In his new book, The Origins of Dislike, Amit Chaudhuri unwraps several aspects of reading, writing, publishing, criticism, and thinking in general, mostly to dismantle the perceived virtuosity of these phenomena.
This collection of Chaudhuri’s talks and previously published essays scandalises in the bubbles it bursts around commonplace notions of profundity and greatness that people use to speak about great books, especially novels. It also pleases with its insights into approaches of writing and interpretation.
Readers who thought they were reading books for pleasure would be shocked to discover that they are themselves an invention of the free market.
In “The Piazza and the Car Park”, Chaudhuri says that the publishing industry and its agents created the reader:
“...unburdened by intelligence; easily challenged by expressions of the intellect; easily diverted by a story, an adventure, a foreign place, or fairy tale, or an issue or theme of importance. This reader was transparent, democratic and resistant only to resistance, occlusion, and difficulty. Writing must assume the characteristics of the ‘reader’: the term for this process, in which literature took on a desirable quality was ‘accessibility’”.
Chaudhuri takes things up a notch when he discusses popular myths among the readers about what goes into writing a novel. Readers may for example be under the impression that writing a novel involves a lot of research, and there are indeed writers who encourage that notion by making a virtue of doing so. Chaudhuri coolly takes it all apart:
“Research authenticates the novel’s putative ambition of representing reality – of embodying the evolution from archival forays to fictionalisation, which sometimes becomes indistinguishable from reconstruction. Indians who clearly haven’t read my work sometimes ask me (as I’m a novelist): ‘You must do a lot of research.’ I’ve pondered on this query, and what I’ve begun to say to them is this: that I ‘do research’ all the time, but not for specific books or projects. That is, the imagination – at least my imagination – doesn’t seem to follow the model of scientific work, from premise to field-work to hypothesis to published findings.”
The very research that is supposed to bring the writer and then the reader closer to a particular historical time reeks of the realist novel: both have an obsession to be true to something – clothes, language, buildings, or ships!
Nor does Chaudhuri have much time for prestigious book prizes: readers are naïve creatures to be taken in by them.
The prize competitions are really an exercise in deliberate randomness with an emphasis on the individual book. For the Booker, as long as it’s a novel, written in English and fortunate enough to be one of the two nominations allowed to a publishing house, anything goes. There is no perspective on the previous works by the same author. The entire process from nomination to longlisting to shortlisting that requires reading over 150 novels in six months is quite an event:
“The Booker Prize morphed from a prize judged by distinguished novelists into a device for ‘market activism’ in the 1990s, with juries made up of politicians and comedians. The agitation it caused was even by the late 1980s, not so much related to the excitement of the literary, which has to do with strangeness of poetic language…as it was an effect of a hyper-excited environment. The way in which the Booker achieved this was by confirming, and allowing itself to be informed by, the market’s value-generating characteristics: volatility and random rewards. The market never promised equitable gain; what it said was: ‘Anyone can get rich.’”
Chaudhuri pays considerable attention to the role the market plays in defining what people read and how. When publishers throw around terms like “classic”, it is the same market activism talking:
“The word ‘masterpiece’ itself became a predictive category, connected to the market’s bullishness and optimism, rather than a retrospective endorsement. When a publisher proclaims today: ‘The new novel we’re publishing in the autumn is a masterpiece’, they mean: ‘We think it will sell 50,000 copies’. No novel that’s expected to sell 500 copies is deemed a ‘masterpiece’ by a mainstream publisher. Gwyn Jones’s statement about Arundhati Roy’s first novel needs, then, to be read as a prediction rather than an assessment, and a prediction made in a bullish marketplace.”
This kind of old-fashioned (or, perhaps, Marxist) sensitivity to the concrete reality of publishing industry, not just in terms of observations, but also in terms of historical perspectives establish that Chaudhuri is not just taking a dig at the who’s who of the literati. His is a well-argued, well-informed take on how global capitalism has changed humanistic values around reading, or co-opted them for profit.
Chaudhuri writes with empathy and irony about writers. Writers who view their craft as being about exploring different angles of human condition would be outraged to discover that they are little more than machines churning out books every two or three years. Those who continue to battle with the angst of writing will see the trap they have walked into when Chaudhuri says:
“The novelist must be as complete in his or her identity as the novel is in its. The primary way of doing this is to produce novels, and to do so with regularity, every two or three years. The market has reified this pattern of productivity: it dictates that the novelist abide by it in order to adhere to a fundamentally mimetic principle.You must produce a novel every few years, it suggests. How can you be a novelist if you stop writing novels?”
One is free from producing more novels if the first one is successful, though. It’s a very strange feeling that Chaudhuri gives voice to: on the one hand, it’s so difficult to call oneself a novelist, or a writer, and on the other, there are too many people aspiring to be novelists. Chaudhuri reminds us how this came to be. The rise of the realist novel has got nothing to do with
“...the author’s wish to reflect society, but society’s – or the crowd’s – new and unprecedented desire to see itself reflected in this burgeoning genre … in the 1980s, another transition occurred. From now on, the crowd no longer wanted to ‘see’ itself in a work of art or in a novel; more and more, it wished tobe– for a limited duration, even – the artist or novelist.”
If readers, publishers and writers are under the discerning eye of Chaudhuri, can critics be far behind?
It’s amusing to know that just as there are many reviewers vying to review celebrity authors, there are authors wanting to be reviewed by celebrity reviewers! The “professional” critics who produce scholarship in literary and cultural studies aren’t any better than the ones writing in review journals for they too fall for the way books are pitched to the public:
“The important European novelist makes innovations in the form; the important Indian novelist writes about India. This is a generalisation, and not one that I believe in. But it represents an attitude that may be unexpressed but governs some of the ways we think of literature today. The first half of the sentence can be changed in response to developments in the millennium to include ‘American’; in fact, to allow ‘American’ to replace ‘European’. The second half should accommodate, alongside India, Africa and even Australia.”
The academicians do not see beyond the categories of popular catchphrases like “postmodern”. Midnight’s Children features more in papers related to postcolonial studies than to the ones related to the genre of the novel. Another effect of the professionalisation of academia is that increasingly, literary studies and MFA programmes are becoming more about what the professors have to say about works than the works themselves.
This is not to say that The Origins of Dislike consists only of attacks on commodification of reading and writing practices. The pieces brought together are an interesting mix of analysis of films, art and culture from the angles of the personal, the political and the aesthetic, as Chaudhuri puts it. His writing becomes even more of a treat when he uses his debunking approach to the idea of good writing itself. All writing advice falls flat in front of his common-sensical way of looking at how to write. Here – a long quote put together from several paragraphs – is what he says regarding the opening sentence:
“I don’t subscribe to the idea of the strong opening sentence. Since the novel isn’t a sprint to a finishing line, the first sentence is not necessarily about making a ‘strong beginning’ similar to the athlete responding with instinctive release to the pistol shot. At best, it might establish a kind of magic. But other sentences must do the same: no sentence, in this regard, is more equal than the other…. For me, though, the paragraph – the first one in particular – is the significant unit rather than the first sentence. How do you characterise the first paragraph? I would say that it’s marked by a quality of ‘opening out’ on to something – not the story, necessarily, but our sense of existence, which the story can hint at but never represent, since our ‘sense of existence’ is transient and without resolution. As stories never begin at the beginning, but in medias res, the first paragraph has not so much the fixity of being point A in a narrative, but the air of buoyancy that all initial utterances have, as well as the irresolution of moments in which many strands are hanging, when you still lack clarity about where you’re headed. This absence of fixity is what I mean by ‘opening out’….For me, each paragraph is like a first paragraph. It’s probably an impossible aim – to want the paragraph, because of its peculiar enchantment, to be the primary unit; to want it to stand alone, available, at any point, for rereading; to give individual paragraphs primacy over the superstructure of narrative itself; to view the novel as an assemblage of paragraphs and, in a sense, quotations.”
Readers who come out of the book with their faith in writing and pleasure of reading intact would appreciate the lightness of such moments in the book:
“Titles point to two things. The first is the book that it faintly conjures up. The second is the reader, to whom the title suggests what the book might possibly be. In imagining this possibility, the reader becomes a writer: he or she has started to create the book for themselves.”
For all its discussion of the state of books, The Origins of Dislike offers scores of occasions to linger around the joys of reading, and thinking about what one likes and why. The title essay, and Chaudhuri’s approach towards all his topics, makes a case for understanding the tradition of reading and writing that one identifies with or rebels against, compelling readers to think about the alliances they make when they like something.
The Origins Of Dislike, Amit Chaudhuri, Oxford University Press.
This article first appeared on Asian Review of Books.