What you read in 2019: Political biographies, books on climate change, mental health and #Metoo

A young boy growing up in the late 20th century in Calcutta harbours desire of becoming a monk. Studying at an elite boarding school, delicately cloistered by the ideals he is expected to follow, he also feels strangely attracted to another fellow male student. A dealer of rare books embarks on a remarkable journey from India to Venice, collecting memories and experiences along the way. An investigative narrative sheds light on the dubious workings of a giant pharmaceutical brand and the threat it posed to millions over the years.

Each of these books – The Scent of God by Saikat Majumdar, Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh and Bottle of Lies: Ranbaxy and the Dark Side of Indian Pharma by Katherine Eban – are among the highest-selling this year from Simon & Schuster, India, Penguin Random House and Juggernaut Books respectively. The themes tackled by them, disparate as they are, are not exactly random. They are either a manifestation of the present political climate, a covert plea for a change against something concerning the world at large now or they smugly fit into a style that is enjoying more readership presently. These are both contributors and the consequence of the literary trends prevalent this year.

Literary trends are often created by publishing houses

Literary trends, like any collective inclination, are manufactured. Any theme or style becomes a trend when more books are written on or like them are published from different publishing houses. Radhika Marwah, commissioning editor for Ebury Publishing and Vintage Publishing House, believes a literary trend is determined by publishing houses, prompted either by a successful book or when the insightful acumen of an editor turns out to be a success. “Often, when a book blows up, there is a tendency of editors to commission in a similar space. In another scenario, publishers identify a gap in the market and commission a book to fulfil it,” she says. She identifies a third kind too. “Sometimes, an editor might end up liking a book too much and publish it more as a reader. A decision such as this is less reliant on commercial viability and more creatively driven.”

The phenomenal success of Yuval Noah Harari’s esoteric and audacious Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – a book that sold over 200,000 copies in the UK within the first two and a half years – serves as a telling case study vis-a-vis literary trends. Harari’s 2011 book (published in English in 2014) – tracing the evolution of species, examining their ability to cooperate, and ending with the post-humans – has been touted as a “publishing phenomenon” by author Alex Preston in the 2018 article, How the ‘brainy’ book became a publishing phenomenon in The Guardian for the way it, “kept selling, catching publishers, booksellers and even its author off guard”. While striving to unpack the literary triumph of a “recondite” book such as this, Preston identifies the changing needs and demands of the readers – “turning away from glitzy but disposable stories of fame and excess and towards more serious, thoughtful, quiet books”. .

This year, Tony Joseph’s Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From (non-fiction) published by Juggernaut – an extensive book about the origin story of those who live in South Asia – has emerged as one of the most widely acclaimed books, bagging several notable awards, including Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and the Book Of The Year Award for Non Fiction at Tata Lit Fest. It is not entirely incidental that Joseph’s book serves as an excellent companion piece to Yuval Noah Harari’s work: both charting the inception of humankind in some ways. The exceedingly favourable outcome of Harari’s work in a way contextualises Early Indians’ resounding success. Like Marwah pointed out, it could be an instance of deliberate commissioning – hoping to emulate the success of something similar – or recognising the shift in the demands of the Indian readers. Or, it could be both.

Readers are changing

“People are willing to admit that there is a gap in their knowledge, so they want to pick up books that will help them bridge that,” Manasi Subramaniam, Senior Commissioning Editor and Head of Literary Rights at Penguin India, says. It is this growing interest to understand themselves and their surroundings with more clarity that has dominated the themes of books written and read (more) this year. The result is books on environmental changes, mental health taking the centre stage. She admits the interest had been building over a couple of years but the force with which it has registered a change now has taken her by surprise as well. “This year I published Cities and Canopies by Seema Mundoli, an illustrated non-fiction book about trees in urban areas, underlining why and how they grow. I took it up as a passion project but it has been reprinted thrice,” she says. This burgeoning interest can also be one of the factors behind the success of Amitav Ghosh’s The Gun Island. A name like Ghosh certainly gives a book a push, but as Subramaniam acknowledges: “No amount of marketing by a publishing house can replace that innate desire that makes one look at a book and say, ‘oh I could learn a little bit from it.'”

Amrita Tripathi’s Real stories of dealing with Depression – comprising ten case studies – is a first in the series of mental health books published by Simon and Shuster, India this year. By bringing in a psychiatrist, the accounts aim to continue the conversation around mental health and provide a word of help between the pages. It has done exceedingly well and Sayantan Ghosh, senior commissioning editor, admits how every now and then they receive mails from readers sharing that these accounts have spoken to them.

Social media and the changing landscape of fiction

2019 has been a year of many changes. It has also been the year when landmark events of last year took the concrete shape of words. In September 2018, the Supreme Court legalised same-sex relations between consenting adults by scrapping off Section 377. This directly led to a rise in interest in reading and writing books on LGBTQI. Ghosh, who published Saikat Majumdar’s The Scent of God, agrees the judgment helped in creating a buzz for the book even though the book was commissioned early last year. “We were sceptical about the reception but very keen on the subject. The decriminalisation fuelled a lot of interest.”

For Subramaniam, last year was about witnessing something unprecedented. “The # MeToo movement was such a historic moment, it was one of the greatest revolutions I have ever seen.” A year later, the editor admits, the changes are everywhere – in the stories and characters authors are writing about and the way they write. The movement reasserted the power of social media, reiterated the importance of feminism as a more tangible idea, and made sharing uncomfortable experience comforting. “Social media has caused a democratisation of public opinion, it has opened up newer avenues.” She cites A People’s History of Heaven by Mathangi Subramanian – a book illustrating the struggle and bond formed by five women intending to save a Bengaluru slum where they reside – as a significant example of the same. Other than being an assured debut, the book presents feminism in a rare, reified way. “The book deals with every issue of contemporary feminism that I can possibly think of. It is a novel that talks about women’s issues with the lightest of touch and will leave you with an act of triumph.”

“There is a marked representation of women across different stratas in Mathangi’s novel. People today are more interested in listening to voices they have not heard till now. More and more queer, Dalit characters, women even from religious minorities, transgender women are finding space in fiction. Readers are expecting it more than accepting it,” the editor further accedes.

Several books coming out from Subramaniam’s publishing house are telling examples of the changing landscape in fiction with Ghosh’s recent novel being just one of them. Raj Kamal Jha’s The City and the Sea details the appalling violence against women and the toxic, raging masculinity we are almost always surrounded with without resorting to any embellishment to make the narrative more palatable. Rheea Mukherjee in The Body Myth (also published by Penguin Random House) outlines the lives of three people involved in a polyamorous relationship, interweaving issues like mental illness and queerness. Diya Kar, publisher at HarperCollins, India, echoes Subramaniam’s opinion. “We’ve seen self-improvement books come of age: it’s okay to be good, even average, seems to be the message.”

The Year That Was

The present year constituting of events like General Election to the Cricket World Cup also saw many political biographies, books dissecting election as well as works on cricket. “All publishers were trying to publish relevant books this year around the election,” Subramaniam discloses. In April, the publishing house announced Rajneeti, a memoir of veteran politician Rajnath Singh by Gautam Chintamani. HarperCollins, India published Rajdeep Sardesai’s 2019: How Modi Won India. Ruchir Sharma’s Democracy on the Road by Penguin Random House India was one of its bestsellers. Attempting to cash on the World Cup rage, Simon and Schuster, India published the exhaustive Eleven Gods and a Billion Indians: The On and Off the Field Story of Cricket in India and Beyond by Boria Majumdar last year.

There has been an upsurge in books on Indian Economy and Indian history for evident reasons. Good Economics for Hard Times: Better Answers to Our Biggest Problems by Nobel Laureates Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee by Juggernaut did phenomenally well. Their prestigious win also converted into increased sales in their 2011 book, Poor Economics: Rethinking Poverty & the Ways to End it published by Penguin Random House. Parth Mehrotra, non-fiction editor at Juggernaut corroborating this trend shares What the Economy Needs Now by Abhijit Banerjee, Gita Gopinath, Raghuram Rajan, Mihir Sharma has been one of their bestsellers.

“The year has been defined by high-quality investigative non-fiction presented in an accessible manner,” Merhotra maintains. He attributes this to the stupendous reception of Bottle of Lies: Ranbaxy and the Dark Side of Indian Pharma, which unravels the drug manufacturer’s fraudulent practices and provides an in-depth picture of the pharmaceutical world.

He admits books exploring Indian history, foregrounding different, unknown facets are being received with a lot more interest of late. It is evidenced in the growing readership of Manu S Pillai S works, the latest being The Courtesan, the Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History this year. “People want to read about history and not just colonial history and Manu makes it such a breeze,” says Ghosh.

Enduring trends

Some literary trends like certain books are forever. A Durjoy Dutta always sells, so does an Amish Tripathi who has stripped mythology off the literary erudition and made it more commercial. Self-help books always have an audience so do celebrity memoirs and biographies. “I think people are looking forward to unexpected narratives. They are tired of reading the great Indian novel. They want more relatable novels,” Subramanian concludes.

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