Showing posts with label The Fourth Estate. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Fourth Estate. Show all posts

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Is there a ‘winning formula’ for writing a novel?

Book Review

Singh, Soumitra. 2014. The Child Of Misfortune. Bennett Coleman & Co Ltd. New Delhi. Pages: 327. Price: `350/-

There is a belief that more people bought Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History Of Time than read it. For although the good professor tried to simplify the mysteries of the universe as much as he could, there is so much science embedded in the subject that it is difficult for the ordinary reader to follow. Did the readers of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (2003) read it through without skipping pages? Had the book become so popular because of the controversies it created?

Catch-22’ has become a catchphrase so much so, it is possible many people do not remember that it is a book title. How many of those who bought the book, which is hailed as a ‘classic bestseller’, were able to read through Captain Yossarian’s adventures? Those who read it through probably include literary geeks interested in writing itself. In his preface to the 1994 special edition Joseph Heller confesses that initially it ‘won no prizes and was not on any bestseller list’. Reviewing it in The New Yorker, Mitchell Goodman tore into it, saying ‘… what remains is a debris of sour jokes …’ and, [Heller] ‘wallows in his own laughter and finally drowns in it.’ But a year after its publication something strange seems to have happened.

In Tipping Point Malcom Gladwell tells the story of the shoe brand ‘Hush Puppies’. The brand was all but dead by 1994 and its makers were about to phase it out, when it suddenly perked up. A few New York kids who wore the shoes to the clubs and bars in downtown Manhattan set the trend. Why did they wear them? They wore them because no one else wore them. Something similar happened to Catch-22. The book sold 300,000 copies in 1963 and the publishers had to go to the press eleven times in all in that year.     

The moot question is, ‘is there a ‘winning formula’ that makes a novel or other literary work a success? It is difficult to answer the question. But even the most popular of writers were tempted to repeat a winning formula they stumbled upon. For example, thematically, Geoffrey Archer’s novels Kane and Abel (1979) and The Fourth Estate (1996) have many similarities, although their plots and settings were quite different. Novelists like P. G. Wodehouse, Harold Robbins and Irving Wallace replicated winning formulae of their earlier novels many times over. The same practice may be seen in the publication of non-fiction books too. Spurred by the success of Is Paris Burning (1965), Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins published two more books in the same vein, history told in an easy to read, casual style: O Jerusalem (1972) and Freedom at Midnight (1975).

A favourite theme of novelists from the 2000s is terrorism. The Child Of Misfortune deals with terrorism in its early stages, but moves on to internet hacking, drug running and money laundering. The whole plot is set with chess as a substrate with the two protagonists playing their moves and counter moves as in a chess game. However, dabbling in too many subjects makes the novel muddled and complex.

The novel centres on three schoolmates Amar Singh Rathore, Jonah Michel and Maansi Agarwal. Amar the son of a ruling politician and Jonah an orphan French expatriate have a running feud throughout their lives, playing moves and countermoves as in a chess match and with Jonah often besting Amar. Maansi who ends up as a journalist with The Times Of India, is in love with Amar. Jonah lures Amar to Ladakh, where he murders a Buddhist monk resulting in Buddhist–Muslim riots. The Al-Qaeda steps in to destabilise Kashmir assisted by Indian Mujahideen volunteers. There are quite a few terror groups operating in Kashmir, but Indian Mujahideen? The plot meanders from Ladakh to Srinagar to Seoul to London with Jonah playing advanced chess moves and Amar and Maansi who has by now expressed her love for him, following. In Seoul they pick up an ace internet hacker, Kang, who joins the plot. He can, not only hack into any computer and website in the world to steal data, but can photographically trace the movements of the villains on his laptop. It is as if the whole world is wired, something the dystopian world of Nineteen Eighty-Four did for sound!

The novel abounds in ‘computer typos’ like her for hair and principal for principle. What is dividistic? Did the author mean divisive? Surely, those who have the runs cannot go for jogging! Does a ‘grassroots example’ mean every day or commonplace example? Is a ‘debate opposition team’ an opposing team in a debating competition? What is ‘second-kinds’? After a time one gives up noting errors in language, grammar and syntax. The novel could do with editing and thorough rewriting.  

Isn’t it a given that a novelist should not name existing political parties in the interest of strict political neutrality? 

This review is part of the Book Reviews programme at

Friday, November 11, 2011

The first three estates

“The first three estates” appeared in The Hans India, an English daily published from Hyderabad and other centres in its issue dated November 10, 2011.   

‘What are the first three estates?’ screamed the woman police officer in Tamil-accented Telugu, in a scene in a popular Telugu movie. For some inexplicable reason, the Telugu people seem to love it if their speech is disfigured. In movies, Telugu is often spoken by Tamil, Kannada, Marathi and north Indian actors in their own accents. ‘Accented speech’ is used as a comic relief in movies in other languages, but in Telugu movies it appears to be de rigeur. If one goes by the movies made of and for the ‘younger’ generation, Telugu is often spoken in them in anything but a Telugu accent. As Telugu movie script writers are not partial to any language they mutilate English too - and not just in pronunciation but also in meaning - in their ‘Telugu’ dialogues. Then there is this ‘Telugu’ television presenter who conducts interviews with film celebrities and politicians in English-accented Telugu. And why not? If English can be spoken with a Telugu accent, why not the other way round?

‘I don’t know madam’, mumbled the cowering television journalist. ‘The first three estates are legislature, executive and judiciary’, the police officer pompously informed the journalist in a spirit of imparting wisdom, sweetly addressing him as ‘scum’. What she ‘endearingly’ called him doesn’t translate well into English, nor is ‘very’ printable, but that was the gist of it. One might wonder whether in real life senior police officers treat television journalists with such contempt or whether general knowledge quizzes forms part of police interrogation. Does the scene reflect a dumbing down of values in the highly competitive movie industry? But these questions are beside the point.

There was a time when movie scripts were well researched for accuracy. Therefore they were generally devoid of factual errors. Now everyone works to tight schedules and tighter deadlines. This is the electronic age; the age of SMSes and e-mails, and the need for instant gratification in everything. If anyone bothers to ‘research’ at all, Google is the gospel and Wikipedia the Veda. There is of course nothing wrong in using the internet but only as a starting point. A factual error in a dialogue in a minor scene in a movie may not raise an eyebrow. But it certainly does if it is repeated by the editor of a national news magazine. The north Indian editor of an English magazine could not have picked it up from a Telugu movie. But he made the same error in a last page editorial. Watch out, for there may be many more such pearls of wisdom in his much publicised memoirs slated to be released this month. In another last page editorial he referred to P. V. Narasimha Rao’s autobiographical novel, ‘The Insider’ as ‘The Outsider’. Deadlines, bloody deadlines! It is precisely for this reason, nowadays many newspapers run a ‘Corrections’ column.

All this confusion about the first three estates arose because of the use of the expression, ‘the fourth estate’. In the movie scene described earlier, the television journalist whimpers that he is from the ‘fourth estate’ adding helpfully as we Indians do when groping for words, ‘you know’. The officer would have none of it. She had time only to imparting wisdom and mouthing obscenities. 

The coinage of the phrase ‘the fourth estate’ is attributed to Edmund Burke. In his book, ‘On Heroes and Hero Worship’ (1841) Thomas Carlyle says, Burke used it for the first time in a speech in the British House of Commons in 1787. Burke’s speech marks a very important occasion, that of opening parliamentary proceedings to the press.  Looking up at the press gallery he said, “There are three Estates in Parliament, but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder sits a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.” The three estates Burke referred to were the Lords Spiritual (the 26 Bishops in the House of Lords), the Lords Temporal (the secular members of the House of Lords) and the House of Commons. There is some dispute however to the quote attributed to Burke but the definitions of the first three estates were well established. In any case the phrase ‘the fourth estate’ connotes that the press is the fourth pillar of democracy, whose function is to provide checks and balances to the parliament and the executive. The first amendment to the US constitution specifically prohibits making any law that infringes on the freedom of the press. In India every time our rulers feel insecure – because of some expose or other - the first thing they look askance is at freedom of the press. They seek to weaken the fourth pillar!

The expression ‘fourth pillar’ might have led to the misconception that the other three pillars nay estates were the legislature, executive and judiciary. Then there is a fifth estate with various meanings attributed to it but generally refers to a class that is none of the four estates.