Madhuri Banerjee was irked at being labelled a chick-lit author, until she realised that it was what sold. Devjani Bodepudi tries to get her to spill the beans on how to make it big.
There is no real recipe for success, no magic formula which will guarantee that a book will sell millions and millions of copies and turn its author into a household name. We’ve been told this countless times and yet, there are a few writers out there in our literary cosmos who seem to have stumbled upon the fabled fairy dust, which made their books float up into the hallowed ether of a bestsellers list.
I had the very real honour of interviewing one such writer a few days ago. Madhuri Banerjee writes books we all want to read. I mean they’re funny, insightful and most importantly full of useful titbits about that elusive thing called love.
My Clingy Girlfriend, her latest bestseller, is a very clever take on love and relationships from a man’s POV. The word which immediately popped into my little head, upon realising that the protagonist was Obrokanti and not Oindrila, was ‘genius’.
Banerjee had managed to crawl inside a man’s head, rummage around and pick out the most essential bits that all us girls need to know to give us a realistic picture of how a man thinks. For your information, 50 percent of men, according to Banerjee, are riddled with a certain amount of self-doubt, uncontrollable lust and ultimately are completely clueless in the ways of love. As her opening line confirms: “I can honestly say that I, Obrokanti Banerjee, know jack shit about love. Nothing. Nada. Zip.” And yet he has managed to bag himself a beautiful girlfriend, whose only flaw, it seems, is that she’s a little clingy. I mean, stereotypically clingy for full comic effect. Incidentally, Banerjee also told me during her interview that Radha, our hero’s girlfriend is a representation of 50 percent of women. These percentages were then jacked up to a rough 80 percent to suggest that in the world of her newest commercial success, four out of five men and women behave and think exactly like this. It was indeed a riotous read.
I really was in awe of such insight and use of statistics!
Banerjee had managed to crawl inside a man’s head, rummage around and pick out the most essential bits that all us girls need to know to give us a realistic picture of how a man thinks.
I managed to reign in my excitement just long enough to ask her about the very important issue of designing the cover. After all, so many books we see on our shelves today, which belong to the commercial fiction genre are clad in covers which give the reader a very good idea of the contents.
I can happily confirm that Banerjee had a lot of input on her cover. She actually wanted it to look that way! Did her creativity know no bounds, I asked myself.
I contemplated the other books we see on our shelves, the so-called classics and I wonder why they chose the artsy-fartsy route instead of the explicit, in your face, tell-it-like-it-is cover. Perhaps they would sell better if they chose a lipstick smudge superimposed onto a silhouette of an intense looking couple walking in the lamplight under an umbrella.
I then got onto the task of asking Banerjee about the content of her books. Did she feel pressured by her publishers to steer clear of subjects such as abortion? “No,” she replied. They accepted every idea she gave them as long as she didn’t want to do literary fiction. Literary fiction didn’t do well in this market. I mean it’s true. Who wants to read anything of any quality? Sorry, substance? I mean difficult? I mean…never mind!
Gone are the days (or maybe they never existed) where people would read books which commented on society, which reported on the injustices of our time, which highlighted the beauty of the everyday. We simply don’t want books like that anymore. Or is that we don’t want women to write these books anymore? I ask this because the Man Booker Prize had only two women on their shortlist last year. Or is it *gasp* that women will never be good enough to win a literary award, unless of course it’s an award specifically designed for women, such as the controversial Bailey’s Prize for fiction?
One particular chair of judges, Lola Young, commented that the British fiction by women that they were asked to appraise fell into two categories, either “insular and parochial” or “domestic in a piddling kind of way.” What would she make, I wondered, of the Indian scene and Madhuri Banerjee and some of our other worthy writers?
I shook away the idea as soon as it entered my head. We don’t need women writing good books—I mean literary books of any substance. We women need Banerjee’s particular blend of writing to warm our cockles and satisfy our fantasies.
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for example, essentially belonged to the chick lit genre, it could be argued. I’ll skirt over the social commentary that Austen often engages in her books, I’ll side-step her clever use of satire and sarcasm when dealing with her characters, because that’s hardly important. What is important was the sexual tension between Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett.
I wanted to ask Banerjee about the ‘Chick Lit’ label, to get inside the head of such a wonderful writer who possessed said label would be invaluable. She told me—and I would have to agree—that every woman loves a bit of ‘chick lit’. Romance is great, be it Pretty Woman or Notting Hill. Although she was irked at first at being labelled a chick-lit author, she realised that it was what sold. And she did indeed sell.
And when I thought about it, I was forced to ask, “what really is chick lit?” Isn’t it books, written for women, about women and about women-centric issues? Women make up at least 50 percent of the population, so for there to be a genre dedicated to the things that affect us the most, such as falling in love with a tennis player, or our husbands turning out to be impotent (themes explored by Banerjee), then we should celebrate that. She’s embraced the label now, at a time when we need it most. And she’s selling well, because she’s awesome at it.
What we deem as classic now, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for example, essentially belonged to the chick lit genre, it could be argued; with her long-frocked protagonists paving the way for Bridget Jones and the likes of Chetan Bhagat’s glorious cast of social caricatures. I’ll skirt over the social commentary that Austen often engages in her books, I’ll side-step her clever use of satire and sarcasm when dealing with her characters, because that’s hardly important. What is important was the sexual tension between Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett.
We certainly don’t want literature written by women which will allow us to glimpse into family and dilemma and history and social politics. We should leave that to the men.
Moving on, I wanted to explore the idea of feminism and what it was. Commercial fiction seems to lend itself perfectly to be a platform for women to express themselves and talk about their very important needs. In Banerjee’s book Scandalous Housewives, very real, aching issues are explored. Things that women should be talking about and taking control over. Things like wanting kinky sex or having an affair with one’s brother-in-law and saying, “enough is enough…my husband treats me like furniture and I won’t take it anymore!” or the woman who decides her life is about herself and not the men in her life, it’s all really very empowering! And women, especially in this country, are battling these issues every single day. I’ve conveniently forgotten the women who are forced into labouring in the sun for the building of our roads, without proper safety equipment, I’m not going anywhere near female foeticide and I won’t even get started on caste. The real, very important issues are the ones highlighted in Banerjee’s books and books like hers. And we love them!
We love to be immersed in the lives of women and men just like us, or exaggerated versions of us, with dilemmas like crazy clingy girlfriends who only exist everywhere. We certainly don’t want literature written by women which will allow us to glimpse into family and dilemma and history and social politics. We should leave that to the men.
Chick lit, especially Banerjee’s particular brand (because she’s a feminist remember?), challenges patriarchy, according to her. Maybe she’s being satirical by penning a portrait of the most patriarchal fictional figure I have ever come across, in Obrokanti Banerjee, and then making us feel sorry for him because his girlfriend and all subsequent female characters in the story are manipulative, bossy, constantly in need of reassurance and are obsessive about their man. Obrokanti is quite right in being turned on by the suggestion of virginity. Long flowing locks and doe eyes are high on the list for judging quality and worth. Breasts are compared from one woman to the next and of course, we are led to believe this specimen of Bengali manhood is just struggling to get by in a world filled to the brim with crazy women who want to bed him and possess him in every possible way.
I asked Banerjee again what the secret ingredients were for a bestseller. I was more direct this time; it was infuriating that I did not know yet. Her reply was a tinkling laugh. “I wish I knew,” she said. She gave me the example of one book, Mistakes like Love and Sex, which was all set to become a bestseller, “but since it was about a woman and trying to find her sexuality, and it came out during the whole Nirbhaya incident in Delhi. And everybody, the entire country was talking about rape and here was my book talking about a woman trying to find her sexuality. [She] just clashed with the time it was released, you know what I mean. So if that book was released today I think it would do really well.”
In Banerjee’s book Scandalous Housewives, very real, aching issues are explored. Things that women should be talking about and taking control over. Things like wanting kinky sex or having an affair with one’s brother-in-law, or the woman who decides her life is about herself and not the men in her life, it’s all really very empowering!
OK, so now I knew what not to do. If I wanted a bestseller, I had to make sure that it was released when there were no inconvenient controversies happening, like the Delhi gang rape of 2012, and then I would be halfway there.
But really, there was no secret formula that she could give me. What I gleaned from our little chat is that chasing success, like chasing love, was futile. What mattered was that you did what you did, because you were passionate about it. “[It] is just a changing time that would make your book a bestseller and it has nothing to do with you and your potential…[It’s important to] keep going, to keep on working and hope that [you produce] bestsellers…”
The final words of wisdom Banerjee had for me, were related to a storyline I presented to her, for a movie I would like to make some day, when I have grown enough as a writer, I suppose. It holds enough truth about life to last, well, a lifetime. It was a dialogue she suggested for my female protagonist’s man-hating, potentially bisexual best friend, to be played (hopefully) by Kalki. “Don’t be stupid! Love doesn’t have any pacts,” Kalki says to Deepika when Deepika doesn’t notice Saif’s devotion to her. And perhaps you cannot make a pact with success, either, if writing chick lit is what you love.
“Love. Doesn’t. Have. Any. Pacts.”