The neologism annus horibilis, a horrible year, models itself as a complement to its older, traditional cousin – annus mirabilis, or a year of miracles. Clearly, 2015 packed the power of both for writers and readers, editors and journalists, publishers and booksellers – anyone who had anything to do with the written word in the Indian subcontinent.
It was a strange year that, we can now see, had all the features of an artfully crafted dystopian novel.
Powerful, moving books, rich scholarship and sharp journalism punctuated a steady and painful clamour of horrors. We’ve heard for a while now literature, at least in its printed form, is on its way out, that the culture of print modernity that inaugurated with the European Enlightenment and was globalised through colonialism is pushing at its epochal frontiers.
The year 2015, however, has kindled a strange epiphany in the South Asian public sphere – writers, and the texts they create, may not do much public good but are capable of doing plenty of bad.
Notwithstanding the rich yield, the year made us feel that the paradox has been finally achieved: literature is both inconsequential and dangerous. The unruly baby whom no one remembers during adult conversations but who nonetheless erupts from time to time to make great damage.
The “damage” has preoccupied most sets of eyeballs. But what is done to the actual incubation, production, and dissemination of literature?
Once upon a time (goes the dystopian fairy tale), we burned books. And then we were told to burn thoughts long before they become books. It’s a gentler, eco-friendlier sort of way of avoiding trouble.
The cynics in us might see a pattern. From violence outside to violence inside. Or the slow, cramping move from violence to ideology.
Brutal, right-wing nuts take books to court and insane zealots issue bullets with writers’ names on them. Who can disagree? Reality stared in our eyes all through the twentieth century.
Much harder to admit – or notice – when people who cannot be dismissed as right-wing nuts adopt to the more environmentally sustainable mode of combustion: of words in your soul before they harden into print. The invisible bonfire of ideas before they get body on paper.
My own year ended with the scald of soft violence.
August 2015. A lovely email comes to me from the book pages editor of a well-known Indian magazine. She had enjoyed my recently published novel, “unsettling” as she found it, and invited me to contribute a story to the Special Fiction Issue the magazine was planning for the end of the year, with a theme that I had no idea would quickly harden into irony: 2015. Excited, I promised to contribute.
After sharing a rough cut – a self-standing excerpt from a new work of fiction – in October, which met with enthusiasm, I submitted the final version in November, which was accepted and in due course, put into production.
Three days before the publication date, I received a distressed email from the same editor: the legal team of the publication had advised the chief editor of the magazine not to publish my story, and he had accordingly asked her to pull the piece from production. The books team tried hard but the final result was that “we cannot budge him.” The only reason the books editor, who was clearly upset by her inability to push for a story already in production, got by way of objection to the story, was “the violence of the words”, even though she continued to feel “that is the strength of the story.”
It is hard to deny: a public issue takes on a peculiar urgency when it becomes personal. Had I been told that at the outset that the submitted piece was likely to give offence and was hence unacceptable, perhaps it would have pushed me harder to think about whether we can afford to give literature, within our public sphere, the amoral space it sometimes demands. That is perhaps a slightly more philosophical debate.
But it had become not only a philosophical but also a civic issue – the relation between editorial authority and the legal control of that authority as a preemptive measure, no doubt thrown into an accelerated crisis triggered by our newfound climate of vigilance.
The phenomenon of internal censorship where the legal authority (or for that matter, even an invocation of that forbidding power) overturns editorial decisions is scarcely unique to this brave new world. But today, there is a deeper import to such an act of reversal that goes far beyond its factual contours.
Literature remains an unpredictable dialectic between the public and the private, the alien and the familiar, the individual and the collective; individual literary works may have elements of idiosyncrasy that may not always satisfy the conventions we have historically set up through social contracts that make the state, or those which evolve to define communities. Even so, literature exists in continuity with life, not in opposition to it.
True, it pushes its frontiers sometimes, though not always. Literary imagination can challenge and subsequently modify civic consciousness by revealing aspects of reality that are not always pretty or fit for bourgeois living room conversation. But that does not mean the literary is at loggerheads with the civic.
There is no denying that the relation between the literary and the civic can sometimes be a raw and sensitive one.
Indeed, this is where the editor comes in. One of the calls of the editor is to be an expert mediator between the idiosyncratic subjectivity of the literary text and the public sphere within which she arranges to disseminate it, with its collectively agreed values and codes of discourse and behaviour.
The undermining of editorial authority at the insistence of legal counsellors indicates a loss of faith in the editor as a capable mediator between literature and public life. It would have been easy to dismiss this merely as an isolated instance of unprofessionalism. But it is the kind of “unprofessionalism” – if that is even the word for it, which is only born in these times of invigorated moral prudence.
Fact: we have now come dangerously close to a point where the artistic is seen by many as radically divorced from civic consciousness.
The legal, real or invoked, now needs to babysit the literary, an unruly baby that will cause havoc if left unattended. Infant the terrible it is, and the muzzling of the ill-behaved child is smoothly and quietly executed by – as I said – people too far from the Right for our comfort.
Because while spectacular atrocities eat up the preoccupation of the public sphere, a quieter metamorphosis has slithered into hiding – the softening of violent intolerance into a kind of ideology that is managed by practitioners far more sophisticated, and hence often invisible to our eyes blinded by the glare of the machette that ripped apart the gutsy Bangladeshi bloggers.
The form of dissemination shapes aesthetic and moral values, just the way it shapes genres. The novel remains the quintessential product of Enlightenment modernity that for many, now faces its epochal limit. But people are not reading less, they are reading more. So I heard a Google executive say at an event in Silicon Valley. They are reading differently.
The paradigms of thought-burning shift accordingly. Every literary historian worth her dissertation knows that the ethos of the Great Victorian novel was shaped by the economy of serialisation. Today, too, you need to excise unruly thoughts differently for a book than for a magazine that might lie spread-eagled on the family coffee table. And how do you kill the disembodied mobility of the literature online? Look no farther than China.
Ok, here’s the deal: We need to accept today that there are whole sections of society for whom the writer’s increasing distance from the public sphere is not only measurable by her irrelevance from it, but curiously, also by her (increasingly) perceived disregard for our shared values, tastes and codes of conduct. Now the literary editor, the curator of the writer’s journey to the public sphere, is also seen as likewise distanced, as is her championship of what she considers literary merit.
Increasingly sophisticated versions of moral vigilance quietly slide closer and closer to the heart of institutions responsible for disseminating the written word in the South Asian public sphere.
And these are forces that cannot be simply dismissed as brutality of Right Wing ideologues. What they rather personify is the subtle bleeding of intolerant extremism into the mainstream of society.
I cannot help but be cynical – we now live in a world where it is too ambitious to wish away this kind of bleeding altogether. For its part, the shrill voice of Left protest runs the danger of erecting a George W Bush-style binary of good and evil. In this worldview, the evil of intolerance is always external. It has nothing to do with people like us of course!
We have to accept, I guess, that such limitations and infringements on the classic conventions of the dissemination of literature in the public sphere – sometimes tangible but often not – will now become the norm. The last couple of years have made that message loud and clear.
But it is an inescapable irony that South Asian writers will be drawn towards morality-bending situations more than writers elsewhere, if the reality of this country is any indication. In effect, this gulf between a disruptive literary sensibility and legal-moral vigilance – often like the gentle upbraiding of a prudent parent – will continue to grow.
We’ll be naïve to continue reading that gulf in terms of simple binary between the Left and the Right, the progressive and the reactionary. Such gulfs are in any case more epistemological than ontological – ways of seeing rather than ways of being. It’s an easy seduction and a good cause for left-liberal complacency.
For the intolerant often walks among us. Speaks like us. Dresses like us.
It is not just out there anymore.