There seems to be a disconnect with what’s being printed and what the readers want to read
When I think about the stories of representation readers would want, I think of Shandana Minhas’s Rafina. It is a tale of a girl from a modest background, who works at a salon and slowly rises up to fame in a world of modelling and parties. Shandana makes use of very simple language to tell the story, but all the while manages to draw a picture of her protagonist’s aspirations, her lack of resources and her out of depth character. However, Goodreads, a well-known platform for reviewing books, rates it at 2.8/5.
Pakistani writers fall prey to stereotypical characters in their stories: the journalist; the Partition; terror attacks; jihadists and the like. A few months ago, a bingo post made rounds on social media inviting people to mock writers who have used any of the stated words/ themes in their writings. One could laugh it off thinking it is kind of true that writers belonging to a certain class may have a similar lens with which they view the world. The publisher in me partly agreed. But the writer was thoroughly agitated.
Do you know how unlikely is it for a writer to get published in this country only to be ridiculed by readers? What support system do we have here? As a publisher, I find myself trying to sustain my business, withstanding the shrinking readership in the country. But is that excuse enough for what they call “a lack of creativity”? What are readers really asking for? Perhaps more representation is needed, of different socio-economic classes, greater inclusion of gendered identities, minorities etc. Isn’t it counter-productive though, in the name lack of creativity, to direct someone’s creative instincts to write what the reader wants to read? Shouldn’t the writer just pen what they want to, and if it is repetitive, it’s on the publisher?
How can you not talk about bougainvillea, or for that matter, mangoes? It’s almost a crime. Its rampant growth in the cities (where most writing is happening anyway) cannot be ignored. And mangoes, it’s like expecting people from New Zealand to not take pride in kiwis. The point is, there are some things that are part of our identity. And writing about them is not harmful or monotonous, but a definition of who we are. While there’s no impairment in exploring fresh themes, it is also okay to use words that were used in that bingo post. But if it was meant to be a joke, why then did most writers take offence?
The problem then seems to be a disconnect between what’s being printed and what the readers want to read. But what if the readers don’t like anything that comes out of Pakistan? It appears that some popular instagrammars fish for likes and followers by roasting local authors. Some “woke” people would aggressively speak about someone’s work, would tag them on social media posts, and in turn, would make the conversation enter a personal domain. With the increasing involvement of social media, writers end up reading a lot of what is written about their work. All digital assaults seem personal, and unlike a physical interaction, the attacker can easily hide behind a keyboard. How, then, must we maintain the integrity of the written word?
The publishing industry of Pakistan, young and blooming, may take cues from the kind of work that receives good reviews. These reviews must be written by literary enthusiasts and critics, who themselves have some credibility to be able to discard or approve a piece of writing. As far as the average reader is concerned, maybe the complexity of a piece of text that is endorsed internationally is worthy of applause rather than something put together locally. The publishers, for their part, need to make sure that the quality of editing, designing and proofreading is at par with what is produced internationally. A little support from organisations that have been set up to promote reading will always be helpful in improving the content being published. The more we sell, the better chance we have of sustenance; the more we sustain, the better chance we have of publishing valuable, entertaining and important stories.
The writer is the author of The Unbridled Romance of Love and Pain, and a novel, Eye on the Prize. A lawyer by profession, she is also the founder ofReverie Publishers