I had read this Pankaj Mishra interview sometime back. But I chanced upon it again today. Loved some of his observations, which seem more relevant than ever--especially after attending a workshop on novel writing.
The Life of a Writer
Initially, I saw the life of the writer as a life of reading, which for me was really an extension of the life of idleness that I’d been living as an undergraduate at university. Reading gave me so much pleasure that I felt that maybe I could continue that life indefinitely.
Writing on Terrorism
People who write about issues like poverty or terrorism are a part of the elite, and the distance between the elite and nonelite is growing very fast. You can move around the world but meet only people who speak your language, who share the same ideas, the same beliefs, and in doing so you can lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of the world does not think or believe in or speak the everyday discourse of the elite. Yet their lives are being shaped by these elites, by people like us. I don’t mean this in a pompous way, but we have a responsibility to articulate their sense of suffering.
Writing as vanity
But so much of writing is fed by vanity and the feeling that what you are doing is the most important thing in the world and it has not been done before and only you can do it. Without these feelings, many writers would not be able to write anything at all. If you think that what you’re doing is not all that important in the larger scheme of things and that you’re just an insignificant creature in the whole wide world, which is full of six billion people, and that people are born and die every day and it makes no difference to future generations what you write, and that writing and reading are increasingly irrelevant activities, you’d probably never get out of bed. You need to work yourself up into some kind of a state every morning and believe that you are doing something terribly important upon which the future of literature, if not the world, depends. Buddhism tells you that this is just a foolish fantasy. So, I try not to think too much about Buddhism early in the morning. From noon on, I think about it.
On literary communities
But I’ve never really felt that being part of a literary community is all that important. It can be extremely detrimental to a writer. It can damage successful writers by giving them an exalted sense of what they’ve done, and it can crush less successful writers by infecting them with envy and malice at an early stage in their careers.
I wrote for many years without showing my writing to anyone, because I was constantly comparing it to what I was reading. You have to compare yourself to the best and feel totally inadequate.
On reading outside your experience
Some of my students seem to want to be able to write without actually reading, which seems utterly bizarre. When I assign certain readings, they often say, “I can’t relate to this,” which means whatever story we’re reading is so far outside of their experience—which tends to be limited—that they will not make the effort to understand what it is about. I find this a crippling attitude to have toward literature, toward history, toward all sorts of things.
The pampered writer
...The American writer right now is a very pampered figure—by foundations, by fellowships, by publishing advances. Even though I am not American, I have been pampered enough myself to know how it can make your life too frictionless.
On the culture of prizes
It’s a kind of madness. And the culture of prize-giving is so corrupt. To think of what someone like Flaubert would have made of it, what kind of utter disgust and scorn it would have aroused in figures like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. What would they say if they were told they all had to compete for these little trinkets that were given out? Yet the longing for a very garish kind of success seems as widespread among writers as among investment bankers.
Read the complete interview here.