Writing that first appeared on websites of Tamil writers, in particular of a trio of ‘superstars’, is storming the world of alternative Tamil publishing as the 33th Chennai Book Fair gets underway in the city on Wednesday. As a result, two different media — the internet and print — seen in popular perception as being vastly different, are depending on each other in a singular fashion in Tamil media. Also contrasting styles adopted by different publishers over what to publish and what to trash has triggered a debate over the quality of the books published off the net.
Alternative publishing houses such as Uyirmai have triggered a never-before-seen publishing boom of content that first appeared in cyberspace, a move that is attracting both widespread attention and criticism from writers.
Writer Charu Nivedita who runs his own website seems to be enjoying his www avatar. “If a political incident happens in the morning, I am able to broadcast my response by afternoon to my readers across the world. I don’t have to depend on any magazine,” he said. Nearly 20 books of Charu Nivedita’s are in print — 10 of them hit the market just days before this book fair— carrying content that first appeared on the net. “My internet columns are print ready. I write them with a consciousness that they later appear in print,” he said.
Two more writers are being singled out in this debate because, well, they are literary superstars — they simply cannot be avoided in a story of this kind. They are Jeyamohan, screenwriter and author, and S Ramakrishnan, a popular screenwriter and prolific writer. Both run websites too. Uriyamai is bringing out 10 of Jeyamohan’s books for the fair and Tamizhini is publishing another three. Four of Ramakrishan’s books are being added ahead of the book fair to his voluminous body of work.
Says Jeyamohan, “Tamil readers are there across the globe. They are present even in Finland. Also, there is an acute lack of serious magazines in Tamil. Apart from Kalachuvadu and Uyirmai, there is only Theeranadhi. So this phenomenon of serializing books on the net is there only in Tamil literature. The writer also benefits immensely from the interactive nature of the internet. Many mistakes in my book on Gandhi were pointed out online,” he said.
But Ramakrishnan has a very different, some would say sensible, approach. He looks at his website as an extension of himself. “The things that I introduced through my website are more than the original content that I wrote. My website is a window into my room which when I open it makes my travels and interests such as movies and books visible to the reader. The reader gets to know what movie I have seen or what book I have read. I just want a handshake with the reader,” he said.
While some may claim that Uyirmai and Kalachuvadu—publishing 90 and 50 books respectively—is a bonanza for readers, a few are questioning, sometimes harshly, the need for the publishing world to expand rapidly without paying any attention to quality.
“The market for serious books is very limited. From about 2,000 to 3,000 earlier, it has recently increased to about 7,000 readers. Even assuming that 10,000 readers buy serious literature, such a huge proliferation of books will present the reader with too much choice. I myself find it exhausting to sift through hundreds of books in just 10 days and choose good with my limited budget of Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500. The publishers have gone beyond a point of saturation,” said D I Aravindan, who is on the editorial board of Kalachuvadu. He is of the opinion that writers and publishers should consider more carefully before publishing books that recently arrived technology has enabled them to do.
“A fair judgement on the success of such publishing can be given only once a book fair ends. But I am sure that serious readership would not multiply so rapidly,” Aravindan said.
He also expressed concern over the growing divide between serious literature and popular literature in Tamil. “Apart from works like Thirukkural and poems of Bharathi, which are matter of Tamil pride and are there in nearly every household, a few writers such Sujatha sell in lakhs. People interested in serious literature that speaks to life and has depth of content are not even 10% of this number,” he said, while pointing out that in neighbouring Kerala the chasm was not this wide.
Poet Manusiya Puthiran disputes the contention that serious readership in Tamil is limited to a few. “There is a recent burst of readership on the internet that has happened over the last five years. So the number that there are only 10,000 readers of serious literature in Tamil is wrong,” he said. He also sounded as if he had more faith in the readers that his arch rival, Kalachuvadu.
He also backed Charu Nivedita’s argument that the “net books” were as thoughtful and deep as the more conventional works of art. “This book fair we are introducing 25 new writers. The superstars are writing 30 books. I am using the income from those books to publish the new writers,” he said. “Writers such as Maya and Indrajit, who is from Singapore, wrote the first columns for Uyirmai. Through its weekly online magazine, the print version and the publishing house, Uyirmai has over the years introduced 50 writers of undoubted quality.
(A version of this appeared in The Times of India)