Art & Culture

When people ask me what I think of Chetan Bhagat

Tabish Khair
Tabish KhairMar 17, 2016 | 10:00

When people ask me what I think of Chetan Bhagat

Because I am the kind of writer that I am supposed to be - the kind praised and damned with the epithet "literary" - it often happens that I am asked to comment on the novels of Chetan Bhagat.

Sometimes the epithet "pulp" is handed over to me - or maybe it is a whip with which I am supposed to lash out at Bhagat and similar writers who usually sell at least 50-times more than literary writers like me do.


I always hand back the whip of "pulp" to my questioner, unused, for I am certain that just as I did not set out to write "literary" novels, Bhagat did not set out to write "pulp". Both of us probably just write the novels we want to write.

But, says my interlocutor, trying to hand his custom-made whip back to me: but, sir, Bhagat sells in the millions. Millions, sir, millions! (My interlocutor is always polite, does not mention that I only sell in the thousands.)

Surely, adds my interlocutor, that makes Bhagat a writer of pulp, eh? Does it? Really? Most novels that are termed "pulp" do not sell more than a few hundred copies. In this, they are like films we call "masala": there are a hundred commercial flops behind every commercial success at the box office.

And then there is the occasional "literary" author who does sell a million copies, though often only because he has had a fatwa issued against him or has managed to hurt the fragile feelings of some bullish "community".


So, does it mean that a trashy, predictable romance which sells only 500 copies is not pulp but "literary", and an intricate, intelligent novel, which sells 5,00,000 copies is, ipso facto, pulp? Obviously, the number of copies sold is no reason to call a novel "pulp" or "literary".

I will go even further and point out that, for me, a lot of literary novels are basically "pulp", and at least some pulp is clearly "literary". There is a tendency among some highly educated writers to pen the "literary" novel: this is a novel that is totally fixed, predictable and unchanging in its assumptions about the world and the art of writing. For me, such "literary" novels are pulp, no matter how chock-full they are with arty phrases and refined sentiments.

As far as I can see it, the only definition of pulp that works is this one: a pulp novel does not challenge or broach the dominant limits of its genre. By this token, about 75 per cent of all "literary" novels are pulp. By the same token, a "pulp" novel that does something unusual - or refreshing - can be considered a literary novel. That is why Philip K Dick has written literary novels in the "pulp" genre of science fiction, and the list of great detective novels definitely transcends the popularity of crime thrillers as pulp.


(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Last updated: March 17, 2016 | 10:03
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