It's that time of the year when we are (pleasantly) reminded of the fact that there are people among us who still read books. It's the season of literature festivals. The most glamorous of them all, the Jaipur Literature Festival, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. JLF has become something of a Koffee With Karan of the Indian literary realm. If you feature in it, you have arrived; and if you don't, then either you're yet to make your mark or you don't have a cordial equation with the organisers. Big names like Aatish Taseer and Amitav Ghosh have been conspicuously missing for the latter reason according to the grapevine.
What if I end up asking cliché questions that the writer must be tired of answering?
These festivals bring writers face to face with their readers. You have your favourite writer sitting right before you, reading out their own work or talking about it. Not only their own work, writers could also be asked to pontificate about a wide range of literary issues (say, the future of the novel) and non-literary issues (say, the rise of ISIS). They are expected to have an opinion about all these matters, and all that matters.
There are many book-launches too that happen at these festivals. How well a book does now doesn't necessarily depend on how well written it is, but on how well marketed it is. The publishing industry is no longer untouched by the aggressively swelling tide of consumerism. There is a great deal of emphasis on visibility. Writers today have to be visible to be able to sell. To sell well, at any rate. The writers are now accessible through Twitter, Facebook, their own websites—which could be run by the writers themselves if they are not well established or by a professional if they can afford to hire one—and these literary events. They write articles on popular web platforms, and in return, their latest or upcoming work gets a precious mention.
What if there is a huge gap between the person I see on the stage and the image of the writer I have built in my head based on their book(s)?
But there was a time when writers thrived behind the veil of obscurity. Readers rarely had direct access to writers. Historically, we have never really known much about writers and their world-view. How much do we know about Vyas, Homer, Kalidas, Virgil, Sappho? Very little. And most of it is speculative. Despite the humongous research and scholarship that Shakespeare has invited over the centuries, there are huge gaps in his life story as we know it; and we certainly don't know what Shakespeare's views on the subjects he wrote about were or what his politics was. One can venture to make inferences based on the works of these greats, but such an exercise is highly vulnerable to inaccuracies. Not always do the views of the writer and those expressed in a text match. The work produced may not always be an extension of the writer, as we generally tend to believe. T.S. Eliot famously called upon his fellow and future writers to shed the burden of personality in their works and thereby further propagated the cult of impersonal. In the Regency and Victorian era, many women writers took to writing under fictitious names, adding another layer of obscurity. Even much after the trend of using pseudonyms phased out, we had writers who were notorious for being reticent and unapproachable.
Samuel Beckett, for instance, never gave the kind of lengthy interviews that we see/read today. He was always the most evasive about his most evasive character: Godot. He never cared to freely explain away or comment on the significance of Godot. Yet the popularity of his work has endured even after half a century. Take another example, the literary sensation and the voice of his age, J. D. Salinger. In his most-loved work, The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger ascribes the following lines to Holden:
"What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though."
However, Salinger himself remained quite an inaccessible recluse all his life. He himself would never entertain the kind of phone call Holden might have wanted to make to his favourite writer.
I attended the book launch of Amit Chaudhuri's Odysseus Abroad a couple of years ago. After the presenter was done asking her set of questions, the audience were given a chance to ask questions, as is the custom in such events. When a lady asked Amit what books he read, she was scandalised to hear his answer. Amit very nonchalantly said that he doesn't read. After a moment or two of surveying the audience which sat aghast in utter silence, he smiled and said that he meant he did not read fiction anymore, just poetry. Order was restored in the universe. Everybody started breathing normally again.
Whenever I attend such an event I have two major fears in my mind.
First, what if I end up asking the same cliché questions that the writer must be tired of answering? All the other questions that don't pertain directly to the book being discussed are attempts to understand the mind of the writer. We want to know how it is done.
"What books do you read?" (Could I also read them and write as well they do?) "What do you think of a particular book ?" (Do their views match mine?) "Where did you grow up?" (From where do they get their characters?) "What was your childhood like?" (Did he have a miserable childhood?) "Does your spouse read your book?" (Is their marital life blissful?)
Perhaps, Beckett did not know any more about Godot than we do. This would mean that writers also can not know. And this thought makes me jittery.
Most of these questions, perhaps unwittingly, aim at undoing the mojo of the writer at one level, and establishing a correspondence between the curious reader and the revered writer, at another level. We believe that the writer is endowed with a kind of insight that we are not, and that they have the remarkable quality of distilling that insight in the form of words.
Second, what if there is a huge gap between the person I see on the stage and the image of the writer I have built in my head based on their book(s)? Perhaps, the writers too have this fear. J.D Salinger may have known that he could never talk in the same gullible and amusing manner as Holden Caulfield. Zadie Smith has repeatedly said that she is her best only when she is writing. Colm Tóibín has said that he can't necessarily tell a story as well as he can write one. Perhaps, Beckett did not know any more about Godot than we do. This would mean that writers also can not know. And this thought makes me jittery.