Amitava Kumar’s new book deals with the challenges of writing and the writerly life
His advice is based on his experience of teaching writing in US colleges for several decades
Amitava Kumar’s new book, Writing Badly Is Easy, is packed with provocations, starting with the ingenious strike-through in the title. The leap from writing badly being easy to writing made easy teasingly describes the arc of what’s to come. Then there are the epigraphs. “Amazon.com lists 4,470 titles under the heading of How to Write a Book," says the first, quoted from an article, ironically titled “How To Write In 700 Easy Lessons", by Richard Bausch, published in The Atlantic in 2010, with the subheading, “A Case Against Writing Manuals". (Later in the book, Kumar also quotes Junot Diaz: “There is more advice for creative writers than there is porn.") None of this is much incentive to read on. Why, then, should we bother with Kumar’s advice, among the sea of self-same aids to writing that are out there already?
Kumar’s credentials, for one, speak for themselves. Not only has he published close to a dozen works of fiction and non-fiction so far, he has also spent most of the last three decades teaching writing to generations of students in colleges in the US. His grasp over the technical, practical and, most crucially, psychological hurdles faced by writers is unimpeachable. And yet, this book is not a guide to getting published, as most generic writing manuals tend to be (a recent example of the latter is Meghna Pant’s How To Get Published In India, a compilation of tips and tricks from “industry experts" and influencers about how to “write, publish and sell your book").
While there isn’t anything wrong with being shown ways to publish and sell a book, it is often the first part—writing the damned thing itself—that often turns out to be the most insurmountable. It’s also possibly the most underrated challenge associated with being a writer these days, when everyone you know claims to have a book in them. Early on in her classic memoir, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions On Writing And Life, Anne Lamott draws attention to the problem with a sharp observation. All her MFA students, she says, “kind of want to write, but they really want to be published".
In Kumar’s book, the focus is squarely on the craft of writing: the conditions that enable it, the hindrances that need to be overcome, the true end of any writing project. Like Lamott, he writes in short bursts of prose, appearing whimsically under broad themes (“Against Babu English", “Credos", “Style", “Reading Comes Before Writing", “Form", and so on). Interspersed with clips from newspapers and reflections from his notebooks, the arrangement simulates a scrapbook of memories. Alongside the nuts and bolts of writing fiction and non-fiction, we are allowed glimpses into Kumar’s own evolution as a writer, teacher, and, perhaps most vitally, a critically informed reader—the best by-product of a career in writing.
A major portion of Writing Badly Is Easy is, understandably, dedicated to academic writing, which Kumar deals with in his day job. It is a rubric that conjures before outsiders (especially lapsed-academics-turned-journalists) an image of a linguistic fortress made inviolable by jargon. As early as 1869, the great Victorian critic Matthew Arnold condemned the culture of exclusivity fostered inside the cloistered corridors of the academe in no uncertain terms. In “Sweetness And Light", the opening chapter of his treatise Culture And Anarchy, Arnold wrote, “The culture which is supposed to plume itself on a smattering of Greek and Latin is a culture which is begotten by nothing so intellectual as curiosity." Attacking the pedantry of scholars, he added that the culture they produce “is valued either out of sheer vanity and ignorance, or else as an engine of social and class distinction, separating its holder, like a badge or title, from other people who have not got it."
The sentiment has resurfaced in fits and starts through the history of critical thought, especially since the flourishing of (what is often lumped together as) “French theory", spearheaded by Jacques Derrida in the 20th century and characterized by a language that is frustratingly impenetrable. Its incursion into the humanities in the Anglophone world, through academics like Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Judith Butler, Homi Bhabha and so on, led to the evolution and gradual acceptance of a style that is verbose and opaque. The proper vehicle for expressing complex thought, it seemed, was the use of obfuscation.
Critics of yore, like Harold Bloom, who privileged clarity and elegance, crusaded against the shift towards bombast and the gradual encroachment of the social sciences on the discipline of literary studies. He deplored the purveyors of new-fangled jargon, especially those who put activism before appreciation of literary texts, the “School of Resentment", but the damage was done. Irreversibly, it would seem, if we are to sample the standard fare offered by contemporary academic writing even half a century later.
Kumar’s rebellion as an insider in academia is to position his writing outside of convention. This, he admits, didn’t obviously happen at the start of his career as a graduate student, but took decades of courage and quiet persistence. As with fiction and non-fiction published by the trade presses, there is “no single way" (Kumar quotes Zadie Smith’s credo here) to write academic prose. He cites a number of works that are founded on scholarly research but presented in forms that belie the expectations of a jargon-ridden scholarly style: The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, Dreambirds by Rob Nixon, In Search Of Africa by Manthia Diawara, and so on.
The idea, as Kumar says, drawing on another view of Smith’s, is to “fill a gap" in an existing tradition of writing . His is a call to move away from a sterile, almost dehumanized, mode of scholarship in favour of radical rethinking and reinvention. (A.D. Nuttall wrote a wonderful book about fusty old scholars, Dead From The Waist Down, borrowing the title from Robert Browning’s wicked description of staid grammarians in his poem, A Grammarian’s Funeral.) In an eloquent section on Barbara Ehrenreich’s unique sociological adventures, Kumar articulates this doctrine with conviction: “that’s what I’m advocating, that we find imaginative ways of entering zones of experience." The authors Kumar admires ardently, such as J.M. Coetzee, excel at this craft of conveying ideas of immense complexity using the simplest of vocabulary and situations, whether in fiction or non-fiction.
For all his championing of a style that is transparent without compromising its scholarly integrity, Kumar isn’t unmindful of the pitfalls of erring on the side of anti-intellectualism. “There is much to complain about academic writing," he writes in a footnote, “but there is also a great deal of anti-intellectual angst directed at such prose, especially if such prose is deemed ‘theoretical’". His clear-eyed engagement on these terms is palpable in a brilliant section where he relentlessly pursues scholar Stanley Fish about the latter’s idea of a perfect sentence. In spite of his investment in a style that is “fresh, provocative, unpredictable", Kumar resists the temptation to fetishize it over content.
The intended readership of Writing Badly Is Easy may seem to be academics, students and those working towards joining the ranks of scholars, but Kumar’s approach, a combination of donnish table-talk and friendly advice over a drink, should appeal to anyone who has ever sat before a blank page and felt a surge of panic.
The path to writing, let alone becoming a writer, is paved with doubt and obstructions. There are enough anecdotes and historical examples strewn along the book that reinforce this point. But the one that stayed with me, almost as a lodestar, is a quote from Sarah Ruhl, mentioned by Kumar, speaking about her writerly schedule being interrupted all the time after she became a parent: “I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life. And that, tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion. At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life. And life, by definition, is not an intrusion."
For those of us who love to complain about life coming in the way of writing, can there be a better rejoinder?
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