Book Review | Of writers, ghostwriters and the magic of written words

The writer Anthony Trollope whose works are included among the world’s classics once said “of all the merits a book possesses, its chief merit be that it be readable”. Sounds very logical and simple, yet one wonders at the large number of books that are not. Suresh Menon is a reputed journalist, specializing in sports and in particular, cricket. He has been the past editor of the Indian edition of the Wisden Almanack and his books on cricket are a part of sports libraries. Yet, his wife was not a fan of his writings on sports and partly, the title for the book comes out of her provocation to write something she might read. I say partly, because Menon, too, I suspect, is dissatisfied with some of the books he has read. This book is the result of a sportswriter turning his lens on to literature. Menon reverses the gaze to look at authors and some of the books that have impressed him greatly.

So, the book scores on the Trollope criteria. It’s certainly readable for Menon has read widely and deeply. His frequent travels abroad, almost as a camp follower of the Indian cricket team enabled him to meet a galaxy of writers some of whom were also keen followers of the game. Menon begins with his own initiation into reading as a five-year-old begins with his grandfather’s library in Kerala. On his annual vacations, he was privileged to run his fingers across the spines of the Penguin paperbacks though the spines of the hardbacks would have given him a better experience. One can always take the jacket cover off the hardback and run one’s fingers over the embossing of the title and logo of the publisher. Starting with HG Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens, he graduated to other authors and their works but always keen to access the writer in person to ascertain the human spirit which motivated the writing.

He writes on meeting both Naipaul and Ved Mehta who never allowed his lack of sight to either identify or deter him, a trait he shared with the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. He recounts Paul Theroux’s hilarious story about a party in New York where both Naipaul and Mehta were present. An inquisitive guest had serious doubts whether Ved Mehta was really blind. He joins Mehta’s group and taking up a position in front of him waves his hands and makes faces and thumbs his nose at him. Mehta continues speaking. In a final attempt, the guest puts his face a foot in front of Mehta’s face and sticks his tongue out. Mehta carries on as if the man does not exist. Defeated and exasperated, the man on his way out encounters the hostess. He tells her pointing to Mehta, “I always thought Ved Mehta was faking his blindness. I am now convinced he is blind. ” The hostess says, “That’s not Mehta. That’s VS Naipaul. ” For Menon, this captures the essence of Naipaul.

One of the finer chapters in the book is on ghostwriting, the art of writing in someone else’s name. Michael Robotham who wrote the autobiography of Spice Girl Geri Halliwell said, “You are in a comfort zone as a ghostwriter. You earn very good money. And you do not have your name on the book. So, if it fails, you do not fail publicly. ” Sports stars too used ghostwriters and the author quotes an NBA star’s response to a comment on his autobiography. He said, “he hadn’t read it yet”. Menon had his own encounter with ghostwriting. He wrote a regular column in Tiger Pataudi’s name. The author’s only admonition “do not get me into trouble”. He also did the cover story for Kapil Dev on the 1987 World Cup, though the 1983 one was more historic and memorable. He was paid a decent amount by Kapil and quite content, only to be disturbed by a frantic late-night call. “They want another 170 words. Can you send it immediately? ” He dutifully did.

Quite a few authors and writers are strewn through the book with a few chapters interspersed with “Short Takes” by the author. The problem is that by extending the contents to over 270 pages, the book tries to achieve too much. There are many short reviews and columns which could easily have been excluded reducing its length to a decent-sized paperback. This format would have necessitated a more reasonable price thus fulfilling its original objective of not only having something one might like to read but also more easily afford.

Why Don’t You Write Something I Might Read? Reading, Writing and Arrhythmia

By Suresh Menon

Context, Westland Publications

pp. 288, Rs.699

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