The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

Fact: I was given this book as a present.

Fact: I don’t know what they were thinking.

Fact: The book is too big to fit into my handbag.

She began reading the first chapter, her eyes skimming over the name Robert Langdon. Great, now I’m always going to think of Tom Hanks whenever this name comes up.

She sighed, knowing that it wouldn’t be long before a mind-bending plot would reveal itself in the form of clichés, italicised thought processes, short chapters and blatant hooks.

It won’t take long to finish this.

On the first evening, huge chunks of plot fell off the page, which she saw coming even before she had finished reading each chapter; the tattooed stranger, the Masons, the weird science lab. Is this guy for real? Oh good, Justified is on tele now...

On the second evening, as the tattooed stranger went berserk, and Robert Langdon was conveniently beset by claustrophobia that set in motion a fairly predictable plot twist, something was beginning to form in her mind. It’s like the book is trying to tell me something. As she cleaned her fishtank, searching for The Truth, she spotted a cipher hidden under the pebbles:

What could this mean?

As she read on, Tom Hanks’ face spiralled into view and the truth of what she was holding in her hands became clear: A Ron Howard film wasn’t far off.

In another blinding flash, she saw the future. There was a not-so-secret, unremitting formula binding the 500 pages, and this formula would continue to be exploited as long as there were enough trees on the planet to print the books. On and on she ploughed, through wave upon wave of set phrases and bad story-telling. How many trees were felled for this?

As she embarked on the final chapter, she realised that she would never get those hours back.

I have been duped.

‘Watching Tagore’ selected for publication

As part of its celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of Rabindranath Tagore, sampad launched an international writing competition: Inspired by Tagore. My entry ‘Watching Tagore’ was one of the winning entries and will be published in a commemorative book. I’m even more thrilled because I wrote this short piece on my 40th birthday at the Victoria and Albert Museum, whilst watching a photo montage about Tagore's life, and here's a slightly edited version of the winning entry:

Watching Tagore: At the end of the slim, clay-coloured gallery, I reach a television screen that is showing photos of Tagore on a loop. Although taken largely from when he was very much the elder statesman, there is the occasional picture of him as a younger man, and it is these rare pictures that are the most compelling. They show a man with a strong jaw line; a genetic trait that lay hidden behind his coarse, white beard in later years. In some pictures, his hair is cropped short and thick with curls, a reminder that he grew into the sage-like vision in a full length kurta coupled with long, untamed hair. As he gets older his face ages, but his skin never slackens nor loses its sheen. In one shot, he sports a short, dark beard, and wears a tweed-looking suit making him look like a European professor.

As these photos click through his lifecycle, there is one feature that remains a constant: his eyes. They are unwavering in strength and supremely confident. When they stare at the camera, they are the only things you see. When they look into the distance, they are dense with thought. Some photos are grainier and softer in focus than others, which only lends to the intensity of the man, making everything around him almost insignificant in light of his “inner essence.” It’s fitting that a man who liked the human face for its intensity was also the subject of such commanding portraits.

In each of these photos there is nothing about the environment from which he took inspiration, nothing of his workmanship until you rouse yourself from the screen to circle the room. Dotted around the dark walls are paintings new to an English audience. They appear, on reflection, to be about the man himself. Some are mesmerising, fluid and peaceful, others brooding and earthy in tone.

As I reach the wall that separates the gallery from the rest of the museum, I turn once more to the screen at the end of the room. At that moment, a visitor takes a flash photo of the screen and his face is lost in a blistering white star, but his eyes – electric and potent – penetrate nonetheless.

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Writer's rant: The distant hum of white noise

After a hoohaa about World Book Night, I sat down to watch the coverage of it on BBC and ended up having a rant about...well, you can read it yourself (first published on The Asian Writer):

As an extension of Farhana Shaikh’s earlier rant about Asian writers being outsiders looking in, I have to confess that watching New Novelists 12 of the Best from The Culture Show left me a little queasy about the lack of diversity in the their list of ‘up and coming’ authors in British literary fiction.

The Guardian Comments section sparked a healthy discussion about the lack of ethnic diversity in the short-list, but no one expressed a huge amount of surprise at this ‘glass ceiling.’ It’s a shame that the long-list wasn’t made available online for us readers to make our own judgments and recommendations. I realise that the group of ‘judges’ convened for the Culture Show (which included the show’s own editor, Janet Lee) is one of many panels charged with producing lists such as this throughout the year. We know that each time a list like this is given prominence (two and half pages in the Guardian Review section a week earlier), it pushes up sales for both long- and short-listed authors. A published long-list by The Culture Show would have gone a long way in benefiting more than just the 12 authors showcased on the night. It would also have given us a glimpse of a more diverse range of debut novelists; 57 novels were submitted, and I spotted Neel Mukherjee’s A Life Apart amongst the pile.

Of the 12 books presented on the night, I’m afraid I’m only likely to pick up one, David Abbott’s The Upright Piano Player, firstly because the wonderfully eloquent Helen Oyeyemi described it as having ‘a quiet dignity’ and secondly because he is the man who wrote the JR Hartley commercial for Yellow Pages in the 1980s.

On the same night, In a Million Books for Free: A Culture Show special, raised questions about how writers are selected for promotion. In an interview with Jamie Byng, Chairman of World Book Night, Andrew Graham-Dixon glossed over any questions of why new authors were not considered. According to Byng, the criteria for making it onto the list was that the books should be ‘great reading experiences,’ and there’s no doubt that each of them are. This suggests, however, that forcing titles from anyone other than ‘star’ authors onto the public would not provide enough of a hook for them to continue reading or, crucially, buying books.

Don’t get me wrong, the event itself was worth staging for many reasons, and I really enjoyed handing out books at my local library. World Book Night has its supporters and its critics and I’m not going to rehash those discussions here but next year I would like them to seek out lesser known authors.

This brings us back to lists again. Given that 23 of the 25 titles given out freely have reportedly seen an increase in sales from being featured on World Book Night, imagine how many more authors would have been able to pay their gas bill if they had been promoted in a similar way, and their back catalogue or debut novel sales had increased as a result?
I suppose it’s early days for initiatives such as World Book Night, but the broader question remains. How do we promote a diverse range of writers without relying on closed or elite circles of critics and judges (largely based in London)? And what is the criteria for making it onto a judging panel anyway? Maybe The Asian Writer should set up it’s own panel?

For events like World Book Night, diversity appears to mean ‘a conscious attempt’ to include thrillers, memoirs, crime, literary fiction, poetry and cross-over novels (no short stories though).  It seems that what is viewed as ‘promising’ is highly subjective and that the power of recommendation and the marker of critical acclaim still lie in the hands of a predominantly white publishing industry; an industry where we are indeed outsiders looking in.

Maybe we’re outsiders because we present problems for marketing teams; we’re too Asian, or not Asian enough, or too niche, or too serious, or too predictable or just not producing what the industry expects from us.  Terrorism or arranged marriage is what we do best, or so we’re told. Or maybe it’s just that our voices are being drowned out by the distant hum of white noise.

Here’s the list of the “12 Best New British Novelists” according to The Culture Show:

David Abbott – The Upright Piano Player
Jenn Ashworth – A Kind of Intimacy
Ned Beauman – Boxer Beetle
Deborah Kay Davies – True Things About Me
Samantha Harvey – The Wilderness
Adam Haslett – Union Atlantic
Rebecca Hunt – Mr Chartwell
Stephen Kelman – Pigeon English
Jim Powell – The Breaking of Eggs
Anna Richards – Little Gods
Eleanor Thom – The Tin-Kin
Evie Wyld – After The Fire, A Still Small Voice