If literature does strange things to people, literary festivals have a stranger effect on them. This year’s Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) found schoolgirls swooning over a former cricket star; crowds booing at a distinguished sociologist for making an allegedly offensive remark; and an award-winning author, with a reputation for stirring ‘trouble’, being shadowed by a bodyguard.
But the visitors had a jolly good time. Hundreds of kulhar chai were consumed; bags, boxer shorts and slippers printed with cute dogs, donkeys and elephants were bought; books were thrust at the wrong authors for autographs; and even a mini stampede ensued one afternoon, although there were no pop icons in sight. And of course, everything under the sun, from James Bond to the Buddha, Kashmir to Kumbh Mela, was discussed, debated and dissected to bits in several languages.
Journalists were the relatively miserable lot in this jamboree. Armed with laptops, cellphones and tablets, they were left high and dry by the erratic Wi-Fi for the first couple of days. But occupational hazards apart, JLF 2013 turned out to be especially memorable for those of us who like to think of ourselves as “literary journalists” in India, thanks to a panel discussion titled “Rogues, Reviewers and Critics” on 26 January. Featuring Christopher Ricks, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Anjum Hasan, Manu Joseph and Chandrahas Choudhury, the panel articulated a range of intellectual positions on the state of literary criticism in the world today.
From Ricks’ spirited defence of practical criticism to Spivak’s emphasis on a critical reading of the “canon”, the arguments were as diverse as arresting, though the crux of the problem, for critics in India, was best stated by Hasan who, apart from being an acclaimed writer, is the books editor of a magazine. “We, in India, read a lot of Anglo-American literature and criticism, but, at the same time, are trying to produce our own literature and critical tradition.”
It is a challenging, if somewhat overwhelming, situation to be in, especially for those steeped in an Anglophone tradition of reading and thinking. It is no longer possible to simply follow the principles of criticism laid down by F.R. Leavis, I.A. Richards or T.S. Eliot when even polite conversation is peppered with words like “global” and “local”. Then, in addition to the difficulty of finding the right intellectual pitch, critics in India are often at the receiving end of a considerable degree of cynicism from editors. Joseph, who is a novelist and the editor of a weekly, declared, for instance, that his policy is to run very few book reviews because most of them are boring, smack of hypocrisy, and nobody reads them anyway.
There may be more than a grain of truth in this statement but as long as books get written, published and read, critics are unlikely to remain unemployed. In the West, there exists a robust line of writers who wrote, or still write, books about other books—think of Samuel Johnson, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt or of someone as contemporary as the Turkish-American writer Elif Batuman, one of the speakers at JLF 2013 and author of a marvellous book, The Possessed: Adventures With Russians Books And the People Who Read Them (2010). Thanks to an outstanding Euro-Anglo-American tradition of reviewing, it has been proved, for centuries, that certain facts about our lives can only ever be expressed in the form of writing about books that bring us closer to these truths.
But the challenge in India is more complicated: how to fashion and sustain a tradition of writing about books that is at once attentive to the immediate, and particular, realities of our lives and alert to the human condition in general—a style that combines generosity of spirit and catholicity of taste to dissolve and dispel the boundaries between great and small traditions, oral and literary cultures, and national and international geographies.
One solution to this problem was suggested, once again, by Hasan, who spoke of the delicate art of “transposition”, in which the critical apparatus of the Anglo-American or European history of ideas can be borrowed usefully to elucidate truths closer home.
This proposition, however, is fraught with anxiety. As Spivak, perhaps the most formidable cultural theorist of our times, pointed out, translations can be dangerously deceptive. A passage from the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, for instance, when translated into English, can become divested of its “Euroracist” overtone. The only way of avoiding such misreadings, according to Spivak, is to learn foreign languages, a tough, if not impractical, call. Although the custodian of a very different school of criticism, which considers close reading of texts to be sacrosanct, Ricks agreed in principle that “there is no substitute for knowledge, no matter how much sensibility a critic has.” To illustrate his point, he cited a famous line by the 18th century poet, Alexander Pope, on Lord Hervey: “Eternal smiles his Emptiness betray”. “I would have never appreciated the greatness of this line, had I not discovered that Lord Hervey had no teeth,” he explained.
So, while a critic, to quote Ricks, is “somebody who notices something you don’t notice”, a scholar is a person who knows “something you may not know”. The ideal reviewer is one who wears both these mantles with equal facility, and such a task is tremendously difficult. A gift for observation and detailed knowledge can be subversive as well—if these are fuelled by gossip. This is when reviewing descends into roguery, as reviewers get embroiled in petty rivalry, hatchet jobs and mutual, or even self, praise. “One should not exclusively write book reviews,” Hasan warned, “because the form breeds a false sense of power.”
Ricks concurred with a few splendid examples: In 1963, Anthony Burgess was sacked as fiction reviewer for the Yorkshire Post after he reviewed his alter-ego Joseph Kell’s novel Inside Mr Enderby with his usual flamboyance. The best criticism on Walt Whitman, for instance, was written by Whitman himself. And Henry James painstakingly appended prefaces to most of his major novels when he was putting together the New York edition.
But the cautionary tale, in this regard, is perhaps that of a specialist of Russian history who recently attained notoriety for allegedly reviewing his own work and attacking the work of others under aliases. As it happened, in a stroke of bleak irony, the gentleman in question was one of the participants at JLF 2013.