The writer today is more visible than she has ever been — at book launches, on social media, and at literature festivals. All the high-octane celebration of books and writers, however, does not really mask the absence of a literary culture for those who read and write in English: print runs for literary fiction remain low, and worthwhile books rarely find the readers they deserve.
Author Amit Chaudhuri would ask another question: can we think or talk about literary value without referring to award shortlists and book advances, without allowing publicity machines to shape and direct the way writers work? A year ago, that had led him to organise the University of East Anglia (UEA) India symposium on literary activism in Kolkata. “…which is not activism through literature but literature as resistance, as something that will not be appropriated. I wanted to create…a space to allow us to argue for the literary, which is not something we know entirely, which is resistant to being simplified.”
The symposium arrives in Delhi this month in its second version, just as the city is looking Jaipur-wards for its annual dose of bibliophilia. But as in Kolkata, and a one-day event at Oxford, UK, the symposium is everything that a literature festival is not. “In a literary fest, for example, there is celebration but you do not really find the literary,” says Chaudhuri. The event, to be held at the India International Centre on January 8 and 9, hopes to be a space for such an exploration.
And it promises to do so, says Chaudhuri, “through desultoriness, waywardness and irresponsibility, by not falling into place… where the system of rewards does not matter. And in that sense literary activism is different from market activism, which is a random generation of value, for example, by giving someone a huge advance.” Chaudhuri, who is both novelist and one of India’s foremost literary critics, is aware that the charge of elitism sticks often to the idea of “literary”. “There is an ambivalence about the literary, but perhaps that is not such a bad thing,” he says.
The list of speakers is an eclectic one, from Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Ashis Nandy to Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Geller and Nikil Saval, editor and writer at n+1 magazine, as well as novelist-professors Amitabha Bagchi and Sunetra Gupta, among others. The speakers at the symposium will explore the idea of “de-professionalisation”, “the urge, as a creative practitioner, not to be identified with one genre or activity, and to be, in general, a critic of specialisation and a champion of dabbling”.
“We are going to ask: what is it that a writer does? What is writing? What happens when one distances oneself from the idea of writing? What about Jeremy Geller, who says I am an artist but I really can’t paint? We want to deflect from the idea of the novelist/artist who is trained to write/make art, and who must (then) be successful. All these questions form an undercurrent to the way we live now. Is there no space to think of an alternative to success?” says Chaudhuri.