Anjum Hasan is a novelist, poet, essayist, teacher and she was also, until recently, the literary editor at the investigative and cultural magazine, The Caravan. Hasan spoke to about trends in book reviewing and criticism, long form literary writing, Indian literatures, and more. Excerpts from the interview:

After eight years as books editor at one of the country’s very few magazines for serious reading, how do you view the present culture of reviewing and criticism?
We have an inchoate book reviewing culture on the whole. There are habitual reviewers who have the required experience, the history of reading, but who shrink from the idea of criticism as something produced by books and their writers over time, instead seeing criticism as reportage on what has been just published. There are, increasingly, reviewers who write very well, with polish and sophistication. But sometimes this verve exists in a vacuum; it seems like a response to the currency of opinion rather than coming out of a robust sense of value.

Add to this the fact that reviewing is rarely grounded in any kind of conversation between an editor and a writer. We have an assembly line approach to writing about books, just as there is an assembly line approach to publishing books.

These are today’s problems, the problems of another era may have been different. Inevitably the spirit of the times informs the spirit of criticism. Take the first edition, in 1957, of the Sahitya Akademi’s journal Indian Literature, which featured, along with the Indian stuff, articles on Yugoslavian, American, Japanese literature, an interestingly wild mix. This was a Nehruvian idea of the Indian – informed by a patrician cosmopolitanism.

Then there were magazines such as Nissim Ezekiel’s Quest until the mid-1970s, which came out of the political imperative to cultivate free thought, and which therefore made space for individual voices, for personality, even idiosyncrasy. In the 1990s there was Indian Review of Books, which had a maverick feel to it and a sense of unhurriedness – it was a monthly in a pre-Internet era – that is impossible to recreate today.

I think that in the last thirty years the concept of “Indian” has acquired a completely new urgency. There is a much stronger need now to account for or investigate this idea in writing which has meant some good things for the fields of historical research, ethnography, journalism. In relation to literature, one way in which the concern with Indianness expresses itself is as an anxiety about greatness – where is the great Indian novel? Who are the greatest Indian writers? And so on. We keep asking these questions. But how can our literature be an improvement on ourselves? It’s an absurd hope. The books we produce can only be as good as the imagination we bring to reading and thinking about them.

How would you go about developing local standards and contexts, then?
I am a writer of fiction who became an editor, so what’s driving me is my own need for context and to understand the space I’m working in. The essay form has been invaluable for this. An 800-word review can be insightful too, I am not evangelical about long-form, but to explore an idea over four or five thousand words requires some investment in that idea. It’s a good test of whether you have an argument to make and how elegantly you can make it.

There has been, inevitably, a sense of both the miraculous and the makeshift about running these books pages, the feeling of trying to create something out nothing. I’m using the word “nothing” exaggeratedly, maybe, to describe what you might encounter if you operate in English and look for evidence here of a literary culture in the language – starting points, anchors, histories of connections.

There are some – say, writers associated with Mumbai in the latter half of the twentieth century, or, say, certain equivocally cosmopolitan writers from South India who have struggled creatively with their position. And English has also tended to be the language in which the histories of all our literatures are written. Apart from documentary value these add, or ought to add, to our self-awareness as practitioners in the language. So I can’t, for example, read a history in English of modern Urdu literature and then continue to write or think in English as if that history and that awareness didn’t exist.

But we treat our languages as self-contained, with occasional traffic in the form of translations. We don’t have a very good idea of what constitutes Indianness or nativeness or rootedness in relation to literature, without those terms becoming associated with cultural authenticity in a narrow sense. I’ve tried to come to it from various sides, not all consistent with each other and not all technically “literary”.

For instance, I think there is a way in which popular culture, particularly film, informs the way we look at a lot of other things, and this is special to us. We have writers who are, less specialised film critics, more critics of the Indian popular, and this can include, apart from cinema, contemporary fiction, religious mythology, certain forms of poetry and song, and newer forms like graphic novels and so on. I don’t know if “popular” captures all the nuances of this admixture but I see it as uniquely Indian.

Could you elaborate?
Critics like Jai Arjun Singh, Trisha Gupta, Annie Zaidi, Taran Khan are rooted writers in my view because they are able to express a strong sense of identification with something in the culture. And they cultivate a serious approach to pleasure. Their sensibility allows them to explore highly specific qualities about what they like, and they are able to make distinctions based not on academic categories but sustained personal interest.

The idea of the home-grown interests me if only because having a career in the West is so overwhelmingly intrinsic to our self-definition and self-worth. Nissim Ezekiel’s lines in that famous poem – “… others choose to give themselves/ In some remote and backward place./My backward place is where I am” – have an air of both sacrifice and defiance about them which still feels familiar.

We have, of course, found newer ways in which to be backward now. There is the anti-intellectualism of these times – both a fascist nihilism, as well as a militant guardedness against the values once associated with liberalism like moderation, individualism, the absolute sufficiency of what is imagined.

Where that leaves us is in the realm of cold subject matter. Increasingly, unless we are admiring the superficially nice qualities of the prose, the only way left to talk about literature is in terms of subject matter – is the topic relevant, is it contributing to or critiquing the idea of the nation? That and a reductionist attitude to the background and class of the author. Only a handful of literary critics seem to have moved the conversation forward – say, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Aijaz Ahmed, to name two very different sensibilities.

That’s quite a dismal view of Indian criticism. What can an editor do in such a situation?
One could think of editing in terms of two things – talking and seeing. So, finding writers who have a project of some kind or at least a point of view they want to develop. And then hoping that these writers welcome the editorial process as a way of getting them to see their own text. I was reading Raymond Carver recently on his influences, one of whom was his teacher, the novelist John Gardener, of whom he says, “It was a basic tenet of his that a writer found what he wanted to say in the ongoing process of seeing what he’d said. And this seeing, or seeing more clearly, came about through revision.”

This seeing is becoming more and more critical because we are getting used to the saying of things in a performative, rhetorical way. This arch self-consciousness about saying leads to equally stock, ritualised responses, so that just the mention of certain words – “beef” or “Dalit” or “sexual harassment” – produces the standard reactions for and against. One could do a structural take on this entropy of language, say that the author is now definitely dying, if she wasn’t already dead, because we have reduced her role to this sort of statement-mongering.

So editing is not just about rewriting sentences – though there can be that too – but creating the possibility of going beyond the dead parts of language. And there are some writers with a wonderfully autodidactic style whom I’ve been lucky to publish in the books pages I edited – Amit Chaudhuri, Shashank Kela, Srinath Raghavan, Arul Mani, Vijay Nambisan. There are others I would have really liked to publish more by – Pankaj Mishra, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Samanth Subramaniam, Girish Shahane, Mihir Sharma – and still others like Mukul Kesavan whom I wish I could have featured.

Since I’ve mentioned Carver, I should say that one often ends up thinking about what is to be learnt from the American writers and critics of the previous century – their sense of self-invention and there too, a hundred years ago, the feeling of trying to make something out of nothing. In the 1920s and 30s, Edmund Wilson was looking to France, noting how the French writers had what Americans lacked, that is, the language of criticism. When he talks about how there is a flood of puerile literary journalism in the country, despite which the literary atmosphere is “a non-conductor of criticism”, he could be describing our milieu today.

The Caravan started out with the idea of pursuing a kind of literary journalism associated with the well-known long-form American magazines but pretty early on the idea changed and perhaps rightly so, given that any magazine is the product of the pressures and resources and vocabulary of its own culture and it’s difficult if not impossible to replicate The New Yorker or Harper’s Magazine here.

The driving idea became truth-telling, exposing falsehoods, getting to the bottom of the obfuscations of our political culture. How well this spirit works with regard to culture is a question though, because critical writing on culture is nothing if it does not turn upon an exclusive point of view. The best writing in The Caravan’s books pages has inevitably been by those with passions and predilections. I don’t, of course, mean the sort of shallow opinionating or ideologically motivated criticism that we’ve become used to. But we have too little space in our culture for critical writing with any sort of personality and I do hope that space will continue to be provided.

How do you see your own role as both a critic and a writer of fiction in English?
More than forty years ago Adil Jussawalla said in the introduction to his New Writing in India that anyone who is concerned with Indian writing should at some point state their limitations. That introduction – and the anthology itself – are a benchmark for me for how to make engagement with Indian literature a personal, exploratory, local project. Whatever one’s position in relation to the literature – and increasingly it is the case that if one operates in English then one operates only in English, the bilingualism of the earlier generations is fading – this recognition of one’s limitations combined with a strong need to reach out seems the only productive route.

But more common than reaching out is, one, a conviction that Indian languages are the repository of all that is authentic about our experience and so there is something inescapably fake about writing in English, and two, paradoxically, a disinterest in the actual writing in these languages because we don’t know them and we don’t really trust translations. Whereas this is a very good time to take translations seriously, given that both contemporary and historical literature has been coming into English in great reams now.

In my own case, location in South India has meant curiosity about what is going on here, and I do think that where one lives makes a difference to how one thinks. I have carried essays on the Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, Bengali spheres, but also Tamil and Kannada and Malayali writers – sometimes well before these writers came to country-wide attention as in the case of Perumal Murugan, sometimes taking stock of those considered stalwarts as in the case of UR Ananthamurthy, sometimes responding to the excitement over a younger contemporary writer as in the case of KR Meera. These are essays one can hopefully return to, not quick summations but attempts at locating these writers in their culture as well as attempts at translating that culture into English.

As a matter of fact, several of these essays have been written by translators – N Kalyan Raman, Daisy Rockwell, Shanta Gokhale, Chitralekha Basu, to take a few examples. The translator-critic can be a valuable figure, someone who is translating the specific text and reflecting on language but also reading in at least two tongues and reflecting on literature.

What are some of the ways in which we’re seeing literature today?
A generation of urban, middle-class Indians in their thirties and forties has been created by “new” cities like Bangalore and Gurgaon and Mumbai, and in turn created these twenty-first century cities; and we are not really reading the novels and poems and plays that our parents might have derived their ideas of cultural value from, we’re after something else. This has led to a distinctive feeling of literature being formulated all over again. Both what we call the popular and what we call the literary share this impetus.

The bilingual generation that produced and read 20th century modernist literature did not, alongside, set up institutions that would fashion a legacy out of it. They let the juggernaut of English take over. So in many ways, this new literature is a literature of poverty. It is either recording a loss or pretending this loss did not take place, crudely papering over it by espousing the lifestyle that one sees in many contemporary novels written to entertain.

But it would be a mistake to think that only English is the reason for this decline. A couple of years ago Scroll carried a long and utterly fascinating interview with the Tamil writer Aadhavan Deetchanya who is from Hosur, a border-town between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Deetchanya narrated, with a novelist’s dispassionate eye, a story spanning forty odd years.

Hosur in the early ’70s was an industrial boomtown, with state-run manufacturing and resilient trade unions. Today it has been commandeered by exploitative private industry, land mafias, indifferent immigrants and the RSS. He talks about the cultural vacuum this has created and how the writers’ conclaves that once ran on community support have now been replaced by ostentatious religious celebrations sponsored by big business and political parties.

This account of how the combined forces of economic liberalisation and religious divisiveness have unmade Hosur could be the story of so many Indian towns. So literature still exists in the imagination of the government and it still exists to feed the market but literature as something that comes from a genuine social need of the kind Deetchanya describes – I’m not sure how well that is faring.

What do you think the future holds then and how to identify the genuinely new rather than just the trendy?
As Jussawalla said, no one has a bird’s eye view and the possibility of such a view might itself be a fantasy. But there are some broad tendencies.

One is the way we have exteriorised things in our writing. We seem to be losing touch with the interior view, with consciousness –this is certainly happening in a lot of English writing. I don’t think it’s because of English itself – there are poets in the language who have been able to use it to express inwardness while also writing a poetry of witness, like Agha Shahid Ali.

But where fiction is concerned there has been, like I said earlier, far too much discussion on external indices of value. And so fiction seems to be bringing up the rear as it were – responding, often lamely, to what has already been decided by other discourses. It is one thing to respond to a political discourse and another to produce social revolutionary writing of the kind that has been possible in other Indian languages.

And then, along with the sense of loss I mentioned, there is the fact that a lot of what passes for literature today is a form of nostalgia. Susan Sontag described nostalgia and utopia as the two poles of modern sentiment when talking about the promise of the ’60s – how free of nostalgia that decade was and therefore how close to utopia. Whereas our decadence often expresses itself as a yearning for ways of being one is not sure ever existed – witness the huge appetite for a certain kind of romantic Urdu poetry or for simplified retellings of the religious epics or for over-dramatised historical fiction.

Are these the signs of the end of something or the start of something else? Maybe a neo-romanticism will emerge from this and certainly there are stirrings of it in some of the English literature of the last thirty years, though one can’t help feeling that the best work produced during this period has an incipient quality to it and its full potential hasn’t been realised, perhaps because it appeared at the dawn of hype and our view of it is distorted by hype, or maybe because it has been undone by the expectations I’ve described.

All the same, I have over the years found younger writers with a distinct hunger for ideas, who are willing to go against the grain – say, Nakul Krishna, Ratik Asokan, Mantra Mukhim, Vineet Gill, Nandini Ramachandran, Akshat Khandelwal, Ashik Kumar. The last two essays I worked on for the magazine before I left were by Mukhim – an exploration of the philosopher Bimal Krishna Matilal’s illuminatingly original understanding of Hindu ethics – and by Kumar – who is just out of college and learning Tamil, but also taking stock of Tamil literature. In one there is the need to find antecedents, in the other a determined irreverence. The combination of those two attitudes sort of gives me hope.