Monday, May 31, 2010

Category error.

Something is categorically amiss – nay, noxiously rotten – in the erstwhile State of Porbandar. That, by the way, was the principality where the grandfather as well as the father of the Father of the Nation did duty as Dewan or Prime Minister once upon a time and where the latter was born. Porbandar, on the nose of the uniquely shaped landmass of Kutch and west of Ahmedabad and Sabarmati Ashram, was categorically not on the Dandi March route. That salt-bound trail of 241 miles wound its way southwards along the mainland coast.

But that’s neither here nor there. Except perhaps for the fact that the 241 miles that Gandhi and his 79 Satyagrahi followers covered in 24 days inspired Montblanc of Germany to launch a limited edition of 241 hand-crafted Gandhi fountain pens. Tushar Gandhi, MK’s great grandson, found nothing wrong with the idea. According to BBC “[h]is charitable foundation has already received a donation of $145,000 from Montblanc and will receive between $200 and $1,000 for each pen sold.” Tushar, I reckon, thinks like the bania that he is and his great grandfather was.

Banias are from the trader/merchant stock. According to Jafar Mahmΰd (Mahatma Gandhi: A Multifaceted Person, page 53), Gandhi once admitted that he was a bania and there was no limit to his greed. On page 64 of the same book, there’s an account of how he was not averse to raising money by auctioning the gifts he received. A lime went for Rs.10/-; a cotton garland for Rs.201/-; a golden takli (drop spindle) for Rs.5000/-; a thrice-auctioned ring worth Rs.30/- for Rs.445/-; a casket for Rs.1000/-. Imagine what these bids would be worth at the 21st century prices. When it came to raising funds for his causes, Gandhi was also a shameless beggar.

Dijo Kappen of the Centre for Consumer Education, Kerala, does not agree with Tushar Gandhi’s bania logic. The Centre stopped the sale of the Montblanc product by filing a suit in the Kerala High Court evoking a 1950 Indian law prohibiting the improper use of emblems and names. “It is a mockery of the great man and … an insult to the nation … to use him as a poster boy,” argued Kappen. Are there haves and have-nots among NGOs and are there internecine rivalries and jealousies out there too, one wonders.

The text on the Montblanc website clearly says that the $25,000 (£16,000) gold and silver limited edition pen is homage to the 241 miles travelled by Gandhi on the Salt March from Ahmedabad to the coast.

Is there what is known in philosophy and semantics as “category error” lurking here?

I’m reminded of my mythical friend Henry Root’s daughter, Doreen, a student of philosophy and sociology at the University of Exeter in the sober seventies when Mrs Thatcher ruled the roost in Britain. Young Doreen used to be rather adept at spotting logical faux pas.

She would probably have posed the question in the present case as follows.

Can a profit-making product pass off as homage to a man who made a fetish out of living in poverty although it took a lot of money to keep him there, said Sarojini Naidu?

Or, can a self-serving act pose as homage to a selfless person?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Funny things happened on the way to the mash-up.

I’m an avid reader of the old-fashioned “forest-killer” book. I like to hold it firmly in my hands. I enjoy the tantalizing smell of fresh glue in my nostrils as I flip the pages. (Occasionally I read eBooks on my computer when there’s no other option but am not happy with them. No, I do not own an eBook reader like Kindle, thank you.) What’s even more significant, I’m from the Third World. My mind is soaked in the Third World reality of scarcity and poverty and deprivation. It’s in my ‘acquired’ nature to get the books I want at the lowest possible price even when I have the extra spare cash. Ergo, I don’t mind a second-hand book provided it’s not too dog-eared, not too worn out for wear. Every time I do this, I know I’m depriving the author and the publisher of their share of the spoils. Too bad!

In Los Angeles this April, I went to a Saturday sale of discarded books at the local library (#32 Eagle Rock Branch) right across from my grandson Armaan’s school. The room was jam-packed with eager bargain hunters jockeying for space. The senior citizens running the sale were generous to a fault in pricing the books on sale. They would give every shopper a free paper bag and tell her/him to fill it up and take it away for just $3.00. Between me and my daughter-in-law Anita, we picked up some 20 odd books, many of them in near-mint condition − and two badly battered and nearly torn shopping bags − for the princely sum of $6.00. That really perked up my Third-World soul.

Then I remembered from my distant past lived in good ol’ South Mumbai the Strand Book Stall with its 20% discount on all books no matter what. TN Shanbhag, its owner, was really astute to have zeroed in on the buy-wholesale-sell-retail stratagem as early as the early 50s. The Padmashree he got from the Government of India as well as his UNESCO-recognized award were both well deserved. Single-handedly and no doubt with the best of intentions, he turned remaindering into an honourable pursuit.

You can spot a remaindered book by the unsightly telltale slash on the bottom of the pages next to the spine, by the way. You can see the stigma on most marked down books. Only hardbound and trade paperbacks are fortunate enough to be remaindered. Normal pocket books get “stripped” (i.e., shorn of their front and back covers) or burned or pulped. This practice, I understand, conforms to the sound accounting principle of using the available warehouse space optimally by not carrying too huge an inventory for too long. In the entrance portals of Borders and Barnes and Noble bookshops I walked past the line-up of books at marked-down prices − as sure a sign as any that they were on their way to the remaindering warehouse. This sight too reminded me of the late Mr Shanbhag and his standard 20%-off-on-all-books policy. I also remembered a friend of mine in the book trade who used to always blame the Strand Book Stall owner for having “screwed up” their business by using remaindering for marketing leverage.

Why does a book get remaindered? Probably because it did not sell as well as somebody at the publisher’s expected it to. That somebody goofed up big time. It turned out to be a turkey, one of “[t]he Edsels of the world of moveable type” if one were to borrow from the inimitable Clive James’s poem, 'The Book of my Enemy Has Been Remaindered' ”. But, wait a sec. Maybe I’m oversimplifying, though. Didn’t I see several books of bestselling authors like James Patterson and David Baldacci hugely discounted in the entrance portals of Borders and Barnes and Noble bookshops, ostensibly on their way to the publisher’s backlist? Some of them were at that moment being hailed in the newspapers and on the Internet as top of the charts. Maybe, they were not down-sliding into a backlist slot after all. Maybe, their presence in the entrance portal of a Borders or a Barnes and Noble bookshop had something to do with that particular store’s inventory status.

On the other hand, aren’t the sales of some books resurrected at times by something happening somewhere faraway or a chance remark by someone? There are the classics among books of course, the perennial good sellers. But the average book, it seems, loses steam after the initial spurt of a few weeks after launch. Then it becomes a has-been, a part of history; in other words, a part of the publisher’s backlist. If it continues to sell in trickles, the publisher may decide to keep it in print and in the warehouse – provided the remaindering logic works in its favour. Also, remember: the fewer the copies of a given title in the warehouse, the more difficult it is to keep a track of them and to keep them in shipshape.

In publishing, there’s an entire slew of rights to sell (territory, audio book, large print, translation, paperback, movie, video game) to shore up the publisher’s and the author’s earnings. Successful authors have their own websites to keep the fans keyed up and asking for more. So, I suppose that, in some cases, remaindering may simply be a tactic rather than a sign of failure. For all you know, remaindering on the massive scale like what The Works in the UK and BookCloseOuts and BooksAMillion in the US practice may well be working as a covert channel for reaching out to the Third Worlders living by default in the First World but who are keen on books − especially in the current state of the economy over there. Pardon me for sounding like a conspiracy theorist, though.

Fear of remaindering has not deterred publishers from experimenting with new genres, mind you. Once you start thinking of a book as a product, the next logical step is to treat it like a product right from the time of its birth. For quite a while, ongoing series − The Saint, Mike Shayne, James Bond, Ellery Queen, Sherlock Holmes and the like − in the mystery/spy thriller genre were being written by writers other than the respective designated authors. In fact, when you think of the art of successful collaborating or finessed ghost writing in recent times, the first name that comes to mind is James Patterson. idea is to make the most of the popular brands like James Bond, by getting new books written about him. The same principle holds good for movie franchises.

The latest debut in this field is what’s known as the mash-up. It started, I would imagine, with somebody’s brainwave to do what the music industry has been doing for decades: cover versions of hit songs. They borrowed a leaf from their musical colleagues and picked on the perennially popular Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen to remix into a novel of the gothic horror genre featuring the original characters peopling living, in the cover version, in an alternate universe.

The advantages, once one gets down to counting them, are many. Firstly, the Pride and Prejudice copyright lapsed long ago. It’s been in the public domain for quite a while. (So are Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park and Emma. So too are Jane Eyre, Huckleberry Finn, The Wizard of Oz, The War of the Worlds, Alice in Wonderland, Little Women, Robin Hood, Romeo and Juliet, Dracula, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for that matter.) No one can stop you should you choose to reuse the content, even remix it. Secondly, a pre-teen in middle school is likely to have already read Pride and Prejudice and one or more of the other classics for a book report assignment. If not that, she may at least have heard the name of the book and also the name of the author.

Already, there is a Stephanie Barron-authored Jane Austen mystery series sporting such antique-sounding titles as Jane and the Unpleasantness at the Scargrave Manor, Jane and the Man of the Cloth, Jane and the Wandering Eye, Jane and the Barque of Frailty and so forth, written in authentically Austenesque style and language. ”. it, Jane Austen is a sleuth like her other namesake, Jane Marple. The remixing concept has also already been applied to Sherlock Holmes.

The next incremental step in the mash-up evolution was to make a contemporary writer collaborate with Jane Austen. The cover of the mash-up sensation that started the trend reads:


by Jane Austen and
Seth Grahame-Smith.

The Jane Austen moniker is defender-less. Nobody has a financial stake in it, either. A while ago, her distant descendents did bitch about being denied their slice of the Jane Austen pie, i.e., the material benefits of her continuing popularity and the slew of movies and television series based on her works. ”.

The Austen collaborator Seth Grahame-Smith (née Seth Jared Greenberg) followed up his New York Times bestseller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies debut as a mash-up auteur with the equally successful Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. This hit remix has its roots in US history and the American Civil War. Grahame-Smith is an accomplished television producer and writer. That he can sound exactly like Austen in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies becomes evident with the very first sentence of his pastiche with panache:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

Compare this with Sentence #1 in Chapter 1 of Jane Austen’s original:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Ironically, emotional succor for the deprived descendents of Austen came with the publication – in the remix genre itself – of Michael Thomas Ford’s Jane Bites Back. In its sixth chapter, Jane Austen, the book shop owner with vampire fangs, actually spared Seth Grahame-Smith for the way his Pride and Prejudice and Zombies had done her in in her non-vampire avatar.

Jokes apart, a spell of walking the aisles of Borders and Barnes and Noble bookshops and the less strenuous alternative of Googling rewarded me with the bounty of a list of literary mash-ups or remixes of classics now in public domain. This is by no means the definitive line-up. By the way, some titles in the list were published long before the mash-up idea caught the imagination of the publishing industry. They are nevertheless included because they conform to the concept. So, here comes the mash-up line-up, ready or not:

Mash-ups − a tentative list

1. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – This novel kicked off the mash-up genre and is considered the best of the lot so far. It uses the original text of Jane Austen's famous novel with all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie action added. The Pride and Prejudice mash-up franchise is currently in two flavours:

1a. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance - Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem! by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith (Quirk Classics)

1b. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls by Steve Hockensmith (Quirk Classics) In this prequel Elizabeth and her sisters learn the martial arts and battle the dreadful undead. ”.

2. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Jane Austen and Ben H Winters (Quirk Books)

3. Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith (Grand Central Publishing)

4. Little Vampire Women by Louisa May Alcott and Lynn Messina (HarperTeen)

5. Mr Darcy, Vampyre by Amanda Grange (Sourcebooks Landmark)

6. Vampire Darcy’s Desire: A Pride and Prejudice Adaptation by Regina Jeffers (Ulysses Press)

7. Mansfield Park and Mummies: Monster Mayhem, Matrimony, Ancient Curses, True Love, and Other Dire Delights by Jane Austen and Vera Nazarian

8. Emma and the Werewolves by Jane Austen and Adam Rann (Coscom Entertainment)

9. Android Karenina by Ben H Winters (Quirk Classic) Probable release: June 2010.

10. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim: Mark Twain's Classic with Crazy Zombie Goodness by Mark Twain and W Bill Czolgosz (Coscom Entertainment)

11. The Undead World of Oz: L Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Complete with Zombies and Monsters by L Frank Baum and Ryan C Thomas (Coscom Entertainment)

12. Robin Hood and Friar Tuck: Zombie Killers - A Canterbury Tale by Paul A Freeman (Coscom Entertainment)

13. Alice in Zombieland: Lewis Carroll's 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' with Undead Madness By Lewis Carroll and Nickolas Cook (Coscom Entertainment)

14. Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter by A E Moorat (EOS)

15. The War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies by H G Wells and Eric S Brown (Coscom Entertainment)

16. Jane Slayre by Charolette Brontë and Sherri Browning Erwin (Gallery Books)

17. Romeo and Juliet and Vampires by William Shakespeare and Claudia Gabel (HarperTeen) Probable release: August 2010.

18. Dracula The Un-dead by Dacre Stroker and Ian Holt (Dutton Adult)

19. Sherlock Holmes and the Plague of Dracula by Stephen Seitz (Mountainside Press)

20. Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula by Loren Estleman (I Books)

21. Dr Jekyll and Mr Holmes by Loren Estleman (I Books)

After snookering you with all this crypto-literary malarkey for so long, I shall now deliver a sobering reminder. Back in the late fifties through middle seventies when Hammer Film’s Dracula franchise was in full thrall, I remember reading a couple of hastily produced and badly written Dracula books by authors other than Bram Stoker, published by Pyramid Books most likely. (In case you were wondering, Dacre Stoker whose Dracula The Un-dead features in the list above is Bram’s great-grandnephew.) I already pointed out earlier that books about pop series characters like The Saint, Mike Shayne, James Bond, Ellery Queen, Sherlock Holmes and the like have been ghost-written for decades.

Maybe, the French critic-journalist-author Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr got it right the first time. "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose," he proclaimed grandly. (The more things change, the more they remain the same.)

In other words, nothing new under the sun, eh?

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Thingamabob = thing-in-itself? Ask Bob, Bart and Immanuel.

The reason I’m positing the question, boys and girls, is simple. Or, maybe, not so simple. Bob Newhart, with his presumably put-on stammer, is such an antithesis of what you’d expect an all-guns-blazing, red-blooded, brimful-of-Testosterone American male to be, so subversive to Truth, Justice and the American Way in a way. The subtext doesn’t quite gel right. To give you a concrete instance, on page 25 of his book, I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This! (Hyperion, New York, 2006), he writes about his childhood: “I really didn’t get much recognition from my father. I don’t think it scarred me for life; it’s just the way it was.” (Italics mine.) This admission reminds me of Homer every now and then throttling Bartholomew Jojo Simpson with his “Why you little…” snippet of angry outburst and his fourth-grader son insouciantly ignoring the repeated indignity and nonchalantly ─ nay, coolly ─ taking it all in his stride and being disrespectful as ever of authority. I don’t mean to say Homer is not paying Bart attention. It’s attention of the wrong sort tantamount to no attention at all and therefore bound to be psychologically scarring to the child according to any right-thinking American’s way of thinking. The same, I reckon, would be true of the lack of paternal recognition Bob writes about. In fact, the way Bob describes his childhood and youthful selves in his book, he sounds like a self-proclaimed underachiever like Bart. On page 109 of I Shouldn’t…, Bob confesses to not having a driving license at age 32, even after he had “… finally moved to Los Angeles, with its crisscrossing ribbons of freeways”. But that’s where the similarity to Bart ends given that, at age 10, Bart can drive a car and already holds an official driving license given to him by the Springfield powers-that-be for having saved the town from fire. (Even before he got it, Bart used to drive a vehicle with fake papers. But that’s neither here nor there.) I found another link between Bart and Bob, though, on page 233 of the latter’s book. Bart has been a lifelong fan of Krusty the Clown. In the episode of The Simpsons dealing with Krusty’s death, Bob was one of the speakers at the funeral. It’s a small world in the idiot box universe too. My acquaintance with Bob goes back to the 1990s when Newhart revolving around the life of the inn keeper-writer Dick Loudon used to be telecast over cable in Mumbai. The quirky Bob somehow caught my eye ─ and my fancy ─ there and then. Back to the future: 15 years later, I get to borrow his book from the #32 Eagle Rock branch of the Los Angeles Public Library and enjoy it. What luck! Who wouldn’t believe, given the circumstances in the existence of noumenon, “thing-in-itself”, in other words, a posited object or event as it appears in itself independent of perception by senses. Thank you, Immanuel ─ to wit: Herr Kant in case you didn’t recognize the given name of the author of Critique of Pure Reason.