A writer speaks

Why do people seem so weary with literature? How do we rebuild the alphabet for writing?

A novelist muses on the market, reading, and the need for writers to do it differently.

This essay was originally published in Public Books.

I am reading an interview with Mahasweta Devi from 2002. At 75, having won renown for her fiction about the lives of peripheral peoples, she is full of delight at her continued discoveries: “I do what I want to, go wherever I want to, write down whatever I like.” She travels and pokes around, she collects stories. She seems interested in the habits and everyday practices of small communities across India, and the words and euphemisms they have to describe them.

And then something comes along and diverts the current: a woman rebels, a man leaves town. The language shifts to reflect the new experience. Mahasweta calls the process “maddeningly fascinating.” I’m enchanted by the freedom she has given herself and I recognize it too. There is so much to write about! A profusion of mute lives that can be given voice.

But as soon as I think of this expansiveness, of a solitary kind but enriching, another image swims into view – of a different vastness, a more stifling one. It’s a picture I saw recently of an online retailer’s giant warehouse with thousands of books stacked in shelves under harsh strip lighting.

Now we all know that the terrain over which Mahasweta journeys and this enclosure – the books warehouse – belong to different worlds. I really shouldn’t mix them up. One space is literal but also imaginative; the other is just business as usual. We dream in private and share in public. We’re reluctant to stain the purity of one space with the grubbiness of the other. Perhaps we even exaggerate how common the one is, how elevated the other, as EM Forster suggests in Howards End. However cultured we are, implies Forster, we do need to dirty our hands a little, if only to remain in touch with real life.

So why was I considering Mahasweta and retailing in the same breath? I was distracted, trying to settle back into writing after knocking around the country for some months, talking in public about my new book, and with fellow writers about their books. Now, back home, I was suffering from a mild case of what the French call esprit d’escalier – the ability to think up great comebacks post-facto. Sitting at my desk, I was devising answers to questions whose time had passed, nagged by one that was difficult to resolve even in tranquility.

Why are people, particularly the young, even those who voluntarily associate with literature, expressing such weariness with it?

This had been put to me onstage by a gentle artist who had not had the time to read my novel and thought we should chat instead about the sources of creativity. What kind of music did I listen to? What might be the view from my window? I looked out now at the winter incandescence that is perhaps unique to the inland Indian south. It was chilly in a warm way, the skies were clear, the birds in full voice, and the lanes resounded with the crunch of dried leaves.

I hadn’t told her what I could see through my window; I had tried to evade the question. Who knows what fuels the creative instinct? Perhaps it’s better to leave it alone. I remember using the word “irreducible.” The audience seemed still but was, I worried, in a mental fidget. Why couldn’t I give them something surer about where it all came from?

A lady got up to leave and didn’t close the door behind her. From the corridor drifted in sounds of what could have been a wonderfully raucous cocktail party in progress. Inside we continued to ponder how art is made.

Mahasweta Devi (Image credit: Naveen Kishore)
Mahasweta Devi (Image credit: Naveen Kishore)

I realised now that I had forgotten the obvious thing – reading. Don’t writers draw most of all from other writers? But here I remembered, still sitting at my desk and looking at winter, sharing a taxi earlier in the year with a writer of romantic best sellers, from Bombay airport to our hotel, both of us in town for the same literary event, and he telling me the story of how he became a writer: my fiancée died, he said, so I wrote my first novel.

I ought to have been mortified, but some of the possible embarrassment over this revelation was mitigated by the fact that it was no surprise. I already knew, from the news, about the sudden death of the woman due to become his fiancée and the subsequent writing of the novel. Half the country did, it was everywhere. This man, Ravinder Singh, was famous.

I wondered if I could ask him how the decision had formed in his mind – to express the grief through fiction – but the story had in the meantime taken a great leap ahead and the taxi had barely cleared the Dharavi slum when we were already on the verge of the novel’s publication. Our writer-to-be was making an appeal to the head of the software company where he worked to endorse his book.

Several thousand emails went out from this generous boss to his many employees, saying to them, read this! The author was, as a result, already a name among his colleagues before the novel was out. And though Singh didn’t say it, the only fitting conclusion to the tale, one that I was being invited to consider, was: and here you have what goes into making a successful writer. I say “successful writer” rather than “successful novel” because the creation of an author seemed to be the key here rather than the writing of effective fiction.

Singh did quite openly say on that ride that he knew nothing about literature, and he certainly hadn’t read any fiction before he decided to write some of his own.

A few months later, on yet another literary occasion in Calcutta, we were able for some minutes to continue the conversation started in the Bombay taxi. This was at an opening-night dinner that featured giant legs of mutton, whole fish too large to be contained by mere dinner plates, and a magnificent, bower-like display of desserts. We were celebrating something, if only the ability of literature in our time to get five-star chefs to drum up the most decadent feasts.

Ravinder Singh told me then about a publishing house he’d started exclusively for writers of first novels. He thought debutants got a raw deal if they got one at all and, having learned the ropes, wanted to help. So he was, presumably, reading manuscripts now, I thought, even though he has nothing in his experience to compare them with.

I was staggered by the newness of it all, and what was new, as much in the wine-soaked banter around me as in the smiling bravura of this writer-turned-publisher, was the dismissal of the past. Literature is one way in which we get across to the past and connect with it and, looking around, I wondered if this novelty we’re so drunk on might also mean a rejection of literature. Where did we get the immense confidence to do that? And where might this dismissal lead us? For the time being there were no answers forthcoming.

Ravinder Singh
Ravinder Singh

I continued to sit idle at my desk, reluctant to embark on whatever new thing I had in mind. The lingering distraction seemed to now speak in a voice that kept coming between me and the page. A murmur interfered. The houses in the neighborhood seemed asleep, all the city’s 10 million inhabitants were at siesta or school or schlepping their wares somewhere.

But this background silence of the afternoon, a silence that one has come to take for granted, treat as a writerly necessity, was now subject to a question. It was one I’d been hearing for some time, asked at the margins of creative writing workshops and literature festivals. I was talking, not long after that extravagant dinner, with a group of students at a Delhi college, and sure enough, there it was again.

Must I really read?

My impulse, of course, is to preach. Heard the first time, the question is easy to dismiss as a blip of callowness on a landscape otherwise replete with well-read souls in perfect concord about the value of literature. Hearing the same appeal a seventh time, one must stop to think. The question becomes of greater interest than the obvious answer. Why are people, particularly the young, even those who voluntarily associate with literature, expressing this weariness with it?

Of course, seen as a task to be undertaken in the service of some decree about self-improvement rather than as an atmosphere in which to live and breathe, reading can seem so desperately tedious.

So what is the emblematic image of literature in the minds of these insistent questioners? Could it be that they’re seeing the serried rows of the warehouse, not the free space of the valley in which Mahasweta roams? If this is their chosen vista, then perhaps it’s understandable that they should ask: why read and be excluded from this marketplace when I can write and become part of it?

Reading, particularly fiction, leaves little imprint outside of oneself. And if the creation of a deeper personality through reading, such as, say, the young Leonard Bast attempts in Howards End, has no part to play in the matter, if all we’re after is writing the book that will make it onto the shelves of the warehouse, if it’s not really the somewhat amorphous and dismayingly vast literature we want to bother with but that hard-edged, distinct thing, a sellable book, then perhaps we ought to learn our tricks elsewhere.

The age of suffering has been supplanted with the age of disappointment.

And this is why those sullen souls who say they don’t wish to read, do actually, when probed, turn out to be reading, of their own accord, however scantily. They’re reading the romantic novelist and other conquerors of the market. Interest in writing is growing even as interest in literature diminishes. Traditionally, we’ve turned to those texts whose value has been reinforced over time. Now and then a reader will come along and declare, I don’t agree with those standards of judging. Forster is not worth reading but Mahasweta is.

But lately we seem to be saying, let the market judge what I have written, inspired by the market, and let the market decide what is worth reading. I had begun my reflections with two mutually exclusive habitations before me, but now there seemed to be just one. The market is the great literary fantasy of our age.

What is it like to live inside this fantasy? I read Singh’s famous novel, apparently also read by one million others, and found that it was premised on a sense of freedom, whatever its source might be – new money, mastering the English language, the opportunities for women to work at almost anything and for men to marry almost whomever they want. But almost as soon as this freedom is gained it is ceded in the interests of securing a comfortable middle-class existence – and everything this might mean in 21st-century India in terms of academic degrees, career choices, and matrimonial preferences.

The young man’s grief at losing his fiancée-to-be is genuine but the novel is not a tragic one. Our man is secure in the choices he makes and it’s just the ugly hand of fate that intrudes. Shit happens is the only conclusion one might draw from the novel in a moral sense.

So we encounter pain at a personal loss here but no wrestling with life itself.

Modern Indian literature was once full of inspired strugglers, facing an alienation that they had to make their own. I am thinking of the novelist RK Narayan, an older contemporary of Mahasweta, whose perfectly formed voice appeared to have come out nowhere at a time when not many Indian writers were working in English. Narayan too wrote a popular novel about the death of a beloved partner, The English Teacher (1945). Its story has a similar trajectory to Singh’s but its texture could not be more different. The joys of love start both writers off, but when Krishna, Narayan’s young English lecturer, becomes a widower, he finds himself locked in an intense spiritual struggle that brings into question his day-to-day life and its routine occupations. It is not the death of his wife but what Krishna tries to make of his grief over that death that renders the novel a whole-hearted examination of pain rather than a tearjerker.

Suffering, however, is no longer de rigueur for artists, no more a signpost we look to for assurance that we’re in the presence of the real thing. If existential battles no longer take center stage, what does? The Age of Suffering has been supplanted with The Age of Disappointment. Singh’s challenge was breaking into the market, not making his story into literature. In the marketplace, one can either win or lose. Since most of us will inevitably lose, the spirit of the times has come to be not a sense of productive struggle but of sterile defeat.

And what defence does one have against it? I considered the species that would turn up their noses at Singh and his ilk – ardent book lovers, lifetime readers of each successive new big name. They are no doubt a worthy and resolute bunch, but they can also be sentimentalists, certain that their reading distinguishes them and that reading is enough. Love for books, it seems to me, did not guarantee sensitivity to the many connections and conversations that bind these books to each other. What is it that could make enthusiastic readers into students of literature?

Anjum Hasan
Anjum Hasan

I turned to the critics. They seem to have accepted that there’s something called literature but can’t agree on what it is.

Some are embarrassed by Indian writing. Others say it’s most certainly not the trite stuff produced by the barbarians at the gate who refuse to read, but by us folks who have taste. Many believe, without necessarily having explored it, that the literature in Indian languages – in Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, or Marathi, say – is the real thing, sadly wasting its sweetness on the desert air. Others insist that what matters is the apparently more sophisticated writing we do in English. We seem to have produced a series of wildly confident statements that cancel each other out. If we can’t agree on what literature is, how can we presume to create or even read it?

The children outside my window have abandoned their games and reluctantly gone home. It is night. The memory of the day’s warm beauty is now pricked with something else – guilt, perhaps, over the fact that the view from the window I presented was incomplete. For beyond the leaves drifting down and the air’s gentle shimmer was the taint of the rest of the city, which can be so ugly, whose odours of garbage and exhaust, whose masses of blank buildings and jammed roads, I had tried to shut out. What I’d really wanted to erase from the picture was what lay behind the grimness: money.

Literature has become like the charmed view from my window, while the larger world outside is driven by something else altogether, a harsher but more compelling truth to which we are all attracted. Do we have it in our power to resist its encroachment? I return to Mahasweta. The interviewer is winding up and asks her for “one last strange word, to leave with.” To which she says:

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. The only way to counter globalisation…just a plot of land in some central place, keep it covered in grass, let there be a single tree, even a wild tree. Let your son’s tricycle lie there. Let some poor child come and play, let a bird come and use the tree…small things. Small dream…People do not have eyes to see. All my life I have been seeing small people and their small dreams.

So perhaps that sliver before me is worth holding on to. It is, in any case, the only thing I have. In the Age of Disappointment, here are the ordinary words we will have to reinvest with magic – grass, tricycle, wild tree, bird. It will be like building up the alphabet all over again in order to learn how to read.

Anjum Hasan’s latest novel is The Cosmopolitans. Her previous works of fiction are Difficult Pleasures, Neti, Neti, and Lunatic in my Head.

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