Writerly delusions

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on June 28, 2019 Published on June 28, 2019

Literary jousts in an increasingly empty auditorium   -  ISTOCK.COM

Five things about contemporary writers that get my goat

There are things about contemporary writers that I don’t get. Here are five of them: The proverbial high horse; the myth of brutal honesty; spouse/ partner as best critic; the profuse thanking of editors and agents; the acknowledgements essay, at times longer than the book itself, like an incantation at the end of Indian novels.

Let’s rein in the horse first. For the non-reader, all writers are the same, solitary misfits who have chosen to follow a profession on the verge of extinction. These days, everybody watches and listens, no one bothers reading. In the face of such bleakness, writers should be feeling a sense of beleaguered kinship.

On the contrary, writers spend their living days looking down on each other: The poet looks down on the novelist who writes doorstoppers and vice versa; the journalist and the academic share a mutual hatred; the novelist of big themes pities the novelist of the quotidian and the other way round; the columnist looks down on the reporter, while the latter looks down on the churner of thumbsuckers. The bhasha writer dismisses those writing in English as elitist. The Indian book reviewer for an American journal looks down on the reviewer writing 450 words for an Indian news magazine. The long-reads writer pooh-poohs the writer of acerbic hot-takes.

The business of detesting and pitying each other is fine, except that no one is reading anymore. The conceits are being manufactured in an auditorium of empty chairs, solely for the benefit of one’s fellow actors.

The second point is to do with the phrase ‘brutally honest’. Young writers are always telling one to be brutally honest about their work. Perhaps it’s better than being politely evasive. The process of being brutally honest is time-consuming and exhausting. If one starts analysing every sentence, then one will never get one’s own writing done. Brutal honesty also means that there will be no friendships left. For brutal honesty often translates into the unsaid thought: To be honest, I think you should quit writing and take up farming, which, too, is not going to be easy.

It’s become some kind of cliché to say, “my partner is my harshest critic”. I would think one’s partner cannot be trusted with that role. Comfortable familiarity breeds good-natured contempt. Irritating familiarity breeds vicious contempt. One is not writing for one’s flatmate. You might say a spouse is more than that. Well, then, what might be the best time for your partner to read your work and pronounce nuanced judgement on it? After you’ve had a long-overdue fight and thrown table mats and combs at each other? After a night of great sex? After breakfast at Carnatic Cafe?

Do we have to mix relationships with writing? Aren’t relationships complicated enough as they are? Do you want your partner to desperately like what you’ve written, and does it put you in a bad mood when you don’t get the expected response? Do you have blind faith in your partner’s judgement? In any case, the world is waiting to pass harsh judgement out of envy, malice and, on the rare occasion, good reason. What masochism makes you yearn for harsh words in bed?

This brings me to my fourth point: The public thanking of one’s agents and editors. Editors are thanked with ready-made phrases done to death: “for challenging me”; “for going over the manuscript with a fine comb”; and “catching errors no one else would”. I had a wonderful agent who helped me draft a book proposal over the course of a year and sell it for a decent sum of money. I had a wonderful editor who gave me my first break and commissioned my debut story collection. I didn’t feel the need to mention them in glowing terms on the final page of my book; you know who you are.

Agents, authors and editors are vital cogs of a profession; everyone is doing a job, for which they are duly remunerated. The bodybuilder doesn’t have to thank the milkman. The milkman doesn’t have to be thanking the cow at all times. The entire thanking business seems phony because writers, in private, are often the biggest grumblers, always blaming their publishers, agents and editors for ‘not doing enough to push the book’.

In recent times we have also seen the emergence of a new art form called the ‘Acknowledgements Essay’. Typically it runs into 10 to 20 pages. The norm nowadays is to thank a minimum of 60 to 80 people.

I’d never imagine that such a large number of VIPs go into the writing of a novel. One’s novel is not a wedding. In Indian literary fiction one notices that the same people are thanked over and over again by every writer. Indians are constantly on the make, those writing in English even more so. The artefact, the book that you have written, then becomes a kind of visiting card, the unashamed record and proof of blatant self-promotion.

The acknowledgements essay is an exercise in high solipsism; it’s only purpose is to let other writers know that you’ve been keeping the right company. The lay reader has no interest in this. The lay reader will never read the acknowledgements essay as she will never finish reading the novel in the first place.

Those whose names find repeated mention in the acknowledgements essay suffer under the delusion that they truly have become the pillars of a literature, when, what they really are, is an anonymous speck of Xeroxed dust.

Another worrying aspect of contemporary writers is the love of the stage. Writers are falling over themselves to be ‘in conversation’ with celebrity authors. Genuine writers, I genuinely believe, ought to suffer from acute stage-fright.

I’ve been brutally honest and the harshest critic in this column. Now it’s time I got off my high horse.

Palash Krishna Mehrotra   -  BLink


Palash Krishna Mehrotra is the author of Eunuch Park and the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India

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Published on June 28, 2019
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