Art & Culture

Why I gave Chetan Bhagat the 'nastiest review'

Abhishek Sikhwal
Abhishek SikhwalOct 21, 2016 | 11:57

Why I gave Chetan Bhagat the 'nastiest review'

Dear Chetan Bhagat,

Recently, I picked up a copy of Open magazine at the airport and read - in Nandini Nair’s rather well-balanced piece - that you were upset with my review of your book. Apparently, you thought it “mean-spirited, petty and personal” and took some offence at me calling it a "dildo of a book".

Nandini had a percipient point on this when she said “a true feminist would actually take ‘dildo of a book’ as a compliment, as that little gadget is the promise of consummate satisfaction and a vanguard of female agency”. However, in making that statement I only meant that your book was a poor, synthetic substitute for the real thing (and I say this after giving it a fair reading).


I’m confused. The Chetan Bhagat on social media is one that comes across as having a sense of humour. He is the kind of joker who says: “What do historians do? I am genuinely curious. This happened. Then this happened. Then this. Ok work done for the day”. Ha-ha-ha! That was definitely not mean-spirited!

When Pakistan lost a match to India you said: “If your forefathers hadn’t insisted on Partition, you wouldn’t have to see this day”. Ha-ha-ha! That was totally not petty!

When the situation at JNU was tense earlier this year you joked: “The best part of JNU is Ganga Dhabha. The rest is not to be taken seriously” and “every dog that barks need not be arrested”. Oh, my sides. I’m sure your friends at IIM laughed when you told them you’ll be a comedian one day. You sure showed them because no one is laughing now. 

When you are not playing the joker, you play the political pundit and term deaths in Kashmir as “collateral damage”, the return of national awards by writers taking a stand as “in fashion” and see the systematic bombing of Gaza as “the only way sometimes terrorist organisations and their supporters learn to behave".


Some of the people living in the purgatory of these volatile regions may see your remarks as personal and insensitive but these people should take a chill pill right?

It appears that you can certainly dish it out but can’t take it.

In the article, your insecurities arising from not being accepted by "literary brahmins"/snobs/elitists is palpable. According to you: “I am bestselling. I have not claimed to be the best. The numbers are there - that answers everything.”

By your own admission you place quantity over quality. The only other parallel to this blatant preference for quantity is the food at McDonald’s because, just like your books, it is processed material that people consume in a hurry. You are, literally, the Maharaja Mac of literature.

You say of more serious writers – who don’t sell as much – that: “If they feel they are writing something superior, like a Rolls-Royce, and that is why it is not selling, good. If it makes them feel better, good for them. But chances are, if they are not selling, they are not connecting to people.”

Allow me to share an insight that could perhaps unravel for you the mystery of why you sell so many books. In his book Formal Theories of Mass Behaviour, William McPhee observed that "a disproportionate share of the audience for a hit was made up of people who consumed few products of that type. A lot of the people who read a bestselling novel, for example, do not read much other fiction. By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot. That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better."

Do you know that Catcher in the Rye has sold more than 65 million copies till date?  

Some say you should be acknowledged for getting more young people to read but I disagree. Over the years I have noticed that the people who read your books aren’t really adventurous in their reading. Apart from your books, their limited library almost always has copies of The Alchemist, Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, The Da Vinci Code and Eat, Pray, Love.

It’s a generic collection that I have labelled "Now That’s What I Call Reading!" By keeping your writing formulaic and targeting a specific audience (those who want to read but not read), you are keeping your readers in arrested development.

You have to understand that purists dislike your work because they don’t want to see literature being turned into a commodity. There are writers who sell millions of books but who don’t demean themselves by delivering their books to celebrities as a PR exercise. You are making a dhokla of your dignity.

Do you know that Catcher in the Rye has sold more than 65 million copies till date? Unlike you, JD Salinger didn’t become a tit in the bargain and continued to write in isolation. Mario Puzo’s Godfather sold 30 million copies and not once did he have to "troll" people on Twitter like some kind of imbecile. Their success proved that substance and sales are not mutually exclusive.

There is no conspiracy against you. There is no club of literary fundamentalists out to malign your name. I find it strange that even while promoting your book on feminism, you somehow ended up making statements such as, “It is not a movement owned by experts. It needs to be more democratic. It has become too elite and non-inclusive. Today a few people wear the tag of a ‘feminist’ to sound cool at parties” and “These are elitist bullies, these feminists. They bully men. They bully women. And they say, ‘until you are with us 100 per cent, don’t talk about feminism’. That is not caring for a cause.”

Stop thinking that everyone who disagrees with you is part of an elite group because it makes you look silly.

Something else that I found interesting is when you said “the KRA-isation of everything” forces websites to publish just about anything to garner a few more clicks. Again, I’m a bit confused. Is this is the same person who, as an editorial assistant at a major publisher recalled in a thinly veiled Open article, submitted his first manuscript complete with “a marketing strategy that would ensure the book became an instant bestseller: low pricing and buy-backs, tie-ups with the said academic institution and its alumni (all of whom, the author felt, would immediately want copies of his book)”. 

Hypocrisy is the refuge of the poltroon, Mr Bhagat. You cannot publish anything you want under the guise of reaching out to the masses and accuse all criticism of having an ulterior motive. Of your The Times of India column you say “it is not an expert piece. It is an opinion piece. I am not giving my opinion on marine dolphins. I am giving an opinion on something that affects my country. I write to create change.”

It’s strange how you don’t extend the same understanding to those who question your ways. What of their opinions? Do you think The Times of India has given you a column because of your Chomskyan insights into the modern world? Or is it more likely that the newspaper, whose MD has admitted to be in the business of advertising and not of selling news, has roped you in because your tutti-frutti opinions are just about what the average TOI reader can handle between the cleavage shots of upcoming actresses and Instagram models?

You are undoubtedly an intelligent man because you have managed to carve a niche for yourself in the publishing industry. But you should also realise that the publishing industry and literature are separate entities; one is a business and the other an art form.  

Your intelligence has fared well for you so far but you’d do well to remember this bit of advice from Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel: “Every true novelist listens to that suprapersonal wisdom, which explains why great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors. Novelists who are more intelligent than their books should go into another line of work.”

Last updated: October 22, 2016 | 11:34
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