It was interesting to notice the reactions of the audience when Chetan Bhagat stepped on stage at a literature event recently. Most people were fans and cheered vociferously. Others snorted and muttered in dissatisfaction. "Who invited him?" whispered one lady. "They allow anybody these days, don't they?" mused another. "How did he become so famous?" wondered a kurta-clad gentleman. "He should be banned!" spat an elderly man, drawing murmurs of support. (Banning anything seems to be in vogue.) This got me thinking.
For the record, I am not a fan of Mr Bhagat's writing. I put down One Night At A Call Centre somewhere midway, fearing for my sanity and never dared pick up another book. But I am strongly against the sentiment of banning him! The rock-star status accorded to him (that many people detest), doesn't bother me. After all, mass following is no indication of quality and the absence of it is no cause for indignation. People today are more likely to know Justin Bieber than Beethoven.
"I don't think good literature is in danger just because there are potboilers being churned out."
There are good stories, bad stories, fantastic films, pathetic ones, classic works of art and plain drivel. This is the truth of artistic entertainment. Literature is no exception. The more the variety, the more stark are the preferences, opinions and debates. So what? I don't think good literature is in danger just because there are potboilers being churned out.
The second point is simply this -- Who are we to judge? If a writer has fans who adore his/her work, what is the problem? It isn't fair to criticise their "taste" and shake your head in disbelief. Taste is relative and what works for you, may not work for someone else. Nothing illuminated this point to me more than when Chetan Bhagat took the stage to roaring applause and spoke to a rapt audience while many thought he had the IQ of a potato. Readers are the ultimate decision makers and can send a writer back to his day job if he/she doesn't hold their attention anymore.
The strongest reason I have against the sentiment that Mr Bhagat be banned is that it is a dangerous trend and runs the risk of perpetrating the danger of unilateral taste. I feel that the greatest danger any form of art is under is its possible hijacking by a select few who might dictate norms based on personal preferences. These groups of esoteric tastes make sure their influence is spread in controlled circles across the spectrum and I have a problem with that. The greatest feature of any form of art is that it is all encompassing. This solace is comforting and it is a great equaliser. When you choose not to cede space to the "bad" writers, you are not preserving the art, but your own tastes and sensibilities. So while some writers are quite bad, intolerance would, I fear, create an unwelcome trend of elitism and deepen the divide between the self-proclaimed "real artists" (whose idea of worthy literature is nothing less than Dickens or Kafka) and the rest of the world. I personally have nothing against either group.
"I feel that the greatest danger any form of art is under is its possible hijacking by a select few who might dictate norms based on personal preferences."
Art is for everyone and even if certain artists aren't the best, no one can deny them their stab at it. I wince when writers fall over each other to advertise and market themselves with gusto. It blurs the line between art and business and takes on a commercial meaning. But we are a long way from the image of an elusive writer, smoking a pipe by the fireplace, a hound curled at his feet and a finished manuscript on the shelf. Writers are executive-like today, some with management degrees and a social media presence. The times have changed. A certain mystery and old-world charm may be kicked out of the equation, but there is always the option to hold one's own if one chooses to.
Some people argue that bad writing and bad books are elbowing out the good writers. I don't think so. And who decides if they are elbowed out or not? Surely revenue, readership and "likes" can't be the only parameters! Classics will always remain classics. They never die and will always have a place in the world. But everyone doesn't have to relate to them. So it is the hard truth in the artistic world that some consider "Backstreet Boys Greatest hits" to be "classics", sharing the same space with "Hotel California" and "Smoke on the Water" But this is a matter of taste and The Eagles and Deep Purple are not in any way threatened nor their contribution, forgotten.
I simply believe in the democratisation of arts. If the sheer joy of putting pen to paper and watch one's imagination slowly take shape is the joy of writing, then everyone should have that space. The arms of the reading world are big enough to embrace all. From War and Peace to Half-Girlfriend and everything in between.