Monday, December 8, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire Challenges American Bias

I’m probably not alone in revealing that one of my great pleasures when traveling abroad is browsing in foreign bookstores for books I’ve never heard of before. Most European airports and train stations have a generous stock of UK books on sale – many that never find a US publisher. At the Hauptbahnhof during this past Frankfurt Book Fair, I picked up a copy of Jed Mercurio’s novel Ascent – a terrific fictional account of the life of a Russian MiG fighter pilot turned cosmonaut, one that offers a plausible alternative history of the space race.

Here’s where I’m the rube: The book did appear in the States, in March of 2007, published by Simon & Schuster. I missed it – drat! Why? Likely in part because it had yet to come out in paperback, which often gives a book gets a second chance to be noticed. (Ascent is scheduled to appear in paperback in June of 2009).

Years ago I had another “discovery” -- Vikas Swarup’s “Q&A” -- which I bought at the Dubai airport in 2007, having failed to buy a copy I’d seen in Cape Town the year before at Exclusive Books – where it won the prize as the top book of the year.

It too was a terrific read – as many of the tens if not hundreds of thousands of other readers across the world could attest. According to Swarup’s official site, he was in 2007 “France’s favourite novelist” and his book was voted, again by Exclusive Books, among the “100 Books to Read Before You Die.” Ken Follett, a man who has been known to sell a book or two, even chose it as the “One Book for Stevenage” (Ha!)

Apparently, it even won a US Audie Award in 2006 for best fiction audiobook – which made me think..had it already been published in the US? Yes, as a matter of fact it had.

I’d like to say, it’s just me who is missing these things, but I fear that it’s not. When the hardcover was published in the US by Scribner in July 2005, it sold a pittance – again, so few that Scribner didn't schedule a paperback until more than three years later (it appeared this August).

Now, with the film adaptation by Danny Boyle arriving in theaters and being touted as a likely Best Picture nominee – the book has been rechristened with its Hollywood title, “Slumdog Millionaire,” and is all over the bookstores.

I only wonder what was missing for American readers the first time around. The novel was written in English, so there were no translation delays, as with someone like Steig Larsson, whose The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and it’s sequels were already huge sellers before they got the US.

Could it be a US bias against ethnically Indian writers? On the surface, no. Look at the success of someone like Jumpa Lahiri or Amitav Ghosh or Manil Suri.

I would instead argue that the bias against Swarup or someone like Chetan Bhagat – whose One Night at the Call Center is perhaps the bestselling book ever published in India –is not due to their ethnicity, but to the type of books they write. Ghosh, Suri, and Lahiri (and there are numerous others) are all capital “L” literary writers. Swarup and Bhagat write a pop, mass market sensibility, one that attracts a larger, mass readership. And, not coincidentally, both of these books initially failed to find readers when initially published in the US.

I wonder if in the US we expect foreign books (save for mystery and crime fiction) to be capital “S” serious stuff.

Why? I suspect it may a symptom of the way the foreign books are published and promoted. That is…not at all.

Could populist, pop foreign writers – translated or non-translated – resonate with the same US readers who buy their books principally in airports and railroads? I certainly think so, but it would take some canny marketing and promotion to make it work.

That said, it takes only one to prove an exception. Maybe that one is Swarup’s Q&A, errrrr, Slumdog Millionaire.

Oh, and if you haven't seen the'll be utterly charmed. It is the best movie of the year.

No comments: