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No substitute for trained, talented editors: David Davidar

Publisher David Davidar on his new anthology, the short story's evolution, and the role of non-traditional publishing in giving young writers a break

David Davidar
David Davidar (Courtesy Aleph Book Co. )

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The writing is electrifying, there is no denying that. The stories are wide-ranging—some slice-of-life vignettes that offer a picture bigger than you would expect, others fully fleshed out with lively characters. Most of the 40 stories in A Case Of Indian Marvels: Dazzling Stories From The Country’s Finest New Writers, edited by author and publisher David Davidar, are pleasurable and effective—providing glimpses of the people, places and politics of contemporary India.

This is a solid list of new and contemporary writers who represent India’s literary riches and diverse points of view, both socially and in terms of literary style. In all, a great introduction to writers we don’t yet know, it is also a a reminder of those we do but don’t ordinarily consider contemporary stars. Up-and-coming talents such as Bhavika Govil, Lakshmikanth Ayyagiri, Riddhi Dastidar and Urooj, as well as new voices like Aravind Jayan, Neel Patel and Meera Ganapathi, rub shoulders with acclaimed writers like Meena Kandasamy, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, Srinath Perur, Tanuj Solanki and Prayaag Akbar. Their stories range from those that quietly observe our internal worlds, to ones that document sociopolitical experiences, as well as stories that imagine bittersweet, dystopian futures.

For example, Ayyagiri’s The Accounts Officer’s Wife, set a few decades ago, comments on sisterhood (or the lack thereof), arranged marriage, love, infidelity and its consequent freedom. Ganapathi’s story, Mrs. Nischol, exhibits with flair the internal and external life of a married woman. In the 19th century, when masters of the short story emerged, such stories were deemed “domestic fiction”, often a term used with derision. Over time, though, these stories have been understood for what they are—incisive, psychological takes on everyday life, as seen in both Ayyagiri’s and Ganapathi’s stories.

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Another standout example is the fable-like dystopian fiction by Kanishk Tharoor. Swimmer Among The Stars, first published in an eponymous story collection in 2016 by Aleph Book Company, picks up the academic process of language documentation and archiving and imbues it with a clinical emptiness. In a system that mostly spotlights best-sellers, stalwart authors and other headline-grabbers, Davidar’s packaging of these voices as “the country’s finest new writers” is smart messaging.

Among the earliest editors in the Indian commercial publishing landscape—he was one of the founding members of Penguin India in the late 1980s, publishing authors like Ruskin Bond, Arundhati Roy and Dom Moraes, before setting up Aleph 22 years ago—Davidar is also the author of three books, The House Of Blue Mangoes (2002), The Solitude Of Emperors (2007), and Ithaca (2011).

A Case Of Indian Marvels—Dazzling Stories From The Country’s Finest New Writers: Edited by David Davidar, Aleph Book Co., 408 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>999.
A Case Of Indian Marvels—Dazzling Stories From The Country’s Finest New Writers: Edited by David Davidar, Aleph Book Co., 408 pages, 999.

A Case Of Indian Marvels is his second effort as an anthologist. For someone with such reach and experience, though, it seems to fall short. There is only one previously unpublished story and the representation of languages other than English is low. Most of the stories are reprints from other anthologies, journals and magazines (one appeared in the pages of Lounge in 2018).

In effect, therefore, this anthology becomes a tribute to literary journals, such as the independent magazine Helter Skelter run by Arun Kale, adda by the Commonwealth Foundation, and the iconic Indian Quarterly, which doggedly find and nurture new literary talent even though they receive little to no support.

In an interview with Lounge, Davidar talks about the short story, its evolution, and the role of non-traditional publishing spaces in helping young writers get a break. Edited excerpts:

Why is it that the short story could emerge and flourish in the 19th century? And what is it about the current moment that is right for this anthology?

The main thing we should remember about the 19th century is that it was an incredibly exciting time for literature in general. There were so many writers of enormous talent springing up in every corner of the globe that the boundaries of literature were stretched as never before.

If you take the short story form alone, it was being transformed by geniuses like Anton Chekhov, Nikolai Gogol, Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, O. Henry, Guy de Maupassant and Machado de Assis, to limit myself to just a few of the greatest practitioners of the form in its formative period.

India certainly did not lack writers of that calibre, for Rabindranath Tagore and Premchand were prolific during this era. The short story flourished in the 19th century because as a cultural or literary form it was new and exciting, and its most renowned practitioners were in a league of their own.

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The challenge facing today’s writers in India is this: How do you make a genre that’s over a century old fresh and arresting so readers will embrace it? As the writers in A Case Of Marvels show, you can go about this in a variety of ways—you can press material unique to us, such as Indian mythology, folklore and historical events, into service to make your fiction distinctive and relevant, or you can write genre-bending stories in which literary devices common to genres like SFF (science fiction and fantasy), fables and satire are used to create literature that can’t be stuffed into this or that category.

I feel, too, rather counter-intuitively, that while creative writing and thinking are getting shallower and more facile in many ways because of the effects of social media, the short story actually provides an opportunity for talented writers to marry aspects of today’s writing on social media platforms (that’s geared towards instant gratification) with more classical ways of storytelling to create a new hybrid that’s fast-paced, clever, and yet does not sacrifice depth and insight.

You write rather passionately in your introduction that while age is no marker of achievement, being formally published is a litmus test to establish worth. At a time when young writers are on online platforms like Tumblr and Wattpad, do you think that will change?

Tumblr, Wattpad, Scribd and other similar writing and publishing platforms perform a very useful service but the problem as always with such platforms—this is true of social media platforms as well—is that the quality of the writing is patchy. Without filters, this is unsurprising. Also, there is so much stuff on these platforms that excavating scintillating writing from beneath the dreck will always be an arduous task.

It’s true that these platforms get would-be writers started on their craft. However, there is no substitute for having creative work assessed by trained, talented editors. Equally important is the editorial process, where the work of writers is edited and polished to be the best it can possibly be. I think there is no book that cannot be improved upon and I am no believer in books that fall perfectly formed from the heavens. So, yes, I think it’s important for writers to be edited and published by credible publishers, although these do not necessarily have to be traditional print publishers.

Non-fiction and self-help always do better commercially. Literary fiction is a slow-mover—is the short story form the one remaining hope for it?

Big, ambitious, category-breaking non-fiction books are the most exciting thing about the Indian writing and publishing scene these days. This was long overdue as our non-fiction earlier was limited to largely unreadable scholarly books bristling with footnotes aimed at the academic community, or superficial popular books. The situation in India not so long ago was in stark contrast to the US and UK, where monumental biographies, histories and books about science, sport, culture, the environment, current events and so on were being published. These not only possessed impeccable scholarship but were also lucid, accessible and immensely readable. That’s starting to happen here and I couldn’t be happier.

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If literary fiction isn’t working as well as it used to, that’s probably because, some exceptions notwithstanding, it’s not good enough to attract a substantial readership. I don’t think the short story can save the day for literary fiction as a whole. … I don’t think writers today have come up with entirely new forms of the short story, although, refreshingly, their concerns and plots are new.

There are only five translated works among the 40 stories...

The challenge when it comes to finding new and exciting talent in languages other than English is straightforward: Very few of us read in more than one language and so it’s very unlikely that we are going to be routinely spotting talented writers in India’s many languages.

Despite a renewed interest in translations on the part of publishers and readers, we have barely scratched the surface when it comes to translating the best writing from the past 100 years from the dozens of languages in which our literature was created…. Hopefully, in the future, more great work by young writers working in languages other than English will be translated and brought to the attention of readers.

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