science fiction stories the way the Americans have them.

Another example, again Japanese, is the Godzilla movies. These were a direct response to the fear of Atomic bombs, then prevalent in the common public, and thus became very popular. The 'Giant Monster movie' genre was picked up from the Japanese and turned into hundreds such, by Hollywood - Cloverfield being only the latest of them. But they're a novelty, an offshoot of science fiction, in the US - Godzilla represents something much deeper to the Japanese, something that can't really be classified.

The literature market in India is expanding currently, in all languages, along with economic prosperity. Expect a stratification in the years to come - a deepening of the market, along with a clearer distinction between different readers' tastes. There is also a commercialization happening in the market, the way it has happened in the American market over the past 50 years or so. What commercialization did in the US was to create writers who wrote for a specific market rather than writing for themselves - books intended to be read only by the horror market, say - which created the genre conventions that today seem to be ironclad for each genre. I can't say whether the same will happen here - perhaps it already is, with buzzwords like 'Campus Novel' and 'Chick Lit' already making the rounds. The genres will deepen as the market expands.

This is a good time to be a writer in India - or a film maker, or a singer, or a poet. Expect interesting things to happen over the next few years.

PS. The past few days, whenever tunes into IBN7 (or is it 24x7?) they seem to be showing mysterious objects seen in the sky and reported by viewers, along with speculation about aliens. News channels have a knack for reporting what people like to hear. Are we then heading for a desi science fiction age?


prabha said...

Couple of thoughts
- Marathi literature, as I have read it, has a few genres
Dalit/ Rural, Middleclass/ Urban, Romance/Women's, Humour/ Detective(Mens ?), Philosophical/Social
But there are no hard boundaries.

- Classification is a disease of West. Everything has to be neatly labeled and packed in stackable rectangular boxes.

scribble said...

During these past 200 years, what were the concerns of the average Indian? Everyone will have a different answer, but I doubt it was extra terrestrial beings or a recreation of a heroic past.

Extraterrestrial beings and recreations of a heroic past have been THE fundamental concerns of Indian fiction.

Even a casual Chandamama reader could see that.

Bala said...

Regional languages have had a longer and more diverse literary tradition than we usually know. The problem is not lack of diversity/genres - they are there alright and they are plentiful. The problem is that the idea of classifying/labelling has not caught on.

contemporary Tamil literature has this following

1)Historical fiction- a distinct genre with its own rules and sub genres. With writers like Kalki and sandilyan establishing the ground rules, this is a huge genre with a lot of books.

2) Romance - mostly written in mills and boon template. Writers like Ramani Chandran are a good example.

3) Thrillers - This has been mostly driven by the pocket novel industry (where each novel costs less than 10 and gets published weekly or bimonthly). Sub genres within this are a) detective (most popular with many detective/buddy cop pairs) b)techno thrillers (raajesh kumar is definitely a techno thriller writter) c) spy thriller

4) Horror - a big genre with the likes of indira soundarrajan and pt samy. Has surprisingly a large following. Indira soundarrajan was particularly successfull with his crossover to TV with his "marma desam series"

5)Social - This is the biggest of the lot with almost every ideological tinge covered.

6) Comics/graphic novels - There is no anime or maanga, but there is pretty huge number of "chithira kadhaigal" in every news paper/magazine to go about.

Science Fiction/Fantasy has the smallest following (i think) in Tamil and so we are not as diverse as English (at the moment).

Regional language fiction is limited by the (relatively) smaller size of the target market. While obscure sub genres in english like vampire romances and urban fantasy can boast of enough readers to be economomiclly viable, in Tamil they can't thrive because no of reader (and ergo the money they bring in) is less.

apu said...

Interesting piece, but perhaps you underestimate a little. while we may not have the cyberpunk (or gunk, whatever!), in Tamizh atleast, Sujata has been writing a sort of science fiction for ages now. Again, as another commentor has mentioned, genres like historicals are pretty well defined in Tamizh - I am sure other Indian languages should be the same. I don't know about the detective genre as such, but "police" sort of stories have been around for long. In English too, the scene is opening up - Samit Basu has made a splash in fantasy, Sarnath Banerjee's graphic novels are a beginning, and campus novels seem to be becoming an established genre...(I don't know infact if the campus novels have a parallel in other countries). So perhaps we should just focus on creating our own categories...

Which Main? What Cross? said...

Because nobody is reading.
And i guess everything was ever written will be found in our ancient texts. Why rewrite it? ;)

Sudarshan said...

@prabha - I'd say classification isn't a disease of the west, as much as a sign of maturity in a field. The book and film industry here really isn't developed enough to have specialized genre markets. Though it's happening on a broader basis - people do choose to read Surendra Mohan Pathak or Acharya Chatursen type works.

@scribble - :) :). But I'll believe these are genres in india when there are shelves in bookshops labeled 'hindi sci-fi' and 'hindi horror'.

@bala - agreed that the problem is not a lack of genres, but of formalization. But then you go on to shoehorn Tamil writers into the same stale categories that English writers do. Don't sell Tamil short, dude! Do you know if Raajesh Kumar and Indira Soundarrajan have been translated to Hindi/English? ;)

@apu - No offense meant, but I wouldn't label Samit Basu as writing fiction in an Indian-type genre - using names of Indian mythological creatures isn't enough - the structuring and conventions are much closer to, say, Terry Pratchett.

You have a point, though that 'English' writing is opening up. I'd like it if the 'opening up' included fiction translated from Indian languages - including genre or pulp type of work. Zubaan, Katha, pretty please?

@wmwc? - LOL. Someone should go back to Barker, Tolkien and Doctorow and tell them the corresponding western tripe about 'there are only 7 basic stories', and 'Shakespeare has already covered all possible plots'. :)

apu said...

Oh none taken :) Yes, I wouldn't call Samit Basu's fiction is a specifically Indian-type genre - infact I completely agree with you there... my point was more than Indian writers are trying different genres. On a related note, when western writers do some genres, they are usually seen as global (or atleast not ethnic) whereas people from other countries are slotted into 'ethnic' often...there is no need na, for Indian writers to focus on Indian genres necessarily, whatever that may be..