Much criticism from the early to the middle of the twentieth century – over which period critical practice would be turned increasingly into academic discipline – was written by what managers in the last fifty years have been calling “creative writers”. In spite of this, the romantic prejudice against imaginative writers who “think” in the Anglophone world is an old one, and predates the emergence of academic disciplines to do with criticism and scholarship.
As for us, we’ve been living in a period in which writers appear at literary festivals mainly to share the talismanic properties of their craft – to do with whether they write in longhand or on the computer; what kind of ball point pen they use; whether they write in the afternoon or morning. Craft is not seen to be a form of historical or intellectual practice; if writers happen to know anything, the knowledge is extraneous, and may or may not be put to use. This extraneous knowledge could have to do with, say, politics, anthropology, the social sciences, or climate change. The writer may be asked to comment on issues related to these disciplines or concerns. If she or he is asked to comment on craft, however, it will be because we want an account of the magical rather than the historical.
Professional scholarship and sociology – I don’t include “criticism” here, since it has, in the academy, been in protracted death-throes for decades – is left to academics, who are seen somehow not to be “writers”; that is, not one of those who dabble in craft and magic.
Once you step out of the domain of the Anglophone – that is, the literary sphere in Britain, the USA, and partly India – you realise that the nervousness about philosophy, “theory”, and criticism that marks writers (who exhibit less anxiety about espousing the sociological, the historical, or the political) is relatively absent in poets and novelists from Western and Eastern Europe, from the Middle East, and from some of the major writers who write or wrote in languages like, say, Urdu or Hindi.
In 2005, at a gathering of international writers in Norwich, I discovered that the Anglophone writer’s uneasiness with thought was aberrant rather than “normal” in the literary world (here I mean “world” more literally than figuratively). It was a curious congregation, in that the incarnation of the “international” I encountered there emphasised to me not a worldwide family of writers, in which the unremarked-on medium of communication happened to be English, but a schism: a difference in tone between the English-speaking and non-Anglophone that had not to do simply with political or ethnic backgrounds, but the relationship with thinking. For instance, Dubravka Ugresic had much to say on the “new” country she belonged to, Croatia, and the historic destruction it had emerged from was implicit in what she said; but her words were not without an irony to do with how belonging to do this nation and also discovering the West for the first time had led her to revise her understanding of the literary. For writers like her, engaging with the intellectual foundations of literary practice didn’t seem to be incompatible with creativity.
That politics, outside the Anglophone literary sphere, need not be extraneous to w hat writing or craft embody, that a writer needn’t just speak or write about politics (that word, “about”, is a key term in Anglophone literary discourse, and is meant to enforce a dichotomy between creativity and thought, writing and event), that politics can be related to the poetics of narrative in a way that seems impossible today in mainstream English writing, became clearer to me in the aftermath of the Hindi novelist Uday Prakash’s forfeiture of his Sahitya Akademi Award as a protest against state-abetted violence against writers.
Prakash wasn’t just saying that fiction should be free to utter political truths that were unpleasant to the present dispensation; during a discussion on television, he said that he was defending writing’s “ambivalence”. When I asked him about his use of this word, he said he had in mind Susan Sontag’s essay, “Against Interpretation”, which he’d encountered years ago; he was struck by the notion that interpretation is a “power-tool” (Prakash’s word), and that it tends to make the writer culpable in “power-centric systems”. “Dissenting authors of every political or religious system had to face similar fate. Akhmatova, Bulgakov, Dabholkar, Kalburgi, Mandelstam and others,” said Prakash to me in a message.
What I find instructive here are not only the overlaps that encourage us to throw out prefabricated intellectual itineraries and start mapping things anew (Hindi; fiction; the village in which Prakash grew up; his erstwhile Maoist sympathies; Sontag; “ambivalence”), but that “interpretation” and “power-centric systems” should converge in Prakash’s imagination in a way that would be unlikely for an Anglophone counterpart, for whom politics on the one hand and writing and criticism on the other come from very distinct realms.
Writing might often be about politics both inside and outside the Anglophone sphere, but there’s also a chance that, outside it, the “about” may be dispensed with in a way that allows poetics and politics to flow into each other.
In the Anglophone literary sphere today (I can’t speak authoritatively for other languages), writing is secondary. The writer may be relatively unimportant but is the focus of more attention than writing itself. If a discussion on writing is largely a discussion on the writer, what are the terms of this discussion? How do writers assess themselves? If craft is a kind of magic, and, conversely, if writing novels is mainly dignified by the fact that it involves hard work (research; a regular discipline ensuring productivity), and if writing itself is neither an argument nor intervention – that is, a working out of ways in which a writer is at odds with, while being part of, their larger practice – then what represents a writer’s struggle; how do they judge what they have done?
It would seem that most writers today refer primarily to a checklist. This checklist defines writerly ambition. Naturally, the first thing on it is publication. Almost inextricable from this basic aim, to be published, are the questions, “Who is going to be my publisher? And where will I be published? Will it be Jonathan Cape? Will it be in London? And in New York?” If these ambitions are achieved, then the inaugural bit of the check-list is taken care of – one would now just need to ensure that the tick mark denotes a permanent state of affairs: that is, that one continues to be published in a major Western metropolitan centre by an acknowledged publisher.
Then come the hour of publication and its aftermath. Will I get reviewed? You begin by presuming that you will be reviewed everywhere. Gradually, it dawns on you that this may not be the case. Will I get coverage in the Guardian? In the New Yorker? But who will review me in the New Yorker? (This question succeeds the previous one.) I want James Wood to review me. Would Michiko Kakutani write about me in the New York Times? Naturally, I want these responses to be thoughtful and positive. Once these are taken care of, a substantial part of the check-list has been addressed.
Then there’s the matter of prizes. I want to be honoured. Which prizes do I stand a chance of winning? How do I increase my chances? Tautological as this might sound, even better than lobbying is the idea of writing a prizewinning book. I need to get on to shortlists; and win. Which awards have I won? In the ethos surrounding fiction-writing in Britain and its former territories, it’s essential I win the Booker, or am shortlisted, or at least longlisted. The position of the Booker in relation to the writer published in Britain is roughly equivalent to what the Eiffel Tower’s was, according to Guy de Maupassant, to the Parisian: it seemed – indeed, seems – to follow you wherever you are. “To escape the Eiffel Tower,” Maupassant said (as Roland Barthes pointed out), “you have to go inside it.” Similarly, the only reason any writer would want to win the Booker is to no longer be under the obligation of winning it.
Once the checklist is all ticked – as it is in, say, Ian McEwan’s case, twice over – the question that echoed repeatedly in Yeats’s ear remains: ‘“What then? sang Plato’s ghost.”’
Attending to, and assiduously ticking, the checklist doesn’t absolve the writer from their main task: to make a case for their writing, and to argue for how it’s to be read.
The writer’s job is not to be Jhumpa Lahiri (I use the name as a shorthand for our obsession with certain forms of acquisition: for instance, awards and column inches in the New Yorker). Certainly, Jhumpa Lahiri doesn’t think that it’s her job to be Jhumpa Lahiri, but to work out what her writing is about.
With DH Lawrence or Henry James we don’t know or remember what the checklist was: who their publishers were, which magazines they contributed to and how much they got paid for their pieces, which awards they received, if any. But we’re aware that they did not shirk the task of trying to create the parameters within which they were read, and within which we think of reading itself.
The interventionist act need not necessarily take the form of a piece of writing. It could express itself as a move to Trieste: a move from one’s native location to an unexpected one is an attempt to fashion a parameter of reading and reception. The move – which could well be part of a checklist, or a meaningless gesture – could also be a variety of thought. So could not publishing one’s writing. Here I’m thinking of Franz Kafka (who published little), Fernando Pessoa (ditto), Jibanananda Das, and Arun Kolatkar (the last two withheld some of their most important work). This is not a courtship of failure. It’s an attempt on the part of these writers to fashion the terms by which they are read.
Whatever the cultural contexts which appear to define me or other writers and artists – to do with race, identity, class, or history – it seems that none of them is definitive. One must remake these categories, not to assert one’s individualism, but because both the critical and the creative are inextricable from such a remaking – from a refashioning of notions of one’s cultural inheritance. Every category is open, and we probably first become aware of this during our inevitably errant encounter with the art object, or poem. This encounter – which may take the form of viewing a Rembrandt in an art gallery, or watching a film by Satyajit Ray or Abbas Kiarostami, or, for Raghubir Singh, veering regretfully but decisively away from a body of distinguished photographic work on India – reminds us that the definitions at hand to do, for example, with history, modernity, and culture, are inadequate to explaining the artist’s actions and reactions.
The fact that we – both artists and all of us who respond to an artwork – feel out of place in relation to handed-down cartographical narratives that inform us what our location in the world is supposed to be becomes evident as we uncover unexpected, even inappropriate, aesthetic affinities, and experience powerful but, again, inappropriate moments of recognition – as Ray did when he first saw Kurosawa’s Rashomon, though he realised he knew nothing of Japanese cinema – or, on the other hand, inklings of discomfiture in the presence of the canonical. The discomfiture may arise not just because of the power-relations the encounter resonates with, to do with race, class, or imperialism, but because the historical parameters of the encounter – according to which I’m placed in a culturally appropriate position vis a vis the art object – don’t make full sense.
This means I need to constantly refashion the narratives by which I understand my encounter with the artwork or poem, not in the light of what history tells me, but what the artwork does.
At any given point, it rejects the handed-down account. This doesn’t mean that the artwork is outside history; it eludes an inherited history. For instance, the films of Abbas Kiarostami are not accounted for by what I’ve been told about the East, the West, modernity, and Iran. After watching, for instance, Life and Nothing More – which not only depicts the aftermath of an earthquake but reconsiders the process of filmmaking itself – I not only have to rethink Iran, but the modern, in which Kiarostami’s decisions about narrative are embedded. This leads to the question: How do I relate the modern, and the departures in form it represents, to Iran?
Our reason for generally not asking this question when we see a film, especially an Iranian film, is because we view it for its content, and as a presentation of a culture and society, without necessarily being interested in what the history of the formal decisions – the formal agreements and disagreements – that the film emerges from tells us of that culture’s history, and ours. The encounter is a critical act because it’s the starting-point in our awareness of the inadequacy of the terminology, the appropriate vocabulary, at our disposal. Critical language is a language that’s unable to rely on the givens of cultural and racial lineage. The key word here is “givens”. Critical language is a reinvention of lineage: rather than debunking lineage, it asks us to overhaul our conception of what it is. This is equally true of creative language. The one indefatigable, modest, self-renewing moral purpose of both creative and critical language is to dismantle, and refuse to reconfirm, what we already know to be true.
Excerpted with permission from the Introduction to The Origins of Dislike, Amit Chaudhuri, Oxford University Press.