ANTHOLOGIES In Indian Fiction: Boon or Bane?
‘Too much of a good thing is a bad thing’ is an oft quoted term in various spheres of life. As far as the literary circle is concerned, nothing fits more aptly for the segment of anthologies in India. From being a nice, refreshing concept initially, the business of anthologies has turned mundane, boring – failing to garner much interest from the readers nowadays.
Writing a short story is an art. Make no mistake. To convey a full fledged tale engrossingly in a few pages displays a writer’s talent and ease with which they can write on a plethora of themes. The concepts that are still being churned out are innovative as well. But the sad part is that the objective, instead of being reader satisfaction and being sales driven, has turned into an easy money recovering affair for the publishers.
Stress on the importance of the words money recovering instead of money making. And why is that? That is because anthologies in India do not sell or at least a majority of them certainly do not!
One may argue that with interesting concepts, varied writing styles, and several stories neatly packaged into one book, why is it so that the anthologies are finding no takers? The reason for this is that the contemporary Indian fiction reader has always preferred reading stand alone books with a clear cut storyline than books with imaginative concepts but no single coherent story.
This is true not only of books but also of films where movies with an anthology of short stories such as Darna Mana Hai, Darna Zaroori Hai and Dus Kahaaniyaan have failed to click despite having presented some interesting tales. Singular stories with short episodes connecting a larger one, too, like What’s Your Rashee or 7 Khoon Maaf (based on Ruskin Bond’s Suzanna’s Seven Husbands) have also been panned.
Another problem plaguing the anthologies in India is the dearth of writers. While one does see one or two fresh writers in every anthology, most of the authors in it are the ones who have several anthologies to their credit. And while it does seem to be an ego boost or a shot in the arm of our talented writers, their presence in several books does not auger well as far as the sales are concerned.
And the first category of professionals to realise this are the ones who are the most affected by this phenomena – The Publishers!
With so many publishers emerging in the market and almost every person with the tiniest bit of interest in literature turning into a writer, the customers for every writer’s first book remain the same – Friends & Relatives.
And while authors of individual work do not face too much of an issue since there is an adequate time period elapsing between one work of theirs and the other, the issue becomes more profound in the case of anthologies. A friend or relative may oblige once or twice by purchasing a copy but if the same author keeps on advertising or messaging the same roup of people after every few months to buy a new book of theirs, then the numbers are bound to dwindle.
Which is precisely why I used the term Money Recovering; because a publisher in the absence of any external sales would only recover the cost of production by asking the selected authors to pay a certain fee in order to help a writer see their story in print. This, mind you, is not akin to the notion – paying to get published – since only the authors of the selected entries are asked to pay, and not everyone who has submitted but then, the ones who miss out will sometimes resort to saying that they rejected the anthology instead of the other way round, to save face, rake up a controversy or take up a higher moral ground.
When the concept began, it certainly was a wonderful beginning with some stellar books like Bad Moon Rising, The Killer App, Faction or Labyrinth. These were mostly books that had compilations of existing stories or handpicked authors, who were commissioned to write for the particular book and slightly different from the contemporary anthologies. Book compilations edited by Ruskin Bond were a huge favourite during my formative years and in all likeliness, would still be going steady courtesy the legendary editor. In fact, Subhadra Sen Gupta’s compilation of short stories, The Sword of Dara Shikoh is still one of my all time favourite book, if not my all time favourite. Waiting for Tansen by the same author is another decent read. But nowadays, publishers are not keen on publishing a collection of short stories even by an individual author unless of course some buyback or moolah is involved, or if the author has a great fan following.
In the present day and age, interesting and successful concepts like Urban Lights, Rudraksha, Blank Space and Myriad Tales have managed to do good business but there are always exceptions to the rule. And solely because of these exceptions, the general rule doesn’t change.
The fact remains that the author of an individual book will always get precedence over a writer of anthologies, irrespective of the fact that the former may have written just a single book, and the latter been a part of more than ten books. In this scenario, it is better that authors try writing stand alone books or a compilation of their own short stories since they are likely to sell comparatively more than the sales they would be able to garner on their own in an anthology, where the prospective customer is unaware about the story written by their acquaintance or feels dissatisfied on having to purchase an entire book just to primarily read a single story.
But then, anthologies are like fast food for an author. Write a short story, see it get published and voila – you are a published author. To reiterate, ‘Too much of a good thing is a bad thing’ is an oft quoted term in various spheres of life.
A writer of anthologies must know when to draw the line and move to greener pastures that not only benefits the writer but also the publisher in the longer run since they will have a new set of writers and subsequently, a new set of readers for their books, and the cycle commences all over again!