A university professor, a lawyer, and an industrialist walk into a Zoom webinar hosted as part of an online literature festival. The three of them – all authors – are due to speak on the subject of queer rights in India. But while waiting for the moderator to log on, they discuss other things. Embracing everyone’s favourite topic of conversation, they bemoan the heightened technological demands imposed by physical distancing.
When the professor expresses her need to invest in wireless earphones, the lawyer shows off his pair, recommending them highly. The industrialist counters him, holding up his own, and says cheekily, “Mine are bigger than yours.” Laughter ensues and the conversation swerves from innuendo to the contents of their lunch. The 200-odd people listening in become acquainted with the diet plan of each speaker.
At this point, one of the 200 sends a private message to me, the organiser. “Haha, this is so refreshing and fun!” Seconds later, another, more disbelieving message arrives: “I guess they don’t know we can hear them.”
During the early days of the Covid-19 lockdown, when the publishing industry stormed social media, many predicted that the transition from physical to online author events would spell the loss of intimacy generated between authors and readers at such gatherings. Among those mourning this loss were organisers of literature festivals, several of whom cancelled the 2020 edition of their festivals for reasons of practicality, principle, or some combination of the two.
Paradoxically, it was under these circumstances that Belongg, an anti-discrimination venture based in New Delhi, envisioned the inaugural edition of its literature festival. With identity-based discrimination on the rise, fuelled and exposed by the virus, the rest of the Belongg team and I thought it imperative to amplify inclusive world views, physical restrictions notwithstanding.
We realised, also, that an online festival could host speakers and attendees from around the world, fostering cross-border connections and solidarities with greater ease and at a fraction of the cost than would have been possible if this were a physical event. With these considerations in mind, the Belongg Online Literature Festival was hosted on Zoom between July 3 and 6, 2020. A free event, it saw the participation of over 90 speakers and 2500 attendees from around the world.
Although confident in the need for such a festival, I – duly warned by more experienced festival organisers – was prepared for a lack of warmth in the Zoom room, where attendees, invisible to their beloved authors, would only see them through a screen and from the chest up, where there was no possibility of casually bumping into their flesh and blood.
And yet, the authors’ flesh-and-bloodedness reared its head repeatedly. In addition to witnessing “behind-the-scenes” conversations, attendees were treated to unwitting guest appearances by members of the authors’ family, feline or otherwise. Inevitably, someone would forget to mute themselves, divulging their terms of endearment and frustration, the sounds from their kitchen, the rumbling of a passing train. Others would forget to unmute themselves: even the most enthralling speakers, it was discovered, could be silenced by a microphone symbol the size of a peanut.
Meanwhile, the inside of authors’ homes, now on partial display, spoke volumes. Behind a historian hung photographs of his family. Next to a writer of dystopian fiction stood an exercise machine. Of course, there were authors who sat tall before bookshelves that stretched towards infinity on either side. Even so, this was enough to perceive them as readers with eclectic tastes, as thinkers indebted to other authors, as people who might, once in a while, need to reach for a dictionary.
One author rendered the cover of her book into a virtual background, but its glaring virtuality – a feature of all such backgrounds – only heightened conjecture about her physical surroundings. Equally awkward was the occasional realisation that most authors were, quite literally, all dressed up with nowhere to go. The going nowhere poked gentle fun at the dressing up, making the subject of both more endearing, more imperfect, more like us.
The chaotic lives of authors
Over the last few months, I have observed, in my capacity as both organiser and attendee of online author events, the humanisation of authors on Zoom and other live video platforms. We tend to forget, with no expectation of being reminded, that authors are people. Such distance – dare I say, hierarchy – between authors and readers results from a number of factors: the many social privileges that inform publication decisions, the ever-growing fanfare around books (including festivals and prizes), a widespread understanding of knowledge as top-down, even the authors’ own posturing, whether conscious or unconscious.
The distance is collapsed, however briefly or accidentally, when we are forced to reckon with the multiple subject-positions occupied by an author. When we recognise this multiplicity in online moments such as those outlined above – when we see in authors the same chaos of being that marks our own existence – we are unable to view them as only authors.
They are no longer perceivable as coextensive with their writing, and our inability to map one onto the other with any precision or certainty interrupts our fantasy of the author as singular or coherent. By extension, our fantasies about authors’ irreducible difference or unquestionable superiority are also interrupted.
This is not to say that the humanisation of authors is the exclusive property of online events. After all, podiums and marquees are not total obstructions to relatability, and online events are, much like their physical counterparts, curated, marketed, and performed with intention. Rather, in both, even as there is no escaping performance altogether, there is always something that will escape performance. As argued by many a literary theorist, the author-father (the etymological root of “author” means “father”) has no loyal off-springs either on- or off-line.
What I am saying, though, is that the unruly children populating online events have a novel quality about them. This is the case for at least two reasons. First, the pandemic-prompted middle- and upper-class work-from-home culture has blurred the division between the home and the workplace – however constructed this division may have been to begin with. As a result, slippages have a distinctly domestic flavour, reminding us that the professional and the domestic are always overlapping.
Second, while we have long used technology for the purpose of long-distance communication, using it to host public events – no matter the physical distance between attendees – constitutes relatively new territory. In recent months, the majority of us have had to upgrade our knowledge of technology, and technology companies, too, have had to upgrade their softwares in order to better accommodate mass cultural shifts. This has disrupted online performances of mastery, including by those whom we consider masters in one field or another.
Moreover, it is precisely because our present encounters online have a novel character that we are still struggling to read them and to develop languages to speak about them. This article is an attempt in that direction – one that emphasises intimacy over alienation, not least because online events are here to stay for the foreseeable future.
The new digital intimacy
None of this is meant to disregard the forms of intimacy that the online format does not allow. As stated previously, speakers usually cannot see or hear the attendees. Communication between the two parties is mediated by a chatbox and, often, a moderator who is responsible for reading aloud or paraphrasing the contents of the box.
There is, however, a flipside to this: although attendees cannot interact with speakers face-to-face, they can take the speakers with them to the bathroom, chew loudly mid-event, lie flat on their backs and listen in with little concern for physical propriety. This mirrors how readers have always read – carrying a book everywhere, reading it anytime, forgetting themselves, becoming more human in the process.
To be human is to be messy. How does the messiness of readers reflect the mess that is the author on paper and now, with the advent of online author events, the mess that is the author on-screen? How might it be, in part, prompted by this very mess? Can we conceive, in other words, a contagious ethic of being human “in public”?
As I write this, I am painfully aware of at least some of the ways in which such a proposition is complicated by various social inequalities. For instance, the gendered and classed privilege of privacy – that much sought-after resource in the work-from-home landscape – enhances the online performances of some speakers over others. Those with caring responsibilities or little to no “room of their own” operate under very different domestic constraints than those without.
More generally, participation online is fraught by barriers to digital access. While online events, owing to their largely free-of-cost nature and the convenience of “travelling” at the click of a button, might be more accessible than physical ones, attendance requires, among other things, a functional internet connection and a compatible device.
Surely, though, an argument in favour of attuning ourselves to emerging forms of digital intimacy only further impresses the need to improve digital access for marginalised groups, some members of which have long found and formed communities online. And increased attention to the ways in which all speakers, irrespective of social privileges, betray themselves—that is, an understanding that self-betrayal is inherent to the human condition—would mitigate the singling out of those disadvantaged by circumstances.
I understand, after tired days spent looking at a screen, nostalgia for physical interactions. But it is possible to say that online interactions, while not substitutes for physical ones, make for worthy companions to them. As should be evident by now, the issue goes far beyond authors, but it is not bigger than the act of reading itself. What we need is to read the world more creatively, humanly, and humanely as more of it moves online. Besides, as readers, we know better than anyone: texts come in all shapes and sizes.
Manjari Sahay is an independent writer, editor, and researcher. She worked previously as the Book Club and Library Associate at Belongg, where she helped organise the Belongg Online Literature Festival. The views expressed in this article are her own.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.