"Literature versus Writing" - Anjum Hasan

" I’m starting to feel
that many of us
middle-class Indian
writers are bypassing
this journey into –
and then outwards
from – the self "
Writing is a history to be cautiously entered rather than a task to be efficiently performed, says Anjum Hasan

To write is to operate, knowingly or unknowingly, on the basis of an image of what writing is and what it does. So what ideas about writing underlie the work of urban Englishwallahs such as ourselves?

As a writer of novels, poems and stories, I create on the basis of my ideas but I’m also writing out an image of myself. I see myself as not just distinct from my work but different from it. I’d like to think that if my work reveals something about me as a person it does so only in an elliptical way. At the same time, I believe that my art expresses much more of me than anything I could directly say about my ordinary, middle-class self—in the form of a curriculum vitae, however detailed, or, say, a listing of my background, beliefs, likes and dislikes. My work is an expression of my imagination, which is both ‘me’ because it’s mine but, in the biographical sense, not me, because it allows me to escape myself.

So writers are both the fount of their creation and yet this creation is not reducible to the facts about who they are. This idea of the writer as someone from whose own personality and deepest feelings works of fiction and poetry emerge is at least as old as the European Romantic literary movements of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Likewise the belief that the writer is at the same time a conduit for thoughts and ideas which seem to come from a deeper source. So William Blake’s view: “One Power alone makes a Poet: Imagination, the Divine Vision.”

The European Modernists of the early 20th century turned even deeper inward. But the power and the centrality of the self was now in question—was Man, the capitalised creature that the Romantics purported to be speaking to—still at hand? Or were there just alienated and lonely individuals and the larger conflicted world around them? Virginia Woolf probed deeper into individual consciousness than most of her contemporaries and she poignantly demonstrated the limitations of the self. The only way out of the impasse of the self was, Woolf suggested, through the imagination—by engagement, as one critic puts it “with another self, place, or work of art”.

I’m starting to feel that many of us middle-class Indian writers are bypassing this journey into – and then outwards from – the self. We’re giving short shrift to the imagination and it’s showing up in the poverty of our work. Let me offer an example: campus novels. I don’t think it’s an accident that such novels have grown into something of a genre. They are popular because they speak to the thousands of young people who have led the kind of college life described in them. This obvious-seeming truth hides a deeper revelation: the writers of such novels employ fiction as a vehicle not of self-exploration but of shared recognition. These authors recreate a remembered community experience; the appeal for readers lies in how this recreation validates them. To read the story of one’s life on the page is a way of gaining confidence in the significance of that story. But this does not mean that self-understanding is in any way expanded or challenged. We seem to be returning here to a seemingly more innocent notion of storytelling: the Indian campus novel is a narrative whose main purpose seems to be to remind readers of what they already know. The same could be said of the ‘office’ novel or of fiction set in any other, easily recognisable professional world.

What does this mean for the culture of writing and reading?

Despite the fact that the Indian novel has been around for some 150 years, for many of us it is still a rare and difficult thing. But about a decade ago, people with expertise in other fields – engineers, diplomats, marketing executives, financial analysts, media and public relations professionals – started turning to fiction writing with a marked sense of confidence. In the short history of the Indian novel, those from other fields have now and then turned writers – I think of Upamanyu Chatterjee and Ashok Banker as brilliant examples – but in their books the professional self and its universe is either ruthlessly satirised and/or creates the ground for a profound sense of alienation.

These new writers from the past decade, however, write about their worlds not as a way to escape or subvert them but simply, and I think dangerously, to reaffirm them. If one of the most compelling themes of modern fiction, from Dostoevsky onwards, has been ‘the outsider’, this new fiction we’re producing in India today is about ‘the insiders’ (which must necessarily be in the plural, even as ‘the outsider’ cannot but be in the singular). There are no interestingly conflicted selves to be found in this fiction; no attempt to portray the paradoxes of inner life. The stages where these novels unfold are always public stages, where the status quo is either accepted or challenged in the interest of some other status quo.

What follows from this new culture of writing is that nothing singles out the person who writes the novel. Conversely, the authors’ success rests precisely on the fact that they come across ‘just like’ the people represented in their work, and that, further, their readers can expect to approach to them and encounter personalities transparently like their own.

In such a scheme of things, ‘anyone’ can write a novel. “The ‘crowd’ no longer wants to consume its representation; the spectator wants, now, to ‘be’ the artist. In the plenty of globalization, this transposition is not just possible; it’s logical,” writes Amit Chaudhuri in his essay ‘Notes on the Novel after Globalization’.

Is there some potential in the possibilities triggered, but as yet unfulfilled, by this new bravado regarding writing? Can the huge aspirations created for some kind of proximity to literature be made to turn inwards? The still unpublished writers I’ve encountered in the creative writing workshops I’ve taught (for obvious reasons such workshops also appear to be a growing institution in India) seem to me ripe to go either way. There are two commonplaces I take away from these workshops. One, that a person’s mental furniture could consist solely of scraps from Robert Ludlum and Danielle Steel and yet this person could still, after a day of reading, respond with complete originality to a contemporary poem written in ironic mode. The other commonplace, which cancels the first, is the degree to which even the well-read aspiring writers either unconsciously suppress the possibilities inherent in their own imaginations, or dismiss such possibilities as banal.

How do we deal with these powerful and contradictory twin forces – the great hunger for writing, and yet the deep embarrassment about the self? Perhaps best would be to cut short all talk about writing and instead start a conversation about literature. We ought to stop valorising the technical side of producing fiction and poetry. We should try replacing the idea that writing is a task to be efficiently performed with the recognition that it is a history to be cautiously entered.

This is the original and unedited version

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