IS popularity of an author any benchmark to go by when deciding on the literary greatness?

Dr Amjad Tufail, while discussing Pakistani Urdu literature at a seminar held in Islamabad the other day, said popularity was not a true yardstick of a writer’s greatness.

Comparing Razia Butt, an immensely popular writer of romantic Urdu novels back in the 1960s and 1970s, with Qurratul Ain Hyder, one of the best writers of literary fiction, Dr Amjad said reading Butt’s works was all the rage back then but Hyder’s works did not sell as well as did Butt’s. Today, he added, Razia Butt is seldom read but Qurratul Ain Hyder is so popular. He was of the view that popularity is a passing fad and a writer very popular today may be consigned to oblivion a couple of decades down the road, but a truly great writer would always be appreciated and his or her popularity might not be a real measure to gauge literary finesse.

The fact is with popularity of writers comes soaring sale of their books, which in turn increases popularity of the writers and the cycle repeats itself. One feels that perhaps the halo around a writer or poet as well as popularity among commoners also plays a role when it comes to best sellers. So masses may love a writer dearly though he or she may or may not be so great. Great works, however, always remain in demand: about one billion copies of Shakespeare’s works, it is estimated, have so far been sold around the world. But then, Barbara Cartland, a prolific writer of novels whose works are sometimes dubbed as ‘pure romance with happy ending’, was one of the best-selling authors in 20th century, with about 500 million copies of her novels sold. The question is: was she half as great as Shakespeare? Well, maybe not. But still, numbers count.

Though Urdu books do not sell in that great numbers, some of them have been selling quite well. Let us have a quick look at some Urdu bestsellers:

Religious segment comes first. Books on religion sell like anything. Surveys of reading habits in Pakistan conducted (and published by National Book Council of Pakistan) a few decades ago confirmed that books on religion sold quite well and they still do (we badly need some fresh surveys and this can be assigned to students of library science). It includes some Urdu commentaries on Quran and books on the life and sayings of Prophet Muhammad PBUH.

Then there is fiction. This, too, was somewhat affected by the religious feelings and semi-religious/historical fiction by Naseem Hijazi who was so popular that each of his novels were reprinted many times over, though considered didactic and of little literary value by some critics.

Another immensely popular novel is Khuda Ki Basti by Shaukat Siddiqi. Set in Karachi of 1950s, the novel, with a marked leftist leaning, was a smashing success and was reprinted at least 50 times (legally, as the publisher was accused of having secretly printed it many more times). It was later on translated into several languages.

When it comes to detective Urdu fiction, Ibn-e-Safi was simply unmatched. Though copied by many with similar-sounding pennames, the copycats failed to achieve the high standard set by Urdu’s most successful detective novelist ever. The release of Ibn-e-Safi’s new novel used to be quite an event and booksellers would gather at Saddar’s Regal Chowk where the copies of his new novel, fresh from press, would be brought. Ibn-e-Safi’s novels were not only reprinted in India, legally or illegally, they were also translated into Hindi and Gujarati. Recently, almost all of Ibn-e-Safi’s novels have been reprinted.

Living on writing in a society that has an embarrassingly low literacy rate might be a wild dream. But Mustansar Husain Tarar turned that dream into a reality. He has mentioned in his interviews that he did not have any 9-to-5 job (nor does he have any now), but lived on writing. This shows how popular he is.

As for Urdu poetry, Ghalib and Iqbal are evergreen, but Faiz, Faraz, Parveen Shakir and some other poets, too, are very popular and their books sell. While Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi is the most popular humorist, a couple of decades ago Shafeeq-ur-Rahman, Ibn-e-Insha and Colonel Muhammad Khan were among the best selling humorists. Many of their books are still in print.

Nobody really knows how many editions Shahab Nama has gone through, except the publisher, but it must not be less than 60, notwithstanding the fact that this thick autobiography by Qudratullah Shahab, a civil servant and fiction writer, is packed with fictional elements.

What one must not forget is that an immensely popular book may or may not be a great literary creation.

Published in Dawn, October 19th, 2021



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