On Recovering the Literary through Literary Activism

26 December 2014
From left to right, Amit Chaudhuri, Dubravka Ugresic and Peter D McDonald in a panel discussion at the inaugural UEA India Symposium on Literary Activism in Kolkata earlier this month.
Courtesy Ahava Communications
From left to right, Amit Chaudhuri, Dubravka Ugresic and Peter D McDonald in a panel discussion at the inaugural UEA India Symposium on Literary Activism in Kolkata earlier this month.
Courtesy Ahava Communications

As books editor at this magazine and, more generally, as someone trying to make meaning of the Indian literary sphere, it seems to me that we’re passing through the Dickensian best of times and worst of times, an era possible to evaluate in “the superlative degree of comparison only.” More books are being published than ever before, a steady 10–12% increase in the business annually, suggesting the scope for newer kinds of literary practices and new ways of talking about them.

Instead, this potential diversity has been straitjacketed by the idea of “genre.” Genres are being created in assembly-line fashion, and are received as such by readers. (A case in point is how the many recent books on Indian cities are generally seen as belonging to a quasi-sociological genre of city literature, rather than distinctive explorations of the literary in relation to place.)

Scholarly publishing has expanded too, and is less susceptible to being ambushed by genre. But its rise has been met with the increasing suppression of books and their authors by flag-bearers of assorted political fundamentalisms, leading to fears of a scenario in which, as leading publisher Rukun Advani of Permanent Black has suggested on its blog, the best scholarly books on India are published abroad.

At the same time, the question of literary value itself has undesirable associations. Among the most forceful of present-day literary critics, Pankaj Mishra, for instance, resists being described as such. In an essay four years ago in The New York Times, he appeared determined to remain one of society’s critics by writing about literature in the language less of aesthetics and more of “moral concern.”

It is the best of times in that literatures once given short shrift such as those from the Northeast, by Dalits and women, and in translation from languages other than English, are being given more space. Yet the language of patronage with which these are often framed—supporting translations only for how they correct the historical dominance of Anglophone literature, for instance—can render these literatures of representative rather substantial value.

Anjum Hasan Anjum Hasan is the Books Editor at The Caravan.

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