On Recovering the Literary through Literary Activism

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
26 December, 2014

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.

Finally, alongside the growing writerly concern about the market taking over is the rise of the writer as entrepreneur, for whom marketing and writing are not discrete activities at all, and the book more an isolated, potentially profit-making product rather than something belonging to a complex network of associations called literature.

Could a book have an alternative life and literature be discussed, framed and promulgated in terms distinct from the above? What sorts of individual or collective actions in defence of the literary and in an attempt to reconstitute it—literary activism in other words—are possible or already underway today? Might one look to the academy? How should we resist the power of market activism—that is, the market as the dominant measure of literary meaning and value—the “we” here referring to anyone engaged with literature as more than just a profession.

The urgent necessity of addressing some of these questions was the impetus for the inaugural UEA India symposium on literary activism, a wonderfully wide-ranging and indubitably literary affair, held in Kolkata over three days earlier this month at Jadavpur University, Presidency University and Seagull bookstore, supported by the University of East Anglia, the Infosys Science Foundation and The Caravan (among others). Challenging the orthodoxies of the categories mentioned above—publishing, academics, writing—the symposium drew together writers, translators, critics, scholars and publishers.

“Is literary activism a response both to the successes and, lately, the failures of market activism, or does it argue for a view of writing, writers, publishing, and the literary notwithstanding the market?” asked critic and novelist Amit Chaudhuri, the moving force behind the symposium, in his concept note. He imbued the theme of the symposium with literariness, so to speak, by using terms such as “strangeness” and “desultory” to characterise it and so steer it away from any of the positivist or moralist associations of the word “activism.”

However, activism as the straightforward championing of a cause, in this case the work of lesser-known writers, was very much part of the agenda too. York University professor Derek Attridge has consistently advocated the writings of fellow South Africans Zoë Wicomb and JM Coetzee. Laetitia Zecchini, research fellow at CNRS Paris has done likewise in the case of poet Arun Kolatkar. Zecchini’s translation into French of Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda Poems appeared recently in a prestigious Gallimard edition. Amit Chaudhuri and Oxford professor Peter D McDonald’s 2009 campaign to have Arvind Krishna Mehrotra elected to the chair of Professor of Poetry at Oxford (which Chaudhuri described in a fascinating parable about the Indian writer in the larger world) also constitutes an active intervention to publicise a writer.

The market often takes over once such interventions have been made, and brings with it its own rewards and distortions. After her talk on ‘Translation as Literary Activism,’ Zecchini spoke of how her Kolatkar translation was published in a critical vacuum and how he has been enshrined, because of this and the Gallimard tag and, ironically, Zecchini’s own efforts, as, sans qualification, “the best Indian poet.” In Coetzee’s case, Attridge’s early critical writing on him may have contributed to his fame; that he no longer needs the support of literary activism is not just because the market has embraced him but as much because he, in relation to this market, is “an astute guardian and promoter” of his own work.

“Market activism is good,” said David Graham, former managing director of independents Granta Publications and Canongate Books, only about a quarter-jokingly. But from this it does not follow that the market is monolithic. Graham, in his talk ‘Market Activism: A Publisher’s Perspective,’ drove home the importance of differentiating between risk-taking independent—or even smaller, less capital-dependent micro—publishers who operate with an idea of the literary, and the risk-averse publishing conglomerates. A case in point is Seagull Books whose proprietor, Naveen Kishore, speaking on the panel ‘Publishing: The Nervous Mainstream and the Stubborn Independents’ described how the company had migrated to publishing European literature in translation because the idea appealed to him, thereby foregrounding the simultaneously old-fashioned and, in light of the present profit-driven scenario, radical idea of taste as a publishing agenda.

The majority of the speakers at the symposium were involved with the teaching of literature, and the role of the academy in literary activism was a central feature of the discussions. The cue was Chaudhuri’s remark in his concept note that the word “literary” has been disowned by most literature departments.

“I am not the steely, clear-eyed uncoverer of political biases,” said Attridge in his very warm-hearted inaugural lecture on ‘The Critic as Lover.’ Over the three days of the conference, a term Attridge had used in this opening talk to describe the current attitudes towards literature—the “hermeneutics of suspicion”—became something of a catchphrase for the pernicious influences of present-day literary theory.

McDonald in his talk on the last day said that the turn towards cultural studies had certainly led to more ethically and politically engaged reading of texts, the problems of such a negative hermeneutics notwithstanding. The question today was—how to develop a new language equal to the strangeness of the literary? He offered, in his talk ‘What About Criticism?’ a 1959 essay by French writer and critic Maurice Blanchot, who had suggested that literary criticism was neither scholarly nor journalistic; it was not a form of external judgement but “inseparable from the inner workings” of the text. The idea of a critical practice without protocol sounded greatly appealing, given the growing emasculation of literature departments and of serious reviewing.

What about the writer himself as activist, not just describing the world but seeking to change it? Swapan Chakraborty, professor of English at Jadavpur University, took literary activism to mean literature as abetting a political programme, an idea that has special resonance in the history of modern Indian literature, including that of Bengal. He proposed the intriguing idea, in his talk ‘Literary Activism and Literary Surrogacy,’ that the “literary” arises when such programmatic intent does not exhaust the possibilities of literature but leaves behind something of a surplus.

That a writer’s literary activism can also be undertaken in relation to herself, in aid of the often difficult task of making a place for herself in the world, was best exemplified by the unsentimental and poignantly funny stance of Croatian writer Dubravka Ugresic in her talk ‘Crossing Borders With A Non-Valid Literary Passport.’ Ugresic, whose anti-establishment views in the years after the break-up of Yugoslavia led to her being ostracised and who now lives in exile in Amsterdam, explored the extreme, almost absurd, marginality of her position —a woman writer in exile from a country in the process of erasing its literary history, writing in a language with a small readership, and surviving only on the lifeline of being read in translation.

“Nationalism is like a toothache,” she said, referring to its dull and unrelenting pain, and offering us one reminder of the tiredness of the old categories in relation to literature. Chaudhuri had stated that “No robust new critical discourse has emerged” in the last couple of decades as the market has taken over. In enabling such a wide-ranging, serious and open-ended conversation about literature, the symposium certainly offered glimpses of the possible tenor of any such future discourse.

One audience member pointed out that critical discussions like these are an “acquired taste”—an indication, I felt, not just of the strangeness of the literary but also that the literary can be strange. The fact that the symposium was open to the public and housed in Kolkata’s two leading universities, will, one hopes, go a long way in nurturing just such a taste.

Anjum Hasan is the author of several works of fiction. Her latest book is the collection of stories A Day in the Life. See more at www.anjumhasan.com.