Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Ithaca - A Novel on Books, Publishing and Writers

Many years ago, I had read an Arthur Hailey book – Hotel – where the author had beautifully spun a tale around the hotel industry, introducing you to the lives of men and women who run it, taking you beyond the glitter and showing you the hardship, struggle, treachery and politics of the hotel industry. Since then stories set at the heart of an industry have interested me. This explains why I picked up David Davidar’s latest offering Ithaca.

Those of you who are not familiar with the author, David Davidar is a successful publishing professional who rose to become the President of Penguin Canada and had to resign the job following a sex scandal.

After leaving his Penguin job, David returned to India and has recently launched his own publishing house together with Rupa.

Ithaca is about the publishing industry, its existential problems presented by self-publishing and e-books, how talents are spotted, manuscripts pitched by editors, plagiarism, small publishing houses acquired by giants, careers made and destroyed, jobs found and lost.

A mid-sized publishing house based in London is struggling to survive, fighting as it is a recession and the advances of a publishing giant looking to acquire it to enter the UK market. Although it has been able to delay its slide thanks to three best sellers – a trilogy on angels - produced by its best-selling author, Seppi, it requires another blockbuster to remain afloat.

The problem is Seppi is suffering from terminal cancer and can hardly be counted upon to produce one. Seppi dies and Zach, the editor who had spotted Seppi, is tasked by his boss to find if Seppi left behind any unpublished work – unfinished novel or short stories – which they could publish to feed the hunger for Seppi’s work among his fans worldwide. This is their only hope for survival.

Seppi lived in Canada and wrote in Italian and had a translator to translate his work into English. Zach goes to Canada to meet the translator who was close to Seppi and is the only living person expected to know whether the recluse author left any unfinished work behind.

Bingo, Seppi did; and Zach’s publishing house acquires its rights for a hefty sum and Zach goes to Frankfurt book fair to promote the book. The book becomes a roaring hit, but its sucess doesn't help Zach’s publishing house to avoid getting gobbled by the publishing giant looking to acquire it.

David develops the plot well through twists and turns that keep the reader interested. However, he often moves in and out of the plot to accommodate interesting trivia from the publishing world that an aspiring author will give anything to know. For example, Davidar takes the scene to Frankfurt book fair to give his reader a detailed tour of the fair.
This informative approach often blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction, but it sustains the interest of the reader, who may be interested to know something beyond the story.

The book is understandably autobiographical and it also leaves you feeling that the author is forcing his views on you. Many a time Davidar argues in favour of conventional publishing houses as against online publishing and is somewhat reluctant to admit that their future might be in danger. Perhaps Davidar should have tried to maintain a detachment with his subject while writing on it.

Davidar’s writing style is simple and his main emphasis is on plot. His language avoids unnecessary clever turn of phrases or words you use more to intimidate your readers than to endear them. His grip on story-telling is not surprising given that he has been actively involved in the editing and polishing of many manuscripts that topped best seller charts. The author is certainly well-read and here and there mentions the names of his favorite writers to support his points.

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