“About a decade ago, I interrupted a talk I was giving to a small group of international writers and academics gathered in Delhi to say, ‘F*** storytelling.’
My respondent, a British Asian literary journalist, later said, while commenting on my talk, how ‘shocked’ she’d been by my remark. It wasn’t the expletive she objected to, but my attack on ‘storytelling’, which had been so ‘empowering to peoples and cultures’. ‘Storytelling’ had, by now, become a sacred cow that you insulted at your own risk.
My reasons for making that remark were at least twofold. The first had to do with the fact that – given we live in an ethos in which the event is of primary significance, and whatever is significant has to be construed as an event of some sort – it follows that part of the reason stories are important is because they contain a happening, or happenings, in a character’s or a place’s life. It also follows that the eventless can’t be the proper subject of a story.
My second reason has to do with my discomfiture with the idea that ‘storytelling’ is a feature of non-Western culture, and a valuable resource, as a result, of a postcolonial politics that sets itself up against the Enlightenment. A glance at non-Western artistic expression reveals, however, a deep commitment to forms outside of what we now think of as ‘narrative’ (synecdoche, for instance, and other means of poetic elision).”— From 'Concept Note: Against Storytelling' by Amit Chaudhuri
I recently attended the 4th Annual International Symposium: Against Storytelling, which got me thinking about the value of my university education. The Arts are constantly criticised for failing to make a valuable contribution to society, especially as an English major who is regularly asked what I can really do with my English degree.
Questions range from “don’t you just sit and read” or “aren’t you over-thinking or over-analysing the book”. I even have a friend who cheekily calls my entire department the “berozgari gang”. After all these questions it was a little disconcerting to sit in a symposium and talk about how we must devalue literary and creative pursuits.
The symposium was a lament against the celebration of “world literature” or, as writer Amit Chaudhuri, who conceived the event, put it, the “privileging of a narrative that has no outside”. As globalisation spreads, so does our access to material goods all around the world. Not limited to merchandise, we are also able to import culture and experiences. Along with authentic ethnic food and clothes, we can also access ethnic experiences through various literary and media forms.
Shopping for literature
For literature to participate in this global market, it has to be valued and quantified. The buyer must know exactly what she is buying. This is now our brand value, our unique selling point. Literary scholars read and write stories. The equivocation of literature with stories has come to mean that to read a text is to know it. Stories become an organisational force, which categorise and sequence events in order to convey a singular meaning. The form and context of stories are fixed and become the basis for categorisations of literary texts into different genres aimed at different readers.
As Chaudhuri put it books no longer become classics, rather, classics are written. Book-shopping has become highly reminiscent of grocery-shopping, where we can go and pick up a long story, a short story, some Indian literature, some South American literature, and a little bit of poetry for a touch of whimsy.
This globalising literature has not only monetary but moral value as well. The trade of stories is celebrated as “world literature” a quickly-being-popularised literary genre that sells us the fantasy of inclusive and multicultural literature. The promise of connecting and empathising with all of humanity through stories we read is a seductive one, especially to an unemployable English Major. If my reading and writing can heal the world while making some money on the side, it’s not a bad bargain. However, the symposium’s theme, “Against Storytelling”, cautions us against such bargains, and warns us not only about the traps of commercial storytelling but also the stories we tell ourselves, that stories will one day deliver us from all evil.
Suspicions of literature
In its indictment against stories, the symposium implicates every literary institution, both academic and professional. My own university education comes under scrutiny. When I started university I remember thinking it would be just like school. I expected the educational model to progress like a narrative plot, where a problem is introduced and resolved, and the lesson learnt becomes the foundation to solve the next problem, which in turn teaches us something new. Poet Tiffany Atkinson described this as a form of academic house cleaning that organises all literature in a framework of learning that assumes that reading each text will fulfil a specific course objective.
I expected that as a student of literature, each book that I read had a specific value or a fixed meaning. I looked at the syllabus as a sequence that led me from one lesson to another. After reading and understanding each text once, I could move on to the next book. Of course it was only after I started down the rabbit-hole that I realised it was a trap. The process of learning did not stop. As an avid reader I expected that studying literature would be a different experience. The practices that I indulged in privately, where I read exclusively for pleasure, would somehow translate into a professional skill that allowed me to create something of value.
Instead, after four years all I can do is confirm people’s suspicions of literature, “Yes all we do in class is read books and discuss them”. They seem both vindicated and stunned, wondering how I could spend hours discussing a book. Once you knew the story, what more was there to discuss? However, the story is mere scaffolding, which is rarely if ever mentioned. Instead we indulge in a form of reading that does not try to extract meaning from a text.
And then there’s the paragraph
Chaudhuri scandalously admits that he would be content with reading and obsessing about just one good paragraph from a book without desiring to read the rest of it. With his admission, he threatens not just the integrity of the text but our understanding of its value. How do we categorise and value this paragraph? Stories organise and mobilise the words, sentences and paragraphs towards the task of conveying meaning. A paragraph should only have meaning when it falls in step with the larger structure of the story.
By valuing the paragraph more than the entire story, Chaudhuri scrambles the entire regulatory logic of stories that privileges chronology and causality. What is the value of the book, the paragraph that is so full of possibilities or the story that tries to contain these possibilities? Is Chaudhuri a fool who would keep a paragraph and discard the story, or is he a genius who can read so much into just one paragraph? I would say a little of both.
If the paragraph is abstracted from the larger story, how will the reader determine its place in the story’s sequence and hence its consequence? The paragraph unburdens itself of the charge to convey just one meaning in service of the larger narrative, opening itself up to a range of possibilities. Instead, we can read and re-read multiple narratives into a paragraph. Thus, as Atkinson puts it, we lean against the structure of the story, using it as a support system while resisting it at the same time.
Reading as an infection
The act of re-reading in this manner also puts a stress on the distinction that we set up between reading and writing. Jean-Frédéric Chevallier explores this particular category of confusion in his theatrical performances, which, he suggests, lies outside the bounds of story. At the symposium he told an anecdote about one of the spectators at his show. The woman approached him during the interval in attempt to know when the story would start. It was only after he assured her that there would be no story that she could relax and enjoy the rest of the performance.
When the expectation of a story that explained the performance was removed, she could participate more actively arranging and re-arranging the elements of the performance into any formation she desired. Thus she had to simultaneously read and write. What was the value of her ticket then? Was it what she received in the course of the performance or what she was forced to invest of herself in it?
All of these speakers seem to be reiterating the same message – reading is that which resists all categorisation, ordering, and sequencing. It doesn’t follow the logic of “or” but that of “and”. It may seem like a gluttonous accumulation of knowledge if not for the fact that this ‘and’ constantly shatters the concepts it unifies. A reading practice that is simultaneously reading and writing, an introduction to a text that is both new and old, a story that is both valuable and worthless.
Reading is then an infection that invades and contaminates everything. The creative and literary potential of the book cannot be contained within its pages, but leaks from it. Hence the symposium itself was a waiting room like the one that Atkinson explores in her talk. It was a space in which all the participants came together, not to celebrate in communal harmony, but to wait a while before they each departed their own separate way. There was no value or coherence to this meeting except to infect and be infected by the ideas that were floating about.
If we allow for the possibility of contamination through reading, for the deconstructive possibilities of the word “and”, then “world literature” is no longer a benign term that can be easily explicated. It is not the creation of a literary oeuvre but the undoing of it. Texts will never reduce themselves to a singular meaning to fit an agenda or fulfil a function in a larger political or economic framework. They will always forget their place.
Thus world literature can never provide a framework for peaceful negotiation between different cultural contexts because, like sly, manipulative and politically savvy ambassadors, they will always imply more than they say. They are not the straight-shooters we desire, but exactly the devious and inefficient representatives we resent who can never stay on message. All they do is wreak havoc and play, never producing any valuable change.
This idea of play brings me back to my own education. In these past four years I have changed and been transformed, but I would not be able to classify this movement as growth. I read before I started university and that is all that I do now. Maybe I read with more intensity and with a different emphasis but I still cannot produce much.
After seeing his father’s ghost and realising that the dead don’t always remain dead, Hamlet famously remarks, “The time is out of joint”. After repudiating the organisational logic of stories, I feel like I am out of joint. I have become more susceptible to the power of reading, and constantly find myself demolishing and rebuilding everything around me. Like Hamlet’s ghost, words, phrases, sentences sneak out of their stories and haunt me. But unlike Hamlet, I do not try exorcise them, instead I play their game of creation and destruction.
Nayani Goyal is a graduate student in the Arts.