Book Review | Writers, ghostwriters and the magic of written words

The writer Anthony Trollope, whose works are among the classics of the world, once said “of all the merits a book has, its chief merit is that it is readable”. It seems very logical and simple, but it is surprising how many books are not. Suresh Menon is a well-known journalist specializing in sports and in particular cricket. He was the former editor of the Indian edition of the Wisden Almanack and his cricket books are part of the sports libraries. Yet his wife was not a fan of his sports writing and in part the title of the book comes from his provocation to write something she could read. I say partly, because Menon too, I suppose, is unhappy with some of the books he has read. This book is the result of a sports writer turning his focus to literature. Menon looks back to look at the authors and some of the books that have impressed him greatly.

Thus, the book scores on Trollope’s criteria. It is certainly readable because Menon read widely and deeply. His frequent trips abroad, almost as a camp follower of the Indian cricket team, enabled him to meet a galaxy of writers, some of whom were also avid followers of the game. Menon begins with his own introduction to reading at the age of five starting with his grandfather’s library in Kerala. On his annual vacation he had the privilege of running his fingers over the spines of Penguin paperbacks although the spines of hardback books would have given him a better experience. You can always remove the cover from the hardback jacket and run your fingers over the embossing of the title and publisher’s logo. Beginning with HG Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens, he graduated from other authors and their works, but always eager to access the writer himself to determine the human mind that motivated the writing.

He writes of meeting Naipaul and Ved Mehta who never allowed his lack of sight to identify or deter him, a trait he shared with Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. It tells the hilarious story of Paul Theroux about a party in New York where Naipaul and Mehta were present. A curious guest had serious doubts as to whether Ved Mehta was truly blind. He joins Mehta’s group and takes a position in front of him waving his hands and making faces and thumbs his nose at him. Mehta continues talking. In a final attempt, the guest puts his face one foot in front of Mehta’s face and sticks out his tongue. Mehta continues as if the man does not exist. Defeated and exasperated, the man who leaves meets the hostess. He told her pointing to Mehta, “I always thought that Ved Mehta was pretending to be blind. I am now convinced that he is blind. The stewardess says, “It’s not Mehta. It’s VS Naipaul. For Menon, this captures the essence of Naipaul.

One of the most beautiful chapters in the book is devoted to ghostwriting, the art of writing on behalf of someone else. Michael Robotham who wrote the autobiography of spicy girl Geri Halliwell said, “You’re in a comfort zone as a ghostwriter. You make very good money. And you don’t have your name on the book. So if it fails, you don’t fail publicly. Sports stars have also used ghostwriters, and the author cites 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 on behalf of Tiger Pataudi. The author’s only caveat is “don’t get me in trouble”. He also did Kapil Dev’s cover of the 1987 World Cup, although the 1983 one was more historic and memorable. He was paid a decent amount by Kapil and quite happy, only to be disturbed by a frantic late-night call. “They want another 170 words. Can you send it immediately? He did it conscientiously.

Quite a few authors and writers dot the book with a few chapters interspersed with the author’s “Short Takes”. The problem is that by extending the content to over 270 pages, the book tries to do too much. There are many reviews and short columns that could easily have been left out, reducing its length to a decently sized paperback. This format would have required a more reasonable price thus fulfilling its original purpose of having not only something one would like to read but also more easily affordable.

Why don’t you write something I can read? Reading, writing and arrhythmia

By Suresh Menon

Background, Westland Publications

pp.288, Rs.699