Saturday, October 3, 2009
A Critical Failure: Standards of Judgment in Indian English Fiction
(This is an essay I wrote on the state of contemporary literary criticism of Indian English fiction. A slightly altered version was published in today's Hindu Literary Review.)
At first glance, literary criticism seems a purely reactive enterprise; an appraisal of creative output that both logically and chronologically arrives after the fact. But it is much more than that. Just as the gardener's pruning shapes the growth of the plant, criticism gives direction to creativity. A critical culture envelops writers, whispering suggestions of subject and style- and the majority of writers depend on the suggestions. Otherwise they might not know what to say. The same critical culture guides readers too, and helps them comprehend the books they are given. Otherwise they might not know what to think. So if Indian English fiction today seems a disjointed cacophony of voices, with no discernible shared themes or values to lend some shape to its burgeoning mass, the ultimate fault is of our critical imaginations. They have not clarified the standards, by which writers may know their material, and readers may know their books. What standards we have got, are superficial and misleading, and the products of insecurity.
Judged by the number of international literary awards it has won, and the pace at which it has won them, Indian English fiction must be among the world's finest. The list of winners is impressive- Rushdie, Roy, Lahiri, Desai, Adiga. And it seems only natural that we should accept these victories as aids to our judgment. Surely it is safe to say that a book by an Indian author, so successful on the world stage, is an exemplar of Indian writing in English? But truthfully, not at all, because fiction writing is not a sport. An Indian cricket team winning the World Cup is almost certainly a greater achievement than the same team winning domestically, since at the international level the rules are the same and the competition is likely much tougher. But in fiction, there are no rules, and the 'competition' is incommensurable. All there is, at the back of every book, is a certain sensibility, the writer's mind, expressed for better or worse. And the act of reading is a meeting of minds. So when a book by an Indian writer wins a foreign prize, it makes more sense to be suspicious than thrilled. It may well be that the book is not really Indian writing, not really an Indian mind on paper, but a more or less foreign one. Perhaps that is why it won. At any rate, the inquiry must be made, and to shirk the inquiry, to focus on the fact of the prize, and to declare on its basis a triumph for Indian writing in English, is to leave the critical job undone. It is to continue to accept other people's opinions, without looking for one's own.
Kiran Nagarkar once observed: “Research is not fiction. Very often it is passed off as fiction, especially in this country.” These are insightful words. Non-fiction continually outperforms fiction in our English language market, perhaps because its utility is clear on the face of it, while the case for fiction is less easily grasped. It needs to be made, clearly and effectively, but it hasn't been, and so a strange and pervasive theory has come to hold sway, that the best fiction is really just non-fiction with a storyline. According to this theory, the internal crises of characters, the play of their thoughts, the analysis of their emotions, do not suffice: 'hard facts' are needed, politics, history and sociology must be dropped as paperweights to prevent the frail fictional edifice from fluttering away. Many literary heavyweights adhere to this theory, and with seeming impunity. But the greater the emphasis on reportage the greater the disconnect between the writer and his characters, and the less the human insight. Then why the great emphasis? Perhaps, as Amitava Kumar has written, “the painstaking attempt at verisimilitude... betrays the anxiety about authenticity.” A writer “concerned about losing touch with the society he took as his subject...[might] invest in an aesthetic of observation and reportage... to build banks against the rising tide of that worry.”
Nowadays, it is usual to read and hear that middle class India is growing ever more self-confident and ever more globally powerful. All too often, however, the hallmarks of this way of thinking are an uncritical celebration of money, personal aggrandizement and faux liberalism. Businessmen and industrialists are the heroes of the movement, but artists are welcome to join- provided they toe the line. And therefore a new breed of Indian English fiction has come to be published and lauded, not because it is good, but because it is the fashion. A book that is 'light' and 'breezy', doesn't have much to say but says it glibly, pats its chosen establishment on the back, and takes aim at nothing but good taste, will fit the bill. The operating tyranny here is that one mustn't be a spoilsport- you cannot seriously criticize a 'fun' book. A great deal of 'chick-lit', for example, is thus allowed to fly under the radar. But this is literary criticism at its most superficial; it is almost literally judging a book by its cover, as though the only important story on offer is the writer's 'success story.' Naturally, it provides no means of judgement, only adds to the prevailing peer pressure.
Interior Honesty: The True Standard
The extent of foreign acclaim, non-fictional content, and trendiness- what do these spurious standards of criticism have in common? They are each proof of a cultural insecurity. We resort to other people's verdicts, hide behind detail, and pile onto bandwagons, because we are shy of accepting that we have minds of our own. The literature of other Indian languages suffers from no such crises of identity; but as to Indian writing in English, Naipaul has rightly diagnosed, “India has no means of judging.... India's poverty and colonial past, the riddle of the two civilizations, continue to stand in the way of identity and strength and intellectual growth.”
And yet we cannot accept the air of finality about that assertion, because after all, it is the writer's very job- and pride and joy- to solve such riddles. The fact is, that the lives of English-speaking Indians, their specific social situations, their emotional crises and predicaments, are as real as anybody's, and as fertile a ground for literature, as anybody's. The test of the worth of Indian English fiction must, therefore, be the same as the test of any fiction. It is the test of interior honesty, which is achieved only by accepting your material and making something of it- and with candour, not a nervous laugh or a running apology. What is more, we do have writers who have attempted this task, and some of them have even tasted great domestic success. Unfortunately, their success has perhaps been mis-analyzed. I would suggest, for example, that the popularity of Chetan Bhagat's books is not because they are written so 'simply' or imagined so crudely; it is because, in spite of their many glaring artistic and other shortcomings, they honestly have something to say. There are others, also, who have things to say, and the only fair way of judging them is on the merits of what they have said and how well they have said it. That way lies literary criticism, and a little further on, maybe, a new national literature.