America a superpower. American literature not supreme!
In any standard anthology of English literature or world literature there is no chapter, not even a honourable mention of American literature! Why? A question that should engage Indian writers in English as well as those who write in Indian languages which have ancient literatures and literary traditions. American literature puts me off easily. on the other hand,even an obscure writer from some unknown geographical space, even in poor translations excite me.Why?I often wondered! America to me is a barren cultural landscape. There is so much money, sponsoring foundations and galleries and nig halls. But no modesty of scale,no striving,no respect for traditions.A cactus might flower,not the rich luxuriant cultural springs would arise out of a desert landscape. America is a migrant society,so many ethnic minorities,the American English is a language of power and governance, business and military might. America has no long history, no long memory, no great literature would come out of such incongrous society. So too Canada, Australia or New Zealand or even South Africa cannot produce great literature.
New York might exude raw energy and sustain (and support materially) highly talented writers and artists. So many migrant writers opted to live in the USA and went on to win the Nobel Prizes.But it is London and Paris which turn out great creative energies and literatures. James Joyce,Ernest Hemingway evolved in Paris.Great literature thrives on some controlled enegry,lots of introspection and a sense of creativity out of a tradition.This ,in my opinion,is the missing link in the American society. One more reason why American creative literature is so flat is owing to the expansion of universities and so many English language depts.So much academia has produced sterile literary criticism. They have so many creative writing teaching courses!
Even in England,never academic literary criticism amounted to much.Mathew Arnold or T.S.Eliot are critics are in a class. I may sound less than serious when I say I dont read American literature. Yes, there was a time when I was an young man,in the Fifties,when I did read some American writers.The first English novel I bought was Somerset Maugham’s Razor’s Edge in a paperback at the Chennai railway station book stall.I also remember to have bought the same author’s Human Bondage.The books when I bought them and perhaps also I read them to finish,gave me an unknown sense of exhileration.I became an individual.I decided to buy and read what I considered to be the first great English novels.I well remember my reading of American authors continued for some more years.For I became a great admirer of Ernest Hemingway.I had read his Arms and the Man,The Sun Also Rises and the Snows of Klimanjaro.There also the films based on his novels and seeing the Arms and the Man film also added to the mystique of the author’s writings.When he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature I bought the Oldman and the Sea.This was when I was at Santiniketan.I also read much about Hemingway’s life and his tragic death moved me much.I also read Pearl Buck’s The Good Eartch.
These are all the American novels I had ever read.Recently when I saw an old copy of The Razorare a good number.”s Edge in an antiquarian book shop,I bought a copy for old time sake and touching the book and going through the pages created the same old sensations.But as I read through some pages,it looked so insipid.It looked typical American simpletonism!The descriptions of Occidental and oriental mumbo-jumbo!
Now,why this much introduction to a subject that I really don’t have a heart for it?There are some reasons.One,the Indian writers who write and get published in the USA are going up.And what they publish also get reviewed by Indian glossy magazines.More like a promotion than like a book review.Most writers are NRI men and women and even those like Salman Rushdie and others live in the USA. Even writers like V.S. NaiPaul, in spite of winning a Nobel Prize, writes for the American market or for a market that is highly commercialised and there is no way (for me at least) to find out what is literature and what is not. Even my one-time favourite writer Ved Mehta (who along with his Oxford time mate, Dom Moraes, were my favourtes for many years had faded away,it seems,without a trace! In one recent interview somewhere he had spoken about the changed American book market where assembly line production methods and the sales strategies make and unmake best sellers,as if books are like any other fast moving consumer goods!
Yes,that is one reason why I cant read any heavy book,be it management books or literature. Even Bill Clinton”s autobiography (which I bought on the day I was put on the shelves) didn’t make for an engrossing reading, except in some portions. There was a time when I used to read every bit of John Kennedy’ life.Not anymore!
I often read how the American book trade functions with some Indians like Sunny Mehta heading a big book company and how books are commissioned by all sorts of writers who are or who are turned into celebrities.The promotion of a writer is done by ruthless planning and an eye for vast sales.So,literature today can be anything, so long it makes for commercial sales. Thus, I find even in UK, the book trade had become a lottery type risk taking and bidding for spotting talen.
Thus,I read about a Nigerian girl,born to mixed parents(mother Nigerian and father perhaps a white man) who was just 18 when she wrote the novel, The Icarus Girl, had became a hit! Her name:Helen Oyeyemi. Her style rated as lyrical, her prose has stylistic boldness etc So too most emigre writers in UK.There are so many.The English language emigre writers, from Nigeria alone are too many.One Ben Okri won the Booker prize. As our own Arundathi Roy.
As I write I read that an Indian-American teenager,Kavvya Visvanathan,studying in Harvard got a Rs.2.2 crore advance from a publishing firm,Little Brown,for a novel she hadn’t even yet thought of! This would be considered a crazy thing but then the American book trade often gambles for some such exotic sensations and this trend had created a large market for book writing and publishing.Salman Rushdie is a millionarie and so too writers like Naipaul.That is also one reason these new successful writers write things that for a person like me are quite unreadable.R.K.Narayan when he laid his hand on Rushdie’s much hailed Midnight Children said:”I couldn’t read more than one or two pages”.
Anyway,I too couldn’t read more than one or two pages of novels by Naipaul.This,after I met and talked with him!Somehow,I could find any soul in his creative literature. Now, I was wondering whether I was really quite an ‘unliterary’ type. By chance I came across a volume of book reviews by Peter Ackroyd (The Collection, Chatto and Windu, 2001). Ackroyd is the chief book reviewer for The Times and a writer of standard biographies and a book reviewer of some authority. There was one lecture (the book has some of his lectures too), The English Novel Now. This lecture gave me some clues to my own inability to read American writing.Of course the author gave his talk from the Englishman’s point of view. So,I have also some reservations about what he claims for strictly English writers. But his insights gave me some enlightenment.
American military might,its empire like status and its economic and technological power make for American writers to write “with this great expanse of energy”. Landing on the moon is a great thing but not the same as getting a clue to man’s inner recesses, in my way of putting the issue! American writers write to”astonish, rather than to convince “The “superfuilty of money”, the many cultural foundations, sponsorships,their arts,all arts, are done with a machine – like gigantism, a superflous surface of a successful consumer economy”type writing. “They were living in fact living off the fat of the society,a society not as observers and critics but as clients seeking financial support”. “Thye became writers-in-residence, professors of creative writing and so on and if you live off fat you are destined to become overweight,Their large concerns became grandiose, their language turned into a flat rhetoric which concealed far more thanb it revealed”.American writers (he gives such names like Updike, Heller) sound hallow, write at a forced pace,preoccupied with lterary special effects,and unable to deal with human beings in other than generalised and stereotypical terms,a literary equivalent,if you like, of Apocalypse Now”.
There are many complex reasons, Ackroyd says for this American literary hallowness.”It conerns the nature of the American language itself. That language tends characteristically towards the abstract, moving away from the specific to the general at every opportunity.A lie for Americans beconme a “mis-speak”! And so on.”The nature of the American society itself makes for this. Too large,too multifarous to create recognisable idiom,says the critic. American English hadn’t become a vernacular, he says. A local colour, flavour to a small community or communities.The very large-scale enterprise of writing for a huge scale makes American creative writing, not creative enough to draw readers to a closeness,a warmth of attachment with the authors. Humans have become soft machines to be re- programmed! Human motives, human responses are perceived. “Their language becomes an inmperial syntax, co-opting all available realities and transforming them into the same bland shape. On the contrary, English novels are on small scale, it is a vernacular writing, “British fiction is too domestic, narrowly class-bounbd in its preoccupations”. “There is a deliberate smallness of scale,when compared to the broad expanse of the American novel” English fiction is an exploration. American fiction is a statement, heroics and rhetoric.As an Indian, I would put it this way:in English novel there is some soul and introspction,self-doubt etc.In the American novel, there is the brashness and raw power that dazzles and at the same time leaves you soon tired and listless! Much of the NRI and also Indian English novel writing I see the American type imitation,not the Indian type humility or plain speaking!We pretend,we hide behind an alien tongue.That is the impression I get from the new breed of middle-calss,bureaucrats or their wives or the spoilt children of the pampered parents!The aim is the same:how to get quick-fix overnight fame!
There are such insightful observations and I would urge interested readers to read Ackroyd’s full essay.As I was reading him ,my mind wandered to our own Indian expatriate writing.Much of what Ackroyd says of American novel can be said, in my opinion, to what Vikram Seth and Salman Rushdie and others write or”produce”every six moths a novel or a tome! It is all programmed in advance so that the production targets of big publishing houses are planned in advance, advances paid, distribution channeles fixed and the take -off date is the book release day only!
So,I think of Indian writers in the Indian languages, vernaculars. All great writers in Malayalam or Oriya or Assamese are so genuine and what they write are pure gems and alas they remain unnoticed.A Vaikkom Mohamed Basheer or a Thakazhi can write only where they lived,in their own local environment and that is one reason their writings read so fresh in any number of translations! A “Pather Panchali” by an unknown school master (Bhibuthi Bushan Bandopadpaya) would not have become a world classic, both in translation and on the celluloid but for a rare genius of Satyajit Ray.How many such literary classics remain buried in the Indian soil!How many of our film geniuses remain to be discovered! Though such discoveries are made everyday.We need more debates and new cultural policies and explicit promotion initiatives.
As I see the Indian literature scenario,I feel so enthusiastic about the creative reservoir that is waiting to be unleased. A genuine literature thrives in some sense of deprivation, yearning, and a search for meaning and purpose. Let us say this much to the Nobel Prize Committee: search for genuine literature where genuine life is possible. In small cultures, old and new,in recognisable socities that have undergone some suffering and years for revival and recognition.
Americanisation of Indian media and novel writing? The lure of the dollar and commercialisation of culture!
I often wonder whether we Indians do have any claims to some exclusive Indianess?I read in Peter Ackroyd’s”The Collection” one essay titled,”The Englishness of English Literature”, a 13-page lecture,the longest and also the most well-argued case for the subject. On the day I read this essay I also read the Indian newspapers. The venerable Hindu newspaper had reproduced the American columnists,Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman.The second newspaper,The Asian Age,the very same day carries Friedman’s very same column.The Hindu also carried some other US economist coloumn on the very same day I read it in The Economic Times!I wondered: what we have come to? I thought for long The Hindu is a very orthodox Indian newspaper standing for some Indian values and point of view.Though I used to be irritated by the newspaper often reproducing the British news services,often to the point of being a PR paper for the British Royal Family!
Now,it looks like a both,a pro-British as well as a pro-US lobby voice!Things are much worse in the other Indian English newspapers and media.I am yet to form an opinion of what the TV news channels are doing. When it comes to book writing, more the novel writing, Indians write more in the American style, large tomes,big advances demand bigger tomes and hardcover editions priced so high and promoted American style ,through book chains and authors participating, book signing etc. Nothing wrong.Provided genuine literature is produced.Is there anything like Indianness in Indian literature? Written in English? That is my concern.
Our English – educated, Americanised mind-set raises some basic questions. We, Indians, are becoming susceptible to new types of colonialisation? An intellectual brainwashing?I read a recent book,Internationalisation of English literature, published by OUP. I thought it was about genuine English literature .But it was not! It was just about English writing by immigrant writers, black, brown etc. Not by whiteman! So too I read a recent PEN meet in New York,atended by Salman Rushdie, president of PEN American Centre. In fact, it was attended by 125 writers from 43 countries,mostly African and Asian.Statistics revealed he meet show that 185,000 books published in English in the USA,only 874 were adult literature in translation.Rushdie made some noise.That’s all.He made much of”the power of the pen”. But the point is that even in the USA,if you want to survive as a writer,then you have to do it only in terms of your skin colour ,not by your genuine literary creations.Unfortunately,the lure of the dollar is irresistable to everyone.So,writers have to write and produce literature in the American commercial mould and survive as a non-white person, whatever otherwise you imagine yourself to be!
So, the larger question I asked in the beginning:what is Indianness about the Indian literature?That needs to be answered by whoever who thinks competent enough to do so! We in India don’t have any such developed social etiquette. We have to wait for a long time before we can aspire to a highly cultured and evolved society of good manners and a polite society of which we can be proud! Recently there is news that a senior English minister is facing a legal action in France for using allegedly derogatory language. I read it religiously and I remmebr to this day that every Sunday monring when the Oxford town was still in deep sleep I would stir out of my New College room to find out the first copy of the Observer. But today alas,the paper I read here in India at the British library is a shadow of the old self.It had become fatty and in contents it had seen a steady decline.
So too The Times. What a fall even in its quality. It now searches for the tabloid format and contents! More scandals, more the better! The latest tabloid news is the Daily Mirror editor,Piers Morgan, no more in the job,had produced an autobiography the highlight of which is he had 22 lunches, six dinners, six interviews, 24 further one to one chats over tea and biscuts and numerous phone calls with Tony Blair! Says another journalist tongue-in-cheek:”This in itself is a catastrophic commentary on the wreteched condition into which the British democratic system has sunk in just two decades.Yes,the Blairs seem to be very ordinary couple with no proper polish and consciousness of the high office they occupy.10 Downing Street had a mystique built over a few centuries, we often find Blair walking in and walking out as if it were a grocery shop! Margaret Thatcher had that mystique about her. She cultivated carefully. At least the British tabloids have one strength.
They create sensational disclosures, it is rather too much on ministers, many sex scandals, a routine! In India, we at least graduated to Tehelka! This is Spectator, another of the British upper class pretension. The magazine is century old and yet it keeps its pretensions of upper class values.
The lost soul of New York?
New York is thought to be the centre of the world.Yes,not just by Americans but even by the Indians.New York is where tomorrow happened today!This is said by many visiting writers,artists and even intellectuals.Money could be made in New York,quickly too!And cities of money attract all sorts of people,more so talented people.So,there are now more talented Indians in New York than in New Delhi!So,can we in India say that when the sociology ofIndian migration of talent in the USA is written,one day, a resurgence ofIndian culture can be traced to the many Indians writing in New York and elsewhere,many new talents Mira Nair and others like Aishwarya Rai’s gallant attempts to storm Hollywood cinema,would liven up current Indian culture?Our art,culture and literature brought to international levels of creativity and energy?There are serious questions for Indian intellectuals and artists.New York once had a visionary artist in Andy Warhol who famously said:”everyone can be famouis for fiftieen minutes”.Is this the fate of our new breed of successful(financially) America-based(Or US focused?) writers of novels and acres of prose?
Dale Carnegie is an instance of the writing as an enterprise. Carnegie’s” How to win friends an influence people” is perhaps the historic piece of American writing that sold in millions! It is such a simple story that might have changed the lives of so many people across the globe.Much of American writing is Cargenie style too. Money can be made by simple writing devices like his!
A new American novel
Just now read a review of a latest American novel,”Gilead”by Marilynne Robinson that had received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This is “this American writer’s” second novel after 24 years. This review is from the London Guardian Weekly.”Robinson is addressing the plight of serious people with a calm-eyed reminder of the liberal and religious traditions of a nation”.”a book about the damaged heart of America”.”A message across generations”.”What have I to leave you but the ruins of old courage,and the lore of old gallantry and hope?'”Things can and will change;they have before,and they will again”
Americanisation of Indian media and novel writing?
The lure of the dollar and commercialisation of a domineering and superficial alien culture!!
India is changing fast.The youth in the IT industry have big spending power.That shows! Indian bookshops are floded with massive American business management books.The other varieties of American books too seem to be larger than life size!Big American publishing houses like Random House produce books more as blockbusters! So any books ios okey,be it written by football stars or film acrtesses or notorious persons! Book sales is an elaborate exercise,the author travels,appears on public paltforms, on TV talk shows etc.Thus,the large profits is everyone involved is concerned with.A recent list on the Amazon worldwide bestsellers were all some 12 sports titles!
No day passes in India without readers of newspapers and nmagazines or the viewers of the TV flooded with American images.One day I read in a Sunday newspaper reviews,so many foreigners,Saul Bellow,A Turkish writer or a visiting Englishman,holding forth( for the benefit of Indians)on art,god and religion and what have you!There was a writeup on the late C.D.Narasimhaiah,the the typicl,old generation English professors.He wanted to promote Indianess in English literature written by Indians.But whether he succeeded in this aim?I am not sure.He yet promoted what is called Commonwealth literature! So,English literature written by whitemen from UK and not from America?The Commonwealth literature by white writers or brown and blackmen?
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
He is one writer,perhaps after Pablo Neruda,to give Latin American literature a high visible face.In the background of the American scale,Latin American Spanish writing seems very patchy. However,the very voice from the underground,so to say,seems to have found a fury and explosion that would have become such a contrast to the American large scale literary enterprise.The Latin American authors soon became cult figures! This is never possible for the rich American authors.
Bill Clinton’s Autobiography
Bill Clinton’s autobiography,My Life,was perhaps the last big American book I had read.It is 1000 pages massive book and it is written in the typical American production style,using a number of helpers. The book made interesting reading.The only best chapter is the first where he describes his ill-luck father,it is deeply moving. Afterwards other chapters are interesting if you are a Clinton enthusiast. His chapter on how he organised his first election campaign is a treat for any aspiring politician.The time and attention American politicians pay in preparing their speeches is a lesson. I was looking for clues to Clinton’s interests in literature and culture.He was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford for two years.He read ,he says, some books. He was given a present of a paperback copy of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary which “I still have”.As for other books he says he read,John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down.
He says he read George Orwell’s book on Paris while he was in Paris.Also he read E.H.Carr’s What is Hisotry?
But nowhere you get a clue what he benefited by reading such books.The autobiography,with all its publishing success, doesn’t give a clue to the man’s mental development or his deeper beliefs. American superficialities come clear in the way he assembles the facts or diary notes such into a massive volume.
The sublime and the ridiculous!
There could be protagonists and antagonists for American way of writing novels, best sellers and many other genre of writing. Americans often mix the sublime with the ridiculous. We often get dazzled by their scale and the American cinema and the American novel contribute to much crass commercialisation of literature.
One antagonist was Vladimir Nabakov (1899-1977), the trilingual writer of great imagination, he wrote his first nine novels in Russian, then switched into English! Writing in this language another nine novels, the most notorious being Lolita(1955). Anyway, he is one who “had his abhorrence to America’s cultural landscape”. He lived in the USA since 1940 but died in Switzerland.
American literature had won Nobel Prizes for literature several times, our latest calculation is 7 authors. The first is Sinclair Lewis( 1930 Nobel), the others as far as we know are, Pearl Buck(1938 Nobel) William Falukner, the 1949 winner. Other great literary figures to come out of US soil are many, Ernest Hemingway is the most known, another Nobel winner. The recently died Saul Bellow, the 1976 Nobel winner is one of the widely known post-war novelists. There have been many others who made the USA their home to escape from their native soil’s inhospitality like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,87, (Nobel Prize for 1970) till the fall of Communism,returned to Russia in 1994, or others like many Russian emigre writers, Joseph Brodsky who also has the distinction of being appointed the Poet Laureate of America! Yes, the Americans have all the material means ,also the imitation of older cultures. They also appoint poets like the Irish Nobel winner for poetry, Heaney for a chair of poetry at Harvard. There are some of the big-money literary prizes in the USA, the most well-known being the Pulitzer Prize, also Americans have many literary promotion strategies like “best sellers” (the book must sell in hard cover edition one lakh copies), the “Editor’s Choice”, other awards.
One of the distinctions authors aspire for is the best selling author status. This is achieved by so many marketing promotion strategies verging on the more crude corporate fast moving consumer goods sales like! So, US authors are millionaires!
Their books are also fat and often unreadable! What makes for my criticism is the fact that authors like Salmon Rushdie ,V.S.Naipaul, once they made their names in novel writing, they take on the role of spokesmen for India! They write often irresponsibly and put forward so many theses that are plainly anti-Indian or untenable by the points of view of intellectuals based inside India. This applies not only to literature but also to many academic disciplines where there is a strong NRI presence on American university campuses.
What is Indianness? In liteature,education and culture?
I often wonder whether we Indians do have any claims to some exclusive Indianess?I read in Peter Ackroyd’s”The Collection”one essay titled,”The Englishness of English Literature”,a 13-page lecture,the longest and also the most well-argued case for the subject.On the day I read this essay I also read the Indian newspapers.The venerable Hindu newspaper had reproduced the American columnists,Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman.The second newspaper,The Asian Age,the very same day carries Friedman’s very same column.The Hindu also carried some other US economist coloumn on the very same day I read it in The Economic Times!I wondered: what we have come to? I thought for long The Hindu is a very orthodox Indian newspaper standing for some Indian values and point of view.Though I used to be irritated by the newspaper often reproducing the British news services,often to the point of being a PR paper for the British Royal Family!
Now,it looks like a both,a pro-British as well as a pro-US lobby voice!Things are much worse in the other Indian English newspapers and media.I am yet to form an opinion of what the TV news channels are doing. When it comes to book writing,more the novel writing,Indians write more in the American style,large tomes,big advances demand bigger tomes and hardcover editions priced so high and rpomoted American style ,through book chains and authors participating,book signing etc. Nothing wrong.Provided genuine literature is produced.Is there anything like Indianess in Indian literature?Written in English?That is my concern.
Our English-educated,Americanised mind-set raises some basic questions.We,Indians,are becoming susceptible to new types of colonialisation?An intellectual brainwashing?I read a recent book,Internationalisation of English literature ,published by OUP.I thought it was about genuine English literature.But it was not! It was just about English writing by immigrant writers,black,brown etc.Not by whiteman!So too I read a recent PEN meet in New York,atended by Salman Rushdie,president of PEN American Centre.
In fact,it was attended by 125 writers from 43 countries,mostly African and Asian.Statistics revealed i he meet show that 185,000 books published in English in the USA,only 874 were adult literature in translation.Rushdie made some noise.That’s all.He made much of”the power of the pen”.But the point is that even in the USA,if you want to survive as a writer,then you have to do it only in terms of your skin colour ,not by your genuine literary creations.Unfortunately,the lure of the dollar is irresistable to everyone. So,writers have to write and produce literature in the American commercial mould and survive as a non-white person,whatever otherwise you imagine yourself to be!
So,the larger question I asked in the beginning:what is Indianness about the Indian literature?That needs to be answered by whoever who thinks competent enough to do so!