Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 02/15/13 8:48 AM

Humour: On book launches

Oh, the book launch!

Does anyone remember those wine and cheese evenings of another age, usually thrown by the fashion designer du jour at a five or seven-star hotel?

The lights blazed down from Murano chandeliers, you sipped indifferent wine masquerading as full-blooded Shiraz, you nibbled cheese lumps juxtaposed with strange veggies, you made meaningless conversation, you air-kissed the same facial zones till your moue became a permanent grimace.

And all the while, if you were a journo, you mentally composed a piece that was kind to your host, trying new ways to let- down-lightly. Because you have read the book. Such as it is.

That was then. Now it’s another decade, another launch. Where you sip excellent merlot wondering whether you ought to have opted for the sauvignon blanc instead. You nibble on biscotti, mini blinis and other delectable savouries, wondering if that really is caviar (economy brand) there in the corner.

You engage in conversation that is anything but meaningless, involving as it does the astronomical sums garnered by the pretty face and less than deft  pen in the right corner, even as you pour verbal sympathy on the straggle-haired, straggle-bearded visage in the left corner, from whose pen you know for a fact, has emerged a real opus. Only, there are no takers for that.

Book launch talk always but always begins with comments about the prolific outpouring of Indian writing in English.

We carefully avoid talking about the rivers of mediocre writing that appear swollen with the aforementioned publicity and a sense of its own self- importance.

Instead, we chuckle about how the chief guest, the writer with an acerbic pen and tongue to match, buttonholed the publicist outside the venue and asked her to give a four-line summation of the book about to be launched… and to keep it short.

You don’t air kiss, not in this crowd. You smile in  genteel fashion, you drop a couple of literary references, hardly exercise for the brain thanks to the plethora of search engines.

If you are a published author, you take care not to mention that fact, even as you smile fixedly at a friend who usually can be guaranteed to make the necessary mention. If you are still Brilliant- Unknown- in-Search -of-Publisher, you say just that in the most droll fashion, eliciting laughs.

And you muse wistfully on the days when writers frequently suffered from writer’s block. When books released quietly, bashfully and without a launch.

Gauri Dange made the scathing observation in this very newspaper about how book launches today are all about the ceremony, the celebrity who will launch the book, the aperitifs, the fizzy drinks, the buzz. Followed by the publicity blitz.

And if in all this dazzle of klieg lights trained hither and thither, one forgets about the hapless book itself, what it is all about, who wrote it, well, that doesn’t matter.

Actually, the book launch can be mined for quite a lot for humour, if nothing else. There are those exercises in banality and futility, the Q & A with the author.

Here, too, as needs must in this age of frivolity, the questioner is selected proportionate to his/her celeb quotient and never mind that the only thing she usually reads are the ads for sales in the dailies.

So the Q & A slithers this way, then that, the questioner asking if the author has fallen back on irony, and the author replying that yes, irony has always been the post-Modern
remedy to show up human frailties.

At which the questioner bursts into a trill of laughter, and the author, along with the bemused audience, joins in uncertainly.

All of which is a tad better than the Discussion. The panel consists of the usual suspects, of course, some impressively articulate, others who come off as ravers and ranters.

Inevitably, seven sentences into the discussion and all the ‘experts’ are sounding off about literature, architecture, the downfall of the city, while the forgotten author sits giggling nervously at intervals and nodding fit to have his head fall off his frail shoulders.

After which, the gathering gathers round to discuss just how germane Discusser One and Three’s points about Bangalore’s roads and traffic were. Book? Author? Exit stage left.

A word about the gathering. They are almost always the same but that isn’t surprising, given that there are only a limited number of people who can both write and work the networking mills with some degree of competence.

So we have the serious writer, with a pained expression on her face, as if wondering what exactly she is doing at the event. We have the stand-up comic/writer who drops many a witticism in his wake, subtly working up interest in his next book.

We have the prolific author who also doubles as sound-bite specialist, the one with umpteenth books out in print and nth book down to penultimate chapter. We have the filmmaker/ the last of the (supercilious) intellectuals, the VP of an investment bank, the affable restaurateur, the extremely affable impresario and model-maker, the skittish art gallery owner.

We have the smattering of expats trying not to sneer at the quality of the aforementioned wine. And then, we have a small and mysterious motley crowd of motley people. Who knows, maybe they are the collective Reader.

The next time you are at glitzy book launch, look hard at the last lot. They are rapidly becoming a disinterested and vanishing lot. And can you blame them?

(The writer reviews books, attends book launches and even enjoys some of them. She turned author quite recently.)

This ran in THE TIMES OF INDIA of some undefined day, month and year.

book launcheshumour

Sheila Kumar • February 15, 2013

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