01 April 2015

At the University of Stirling I Sat Down and Did not Write

(From the University of Stirling website, slightly modified as a short piece about the coming into being of Permanent Black fifteen years back.)

Rukun Advani

Rukun Advani Charles Wallace FellowRukun Advani is the author of Beethoven Among the Cows (1994), a novel; E.M. Forster as Critic (1985), a critical study; Indian History from Above and Below: Two Academic Parodies (1999); and Written For Ever: The Best of  'Civil Lines' (2009), an edited anthology.

After a BA and MA from St Stephen's College, Delhi University, and a PhD in English from Trinity Hall, Cambridge, he learnt publishing from Ravi Dayal at Oxford University Press, New Delhi. He now collaborates with his wife, Anuradha Roy, in running Permanent Black, one of India’s most respected academic imprints. He was Writer in Residence at the University of Stirling in 1997.

 

My Time at Stirling

The odd thing about my time in Stirling as writer-in-residence is that my stay was very successful in convincing me I was not cut out to be a writer and that I was at heart a petty merchant who ought to stick firmly to making money as a publisher. The stay may also have been doubly successful in sparking off the creative impulse in my wife Anuradha Roy, who was there with me the whole time in October-November 1997. It was a honeymoon fellowship for us, we were married a few days before we reached Stirling. She has since published a couple of very well-received novels with a third to be published this year (2015). So the Stirling fellowship may have achieved a global first of sorts with me, or rather us: the first successful transfer of a creativity baton from husband non-writer to wife-writer. Odd how things have turned out, and it may not be the kind of advertisement you [the University of Stirling] have in mind for the fellowship programme, but we remember it as entirely successful, in fact as a great and life-changing time of happiness....

... I was employed as history editor by OUP India at the time I got the Stirling fellowship. Having published one novel, which made me feel on top of the world because I’d never imagined I had what it takes to write a novel and because it was accepted by Faber, I thought I should attempt another. I did try quite hard to get something going over the weeks at Stirling, but the only result was the realization that I was forcing myself in a direction leading nowhere. Meanwhile I’d begun missing unfinished projects back in my office, and, specially, the regular feedback on sales and how much money the books in my history list had made. This was how Stirling made me see that I was at heart a member of the trading castes. I was delighted when the two publishing studies people in Stirling suggested a seminar with their students, and that went off really well, I think, even if it wasn’t what the audience expected, because I spoke on the philosophy of good publishing and its cultural and moral importance — a very Leavisite defence of high traditions along with a sniffy view of pulp fiction and lowbrow publishing. This was a bit of a paradox since I was arguing for the kind of publishing that makes less money than the one I was being sniffy about. The money-making meant a lot to me, but only if it went hand in hand with publishing what was culturally and ethically contributing in its own little way to an improved world (or at least to a world that in my opinion had not been de-proved).

Three years later, Anuradha and I had a huge row with a new ruling dispensation at the OUP and left to set up Permanent Black, a small academic press which over the past fifteen years has become widely known as the press for South Asian history, cultural studies, politics, and sociology. We have nearly 300 hardback and 150 paperback titles in our list. At the start of the venture, fifteen years back, we sometimes wondered, when viewing with dismay the expression of gloom and doom on the face of our accountant, if we shouldn't have called ourselves Permanent Red.

Over the years, we tried to keep overheads low and editorial skills high. We managed to strike copublishing deals with a large number of reputed American university presses. Our distributors in India, Orient Blackswan, became colleagues, supporters, and friends without whom we would not have lasted more than a year or two. And so the name we'd chosen worked. A smile would occasionally suffuse the face of our accountant. He no longer puffed nervously at his cigarette.

We’ve remained small and sniffy: no employees, just the two of us (we use freelance proof-readers). It is not easy to be published by Permanent Black. We take on quite few books and turn down many because the money-making has to go hand in hand with high quality intellectual publishing which academics will value and use, and which via them will trickle through into the minds of their students. I can’t say this is only the result of Stirling, but Stirling helped very fundamentally to settle me in this professional direction.

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