Friday, July 22, 2005

Reclusive Writers

I like stories about writers. They fascinate me and make me wonder about the writerly life. I think I have mentioned this so many times in my previous posts. Boring, eh?

In today's publishing world, writers have to help hype up their work in the market to sell. Very few writers have the guts to shun publicity. In fact, for many the prospect of becoming a minor celebrity is one of the magnetic pulls of desiring to become a writer.

J D Salinger and Thomas Pynchon are already famous for their reclusiveness.

Now I hear of two more writers who don't want to play the media circus. Cormac McCarthy and John Twelve Hawks.

Cormac McCarthy was recently coaxed into granting his first interview in 13 years to promote his new novel No Country for Old Men.

Even before his cult status translated into major book sales with All the Pretty Horses in 1992, McCarthy spurned the spotlight and would not even speak about his work in academic circles where he had already won critical acclaim.

In an anecdote reported by The New York Times Magazine when it printed the last interview with McCarthy in 1992, his second wife Annie DeLisle recalls living in poverty.

"Someone would call up and offer him $2,000 to come speak at a university about his books. And he would tell them that everything he had to say was there on the page. So we would eat beans for another week," she was quoted as saying.

No Country for Old Men is a violent modern-day Western about a man who finds a suitcase filled with $2 million of drug money in the desert in a car whose occupants have been shot.

Twelve Hawks is a pseudonym and all that is known about the author of The Traveler - published this month amid Hollywood-style hype that landed it on The New York Times bestseller list - is that he "lives off the grid," meaning he has no mobile phone, credit card or other means of being traced.

His editor speaks to Twelve Hawks by satellite phone, has never met him and has no idea where he lives. Billed as a cross between science-fiction movie Matrix and George Orwell's 1984, the book is set in a world of constant surveillance where rebel warriors called Harlequins defend prophet-like people called Travelers.

Alas in India, we don't have reclusive authors. Indeed, it is the other way round. Writers, even if they want publicity, don't have it coming as Indian newspapers and television care a damn about them. They are more interested in film stars, mafia dons, and politicians.

First-time novelist, Rana Dasgupta, discussed this issue in an article in Tehelka recently. I quote (he is describing the scene after his novel was published):

"Over time, a small number of reviews appeared. Attentive and well-written, they were at the same time introspective and unambitious. For the most part, they remained at the level of the literary, speaking of the various pleasures and displeasures of the reading experience, and devoting their discussion to issues of literary language and form. They seemed to approach literature as private pleasure rather than as a part of the more general, extra-literary conversations of the world. This was somewhat disappointing since I had conceived this book as a pointed intervention into such conversations.

If you examine the cramped, ghetto-like environs that newspaper editors provide for book reviews, however, all this is not surprising. It is difficult, in a review of less than 800 words, to do much more than simply describe a book, and book reviews in Indian newspapers are often much shorter than that. The most extensive space allotted to book reviews in a mainstream newspaper is the Asian Age’s Sunday book section which is a cut-and-paste job from the New York Times and Spectator — with the emphasis on “cut”. In order to fit these articles into their new, straitened quarters, the “editors” run the paragraphs together, cut out the connecting words and phrases (“of course,” “unfortunately”, “however”) and then pluck out whole sentences and paragraphs for good measure.

It is predictable that such an ethos would create a besieged mentality amongst those Indian journalists who genuinely love and wish to celebrate literature. It is not surprising if they choose to speak about books as pure aesthetic experience, as a kind of guilty, sensuous refuge from a journalism that is so brutally pragmatic and market-driven. If they do not often try to speak about a book in the world, it is because this is not the editorial conception of their task: they are not asked to describe a vision, or a set of ideas that connects to other sets of ideas, but simply to describe the experience that can be obtained for Rs 395.

And even when reviewers approach their task with greater ambitions than this, the other pages of the newspaper act with single-minded intent to cut books and their ideas back down to size.In addition to the sparse smattering of reviews of my book came a veritable deluge of phone calls from journalists wishing to write what they called “profiles”. The interest of this second category of journalists was not in “literature” but in “personality”. They wrote for columns with stomach-churning titles like “Celebtalk” and they came to my house to note down a few snatched words that could then be patched together in a collage of more or less incoherent stereotypical catch-phrases crowned with a photograph. One sensed among them a panic of speed, the terrible anxiety of having to feed the newspaper’s insatiable hunger for new and different kinds of celebrity; and they were often hilariously unprepared. I had one exchange with a journalist who possessed only two items of information about me — the fact that I had written a book, and my mobile telephone number — and who had to extract from me, during the course of a twenty-minute phone conversation, various other items essential to her article (whose deadline was approaching in the next two hours) — such as the title of the book, the nature of its contents, and my name. The pieces that finally appeared in the newspapers were so mangled and improvised that they frequently bordered on the bizarre.

What kind of individual will symbolise this nation in its era of markets and world takeover, its era of buying French pharmaceutical firms and judging Cannes and building global it centres and sleeping with Liz Hurley? Certainly not the dreamy, thinking type. Not the kind of person who sits alone in a room for years on end wrestling with an entirely cerebral, poetic project. My conversations with the writers of “profiles” therefore had little to do with the book I had written, which was the ostensible reason they had any interest in me in the first place. They asked questions, instead, about what means I had employed to secure a publishing contract, and what it was like, now, to revel in publicity. The fact that I had spent three years forging a 400-page communication with the world was not relevant; now I had to tell the real story, which was the one of my own ambition, calculation and endeavour. The book was just my “product”, my means to an end. Its existence in the market proved that I had the necessary balls to seize a little bit of the media universe for myself, and now was my chance to explain how I had acquired such balls, and how wonderful it felt to possess them. As far as these columnists were concerned, it seemed, the persona of the “thinking individual” is just a front for something else. Deep down, people are interested only in acquisition, in getting more of everything, and every kind of accomplishment can therefore be boiled down to another article about how another lucky person “made it”. So, while newspapers and radio stations in the UK and US were wanting to have interviews about what a literature of globalisation would look like, or how one can write successfully about ethics in a seemingly post-moral world, Indian columnists wanted me to spill the beans about my staggering personal ambition, the enormous pay-offs I had received, and all the glorious rewards of fame and success. (If my irony is not apparent, I should state clearly that none of this is actually true to my experience.)
Since serious artists and intellectuals make their name, generally, as a result of the cogency of their vision of the issues of politics, philosophy and aesthetics that face a given society — one would expect, on the face of it, that the purpose of seeking interviews with such people for a newspaper would be to inject those ideas in an interesting and provocative way into social debate. But, with a very few exceptions, there is no serious social debate in the mainstream Indian press, and this is not its purpose in speaking to such people. The press already has its Idea — the celebration of the grand pantheon of Indian power and money — and it is not looking for new ones. Artists and intellectuals are called upon not to offer critique or alternative visions but to sidle in compliantly amongst the lowest rungs of this same pantheon and so to boost its size and glory. For anything else, Indian newspapers currently do not even possess the language. This can be seen at its most extreme in Indian press coverage of contemporary art, which never even makes an attempt to talk about the questions raised by this most daring and radical of areas of contemporary creativity; all it can do instead is to quote sale prices and gloat nationalistically, if ignorantly, over the slowly rising value of Indian art on the international markets.
Any trip to Eastern Europe or Latin America will demonstrate that this whole situation is monotonously widespread in the world, especially in places where the recent euphoria of global markets has made the rightness of wealth banally self-evident, and where the ubiquity of poverty lends it all an additional erotic thrill. But the problem is that India is truly growing into a global superpower — while the delusional excesses of page 3 can make you believe that this is merely a country of the superrich, there is actually something behind the circus’ maniacal energy — and the press will have to abandon these infantile obsessions, so unnerving in a giant, if the rise of this country’s influence is to be accompanied by any significant reflection as to what it means. First of all this implies that newspapers should try to think of people as thinking, not merely acquisitive, individuals. Of course writers and artists and academics, like anyone else, wish to earn money for their work; of course they possess all the same frailties of ego and ambition as everyone else — but their work cannot be reduced simply to this. A true intellectual culture — even just a literate culture — depends on the circulation of these people’s ideas as ideas and not as just more success stories. Virtually the only people whose ideas are expounded seriously and in detail at present are politicians and leading businessmen; and this is a woefully inadequate basis for us to think critically and creatively about the very grave issues that face us. Everyone else is an unthinking, crass, acquisitive machine: every last architect, theatre director, jewellery maker or political activist answers the same ten trite questions in much-edited five-word sentences, appears under the same soul-destroying rubric of “celebrity”, and spouts the same joy at India’s rising and the new possibilities for self-aggrandisement that it offers. (While it is wearying that every individual comes across as the kind of greedy, opportunity-optimising economist’s freak that is the newspapers’ dominant conception of the human being, it is truly terrifying to think of such a creature magnified several hundred million times and turned into an oil-guzzling, market-craving, globe-striding nation-monster, utterly uninterested in fine sentiment or ethical detail.) "
...and so on

Coming back to the question of reclusive authors in India, I think we are beginning to have a few of them. The potential candidates are Ashok Banker and Rana Dasgupta.

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