Some years ago I decided that I wasn’t going to torture myself with more than one literary festival a year. And I would try, if possible, to avoid going to the same literary festival. The reason being that as a writer, there is very little one gets out of being present at these literary jamborees. Apart from the wining, dining, networking and air-kissing, that is.
As a writer, meeting other writers don’t cause that adrenalin surge unless it is a writer one has always admired. Airing my views or non-views on a panel isn’t a great draw either. I am a rather dismal panelist. I tend to clam up or I am so engrossed in what the other panelists have to say that I forget that I am expected to contribute to the discussion. What is exciting for me though at these lit-fests is the thought of actually meeting readers. However reader interactions in a foreign country don’t have the same effect as when speaking to a reader in one’s own home territory. And so it really seemed too much of an effort to go a long way just to drink bad wine, eat cold limp vol u vents and air kiss people I would rather avoid.
But now Bangalore has its very own literary festival and even my phlegmatic soul knew a frisson of excitement at the prospect of being part of it. For one this is a lit festival in one’s own city. And secondly, for the first time here is an opportunity to meet the bulwark of any writer’s writing career – the reader who actually reads you and knows your work well enough. The greatest draw about readers is they read unconditionally. They are not looking for flaws or pit falls on how to trash a book. Instead they read because they are interested and are reading for themselves.
As most writers know firsthand, reviewers are a different kettle of fish. Not all but some reviewers seem to colour reviews with their personal prejudices, agendas and laziness. In contrast, readers actually make an effort to read the book for what it is rather than what it should have been.
In my fifteen years as a published author, I have seen what readers offer a writer and have always been gratified. Even if the comments are not high praise and may veer towards criticism, they tend to validate it with reasons that are usually sound.
Sometimes readers bring in more than writer have invested in their writing. In the last ten years that Ladies Coupe has been around, I have often heard it referred to as Ladies Coup by various readers in various places. Did the ladies in the coupe in a train actually stage a coup? Perhaps that is the residual feeling left behind in the reader’s mind about the novel.
Very often, I have felt either overwhelmed or humbled by the thought a reader puts into the reading of a book. At an event for Mistress in Kerala, I walked into the venue with great trepidation wondering how it was going to go. One of the readers there was a Kathakali performer. One of the few woman kathakali artists and she talked about how she began reading the book with skepticism. “What is Anita Nair going to tell me about Kathakali that I don’t know?’ She said.
My intestines descended into my knees.
Then she talked about how the book had her look differently about an art form that was her life. Of how she identified with the character Koman and how humbled she felt at the end of the book.…
As a writer, I couldn’t have asked for more. No starred review or being part of a notable books list would compare to this feeling of knowing that a book had worked in its fullest sense for a reader. Especially such an informed reader.
Or, take Cut Like Wound, my most recent novel. It is not readers who are questioning me about taking a detour away from literary fiction or pondering about the title. But a reviewer who supposedly has read the book and could find the explanation to the title strewn across the book, will ponder at great length on the absence of a hyphen or its meaning. Meanwhile a reader will ask around or show the intelligence to google and figure out that Cut Like Wound with or without the hyphen is a lacerated wound; a term medico-legal officers use in their preliminary reports of a patient admitted into hospital.
The essential difference is readers who are neither grammar Nazis nor pedants make the effort. Reviewers don’t.
Anita Nair is the best-selling author of The Better Man, Ladies Coupe, Mistress and Lessons in Forgetting. Her books have been translated into over 30 languages around the world. Her new novel Cut Like Wound has just been published.