A fictional cover designed by me for Vikram Seth’s upcoming ‘A Suitable Girl’ * (Not real)
Having spent my entire adult life, 32 years to be precise, running the gauntlet of deadlines, I can empathize with author Vikram Seth’s predicament.
Of course, there are deadlines and then there are deadlines. Mine are in the former category where deadlines are dictated by the innate perishability of news. It is not as if a globally consequential literary career rides on my kind of deadlines. Mine are merely a daily professional hazard of a fucking hack. (Oh, how liberating it is to gratuitously use the F word!)
As a journalist, if one is paid at all, one is not paid any advance, handsome or otherwise, of the kind that Seth’s literary agent David Godwin had managed to negotiate in 2009. Seth had signed a $1.7 million contract with the publisher Hamish Hamilton to write ‘A Suitable Girl’, a sequel to his widely acclaimed 1993 novel ‘A Suitable Boy.’ He was supposed to turn in the final manuscript by June end this year in time to coincide with the 20th anniversary of ‘A Suitable Boy.’ That deadline has come and gone and Seth is now looking for a more suitable deadline.
There are suggestions in some media reports that Hamish Hamilton, an imprint now part of the merged publishing behemoth Penguin Random House, is playing tough with Godwin. The famed literary agent has been quoted by The Times of India as saying, “It would be unfair to say the deal has been called off. Vikram has been known to take his time with his books. Our aim is to settle this new date with Hamish.”
The timing of the merger and the cracking of the whip by Hamish could well be just a coincidence but the ever fertile creative minds can always view it as the publishing machine grinding down their literary whims. There is nothing unusual about the uneasy relationship between publishers, necessarily industrial-commercial creatures, and high literature writers, necessarily capricious minds. One must sell and the other must, well, just write.
I am not privy to what it is that is inhibiting the progress of Seth’s manuscript. Perhaps it is nothing more than his well known fastidiousness. Or perhaps it is something much deeper, like literary ennui. I do not know about him but I would like to think $1.7 million should be enough to overcome both. I would overcome both for $17.
On the minor matter of whether $.1.7 million was an advance or part of the overall contract, it is hard to say. If it was an advance, by its very definition he would have been paid that upfront. That’s why it is called an advance. From my personal experience I can testify that advances have a way of getting spent. I hope Seth has not been that profligate because if he has to pay it back for failure to deliver let’s just it may not be that suitable.
I am conflicted about the purely commercial nature of the publisher-author relationship because I see both sides clearly. An advance is real money given at a time when the product for which it is paid is largely notional and in someone’s mind. Money is a great facilitator but it still does not sit down and write. The author has to do it. And as we know with reasonable certainty that authors, even the highly literary ones, are human with all the attendant frailties.
I do not expect Vikram Seth to become James Patterson who, I am told, finishes half a dozen novels before he has even shaved in the morning. (Literary exaggeration). However, Seth can certainly imbibe some of the expeditiousness that Patterson seems to have mastered.
* Seth may still be struggling with the novel but I have completed a possible jacket design without being asked. It took me about 15 minutes. The painting is mine as well. Jackets are easy. It is what comes between them is not.