Monday, August 11, 2014

The Demise of Literary Criticism in India

 There's something frightening going on. Yes, it's fearsome, it's unprecedented, it's disturbing. It's the lack of literary criticism we are witnessing. Anybody can write anything and get away with it, provided it isn't communal, doesn't offend the majority community (or, the minority), outdoes the doodhi in blandness, and veers towards the occult and mythical figures in phantasmal settings.

Yes! Literary criticism is dead in India. Was it there in the first place? Did anyone venture to write a critical review of Nehru's Discovery of India and get published? But that was in the days of the independence euphoria. Hardly any English books were published. We thought criticism would become more mature. Today with around eighteen thousand English language books being published in an year, in India, the absence of literary criticism is worrying. That's more than a thousand books a month.

This total absence of literary criticism is disturbing. The newspapers have given up reviewing books, unless it makes news. They have included the really stinking tell-all memoirs into their breaking stories. A book makes it to breaking news when the subject of the memoir visits the author and requests (threaten, rather) to withdraw the book. And, they don't give space to a first-time novelist looking to hold on to some straws before his book sinks into oblivion. And they don't give a damn for those novelists as Maria Carey is divorcing husband Jermaine Dupri over poor album sales, which, for them, is breaking news.

The Times of India used to have book reviews, and then they stopped them. India's leading newspaper having a circulation in million doesn't think literature or literary criticism is important. So, no book reviews. Instead it reviews the colourless and tasteless books issuing from their own press. DNA used to have book reviews, which were also withdrawn.

So as expected, shit happens. A man appears on the collective conscience of us literary types, the dregs, that is. His name is Dinanath Batra and the organisation he spearheads called Shikshan Bachao Andolan Samiti (SBAS) specialises in book extremism (I didn't say terrorism, deliberately). Roughly translated his organisation means "Society for Saving Education through Revolution." How far-fetched can one be?

He is reported in the press as saying that Indian culture must be saved from external influences, however, erudite, however, well researched. We must do this and also uphold the concept of India being a Hindu nation. So he asks the publisher of Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: an Alternative History to pulp the book. The publisher does. Another book On Hinduism by the same author is also likewise withdrawn. Now the literati types are aghast. The shock is tremendous. How did this come about? How can a published and distributed book be withdrawn from the shelves and made into pulp?

That's because the literary types didn't give shit when literary criticism itself was given a go-by by the media. They didn't raise a finger. Nada. If they had they could have pointed out to one or two reviews in newspapers praising the book. Then the publisher would have had a case if the matter went to court. In this case the publisher had not even the straw of literary criticism to fall back upon.

If we don't have a healthy literary community, criticising or praising a book, we give rise to the likes of Dinanath Batra and SBAS. If you don't like a well-researched book you pan it in the media, or, else, write a rebuttal. We, the literary types, have nothing, or, nobody to go to, we are in disarray and the foe is at the gate.

So, then, literary criticism is dead. Long live literary criticism! Welcome book extremism!  

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