Squeezing It All Into One Line: The Jaipur Literary Festival 2012

It is extremely tempting to try and summarize the wildly intense, brain-and-sensory overload that was the JLF 2012 in a series of one-liners, not least because there were quite a few memorable ones..

They ran from the imperative-
dance naked! do it now!‘ (Hoshang Merchant, Indian writer of Gay fiction)

to the critical-
[Obama’s] Nobel Prize was a prize for not being George Bush‘ (David Remnick, Editor of The New Yorker)

to the philosophical-
Sikhism is not something of the hereafter, it is about living the right way in this world. A kind of detachment in attachment.‘ (Navtej Sarna, writer and diplomat)

to the historical-
Hitler and Stalin did not inherit absolute power the way that Peter the Great did, they rose to it – it’s not lunacy or moral imbecility, it’s great people skills.‘ (historian Simon Sebag Montefiore)

to the metaphorical-
turn your body into ink and your mind into paper, then turn your bones into a pen‘ (The Vision of the Gurus session)

to the scatological-
Purgatives are like purgatory, they almost make you believe‘ (Indian writer R. Raj Rao)

to meditations on journalism and power-
the job of journalism is to put pressure on power‘ (David Remnick, Editor of The New Yorker)

on journalism and literature-
there is only so far journalism can go, and then literature takes over‘ (Jason Burke, journalist and writer)

or just on journalism-
Somebody won’t often be able to give you a soundbite about their lives immediately. But if you shut up and follow them and spend the time, that truth will emerge.‘ (Katherine Boo, journalist and writer)

and then on how the internet is affecting the aesthetics of literature-
the internet is our greatest living novel…it’s the playground of millions‘ (Argentinian writer Pola Oloixarac)

on modern identity politics-
you’re not purely anything anymore‘ (novelist Teju Cole)

and on how to write that play or novel you have inside you-
Get rid of the delusion that you’ll somehow do it by not doing it. Taking a walk or sitting by the pool isn’t going to magic a play into existence.‘ (Tom Stoppard, playwright)

and finally, perhaps a snippet or two of Bakhti poetry

God, My Darling,
Do me a favour
And kill my mother-in-law

and

Void is not devoid of God

But of course, as the long list of quotes shows, not only have I failed to catch the festival in one line, I have failed to catch it in a few. And that really was what pushed this festival over the edge of being an experience you can process, postmortem, regurgitate and file away neatly, to being an experience that leaves an indelible mark and changes the scale of the way of you think.

It seems inevitable that the JLF will continue to grow, and I often heard it bandied about during the festival that next year, the organizers would have to shift to a larger venue, so I feel privileged to have been able to attend the festival while it was still (just about) Diggi-Palace-size. But I’m certain that however it grows, and whatever corporate sponsors and celebrity guests it succeeds in attracting, the next Jaipur Literature Festivals will still be about a ‘curiosity about the internal life of words, and about the creative imaginations that give birth to them.’ (Namita Gokhale, novelist and festival organizer)

What’s more, and even better, the JLF, with its huge and uniformly enthusiastic number of attendees, its international participants and its cosmopolitan atmosphere, did and does ‘testify in an uncomplicated way to the power of literature and what it can do.’ (Teju Cole, novelist)

Above and below the hobnobbing and professional networking, and certainly beyond the persistent political controversy, the festival seems ultimately to be about interested, engaged and switched-on people coming together, ready to encounter the other through the written and the spoken word.

(For videos of the sessions, pictures and more info, go to http://jaipurliteraturefestival.org/)

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Who Is King?

This week saw the fifth in a series of meetings at work with a marketing guru/consultant. It’s been quite an education. Mostly because I had to learn marketing jargon and all those endless catchphrase buzzwords in Hebrew instead of English. He has been attempting to help us become a more ‘effective’ book publishing ‘team’, giving us ‘tools’ to improve the ‘statistical outputs’ of our discussions on what to translate or what not to.

But the most interesting thing he said he left till the last few minutes of the last meeting. He rightly pointed out that what causes people to listen to a particular radio station is not necessarily a specific song or artist, rather the radio DJ. It is the promise of the DJ or the station’s taste and judgement that prompts people to listen to this or that station.

Similarly, he argues, when people walk into a bookshop they should be able to choose a book based on its publishing house, or the fact that it is the favorite book of one of their favorite authors, or because it belongs to a particular series based on a genre or literary style that they enjoy. He proposed making a brand out of a publishing house, so that people will buy a book based on its derivation from a particular publisher irrespective of its content. The bookbuyer trusts the judgement of the publishing house.

This was met with widespread skepticism. “Nobody pays attention to the publisher” they cried, or “we don’t have a particular genre interest, our lists are too varied to be effectively branded into one ‘identity'”. As I’m sure some of you are already working out, there are clear, if not easy solutions to follow in order to solve these problems.

But why is what he said so clever? Because as our dear guru explained, banking on a book or an author to sell itself (even with all the help of marketing), is essentially a passive action. You didn’t write the book, and you’re not the author, therefore you are trapped in the role of being a mediator of content instead of a creator of it.

The minute you accept that you have something more to give as a major publishing house, that the combined intellectual property of the minds at your disposal constitutes a creative force in and of itself (instead of just an editorial one), is the moment you take back control of the market.

Simply put – we were being called upon to add value.

Now, value can manifest as various different things, and this brings me to my title. In a world increasingly flooded not just with writers who are getting publishing deals, but with authors who are self-publishing, and where anyone with a computer and the internet can become a content-creator all by themselves, what kind of value will be truly appreciated?

In the flood, the man in the ark is king. The person who can help other people navigate a tumultuous and chaotic sea is the one who holds a power of real value.

A lot of people say that these days, content is king. I would hazard that, going forward, infrastructure will be king. The ability to generate lists of recommendation, to associate books to larger narratives (the 10 books that inspired bestselling writer ‘X’, for example), to make a publishing house into a brand with a specific identity that people recognize and trust (as with Virago), in short, to draw lines of delineation and definition in the endless sand of digital content – the person or the company with that skill, will be king.