Tamil publishing: What has changed?

When Tamil literary giant P Singaram wrote ‘Puyalile Oru Thoni’ in the late 1970s, the manuscript struggled to find a home. The book, first published in condensed form, as no publisher would touch it, is now acknowledged as a classic. But today, publishers — big, small, alternative or mainstream — are struggling to find contributors, marking a reversal in the trend of writers running pillar to post to get a publisher.

Jayamohan, whose novels such as Kanyakumari and Vishnupuram were published to high praise, said, “There are just too many publishers. There are 2,000 publishers in Tamil publishing 15,000 books a year. So writers, who cannot work full-time as monetary rewards are little, are not able to produce enough.” In the mid-nineties, Tamil literature saw a proliferation of publishers, who used the newly available printing technology and computers to bring out books much more easily than during the days of cold type.

But simultaneously, writers who can translate from other languages and those creating works of art of their own have dwindled. Most disappointingly, writers like Jayakanthan or even Sujatha don’t seem to have a heir-apparent in Tamil. “Lack of time among people working mostly in the private sector for 12-13 hours a day is another reason why there aren’t enough authors. In the 1970s, life was slow and writers had enough spare time,” he said.

S Ramakrishnan, whose novely are widely read, is also an authority on world cinema. Over the last few years, Ramakrishnan had added screenplay writing to a host of other talents. Asked if literature was losing writers to cinema, Ramakrishnan pointed out he continued to write novels. Over a dozen books of Ramakrishnan have hit the stalls during the ongoing book fair.

Even Jayamohan, who has written the screenplay for the upcoming ‘Naan Kadavul’, is active on his website. Unlike in the west, serious writers in Tamil can’t make a living by spinning stories. Even their fair share of loyalty is usurped by publishers. Comparing Malayalam and Tamil literature, Jayamohan said writers in Kerala were paid 25-30% of sales as royalty, but in Tamil Nadu they had to be content with a meagre 10%. The most brilliant minds among the young had been lost to new sectors like information technology. “In Tamil, with the sole exception of Ira Murugan, no one from the IT sector has tried their hand at writing,” Jayamohan said.

Also, there is no active political movement among the young in Tamil Nadu. Quality literature is a byproduct of a state where political ideas are fresh and excitement high, he said. “Only the dalit movement is still active. So dalit writers like Bhama and Imayam are able to produce quality stuff. Other kinds of literature are dead,” he said.

He pointed to the example of Vidiyal, a publishing house which recently began paying translators full time. Publishers will increasingly find that they have to pay writers better for them to produce quality work, Jayamohan said, when asked to suggest a solution.

(This appeared in The Times of India)

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