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Where are the readers?

August 06, 2012

“You hear all this whining going on, ‘Where are our great writers?’ The thing I might feel doleful about is: ‘Where are the readers?’” — the late great Gore Vidal in an interview with Esquire magazine.

This summer, in addition to ferreting out new titles for the upcoming season (as a bookseller is wont to do), I conducted a cursory survey of sales of Pakistani fiction in the local market.

The presumption was that since the publication of A Case of Exploding Mangoes, a slew of critically acclaimed Pakistani novels had spurred book sales and together registered a steady growth within the market. It’s a fairly simple proposition to look into, since almost the entirety of Pakistani fiction writing in English is published by major publishing houses in India and imported across.

After tabulating the numbers I was humbled to find that though sales were sturdy, there was no perceptible shift upwards. While the benchmark for a bestseller has shifted in India during the last five years from 5,000-10,000 to 15,000-25,000 copies, we’re still floundering at about 6,000.

Now I realise the foolishness of comparing markets in two starkly contrasting economies (one having an oft-cited ‘exploding English-speaking middle class’), but that should not stand in as an excuse for our own market’s stagnation.

India’s most recent literary renaissance is commonly thought to have come on the heels of Midnight's Children (1980), with the likes of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (1993) and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997) sending the market into hyperdrive. In 1985, Penguin, emboldened by Rushdie’s success, took the unprecedented step of setting up an office in India that celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

We’ve similarly received such favourable attention in the wake of our own so-called literary renaissance, when John Makinson, the CEO of the Penguin Group, personally met with writers, editors, publishers and booksellers in Lahore with a view to perhaps setting up office. Within weeks of his visit Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated, bringing all probable plans to an abrupt end.

It can easily be argued that the security challenges and economic slowdown do not augur well for book sales, and leave it at that. But I fear we will ultimately arrest our own literary development if we let things be.

Considering our skewed national priorities, it is nothing short of providence that we boast a crop of world-class authors who represent us in the landscape of international literature. It should never be taken for granted that these authors wrote and found publishers abroad, and there is little to suggest that this is a viable trend rather than a happy coincidence.

In recognition of this, many of our established writers have begun to contribute beyond their works of fiction by judging home-grown short story competitions, holding workshops for aspiring authors or participating in writers’ circles.

All our literary rock stars, weary of putting the cart before the horse, have repeated the mantra ‘read, read and read’, though I get the impression that their words have fallen on the deaf ears of their starry-eyed onlookers. It’s common to come across puzzled young writers who bristle when you point out their scribblings are uninformed by literature.

So what makes us believe that we can get by without reading? If I were to hazard a guess, I would say it’s the wholesale debasing of the intellect. It struck me first when a college graduate attributed the intellect to ‘intellectuals’, as if to imply that only a small class of people should be called upon to read and think. The rest, if I were to extrapolate, remain to work, build businesses, design lawn and raise kids.

By contrast, our national preoccupation with news and politics continues unabated, with a 2010 Unesco survey revealing Pakistan to have the 10th highest circulation of newspapers in the world. I remember the horror I felt upon asking an ‘educationalist’ if she read, only to be told, “Yes, newspapers.”

The rise of ‘stupid’ may be a global phenomena when you consider how the blog post has replaced the 500-year-old essay form, but as with the economy and the security situation we have no choice but to counter these challenges for a better future.

Our nation desperately needs to be weaned off its appetite for information delivered by a new generation of hysterical illiterates, and put on a diet of knowledge. It simply takes a redressing of priorities and the realisation that we will make better statespersons, professionals, teachers, journalists and entrepreneurs if we are steeped in learning. Consider how liberating it would be to inform our decisions with knowledge, rather than stumbling through life using someone else’s ill-conceived convictions without a thought in our own heads. As citizens we would be less likely to be led down the garden path by politicians and commentators and more able to develop and articulate our needs.

It is imperative that every parent realises this duty and makes reading a priority for their children. The simple act of reading to a child gives rise to the first flushes of a love for literature, and must continue up to and beyond the point when a child learns to read. It should become instinctive for parents, on their first visit to a school, to demand to see a well-stocked library and ensure that it remains so.

This is not a unique sentiment and is probably best conveyed by the woefully underfunded National Book Foundation’s pledge on National Book Day:

“On the auspicious occasion of National Book Day, I promise with sincerity that in the future I will spend some part of my free time reading books. I will dedicate some part of my savings to buying books. On any occasion or moment of happiness, I will give preference to giving or receiving books as gifts. I will always celebrate the happiness of books and will consider books to be valuable items.” Ameen.

The writer is owner of The Last Word bookshop, co-founder of The Life’s Too Short Short Story Prize and a judge of the 2012 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.