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A collaboration over too much coffee.
coffee and pen

17 October, 2004

Novel Ideas

First a disclaimer. What I write here is solely for the purpose of starting a discussion. I do not intend to pass off as an expert, though at places I might sound like one. At best I am a student of the art of fiction writing, and this perhaps is my day's assignment.

I think it was yesterday's Pune times - I can't rememeber exactly - but somewhere I read Sir Vidia Naipaul's interview. Cut out in a bold block letters, right in the middle, was something he said about the current state of Indian fiction.

I have forgotten the exact words and can't seem to find the paper right now. But it was something to the effect that ...the present Indian writing is autobiographical and archaic. It needs to come out of this style and try new things...

I was rather taken aback. I could not understand what he meant by that. I thought about it, turned it over in my mind, questioned it and analysed its possible import. Indian writing, especially fiction, seemed to me to be doing great presently. We have right now, some of the most expressive story-tellers in the English language. Many of them, acknowledged globally as masters of the trade.

The statement appeaered quite meaningless to me. And then it suddenly struck me while reading Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat. Its a masterpiece, undoubtedly - that book. Terribly funny and full of wonderful insights on life.

But reading it, as with every book of that era, is like following a river on its way to the sea. The river is never in a hurry to reach. It meanders from its course, loops, stays put and then suddenly starts again. The journey is delightful but it takes an awful amount of time.

The mordern reader, pressed for time, influenced by hundred different factors, would love to travel along the river, but simply cannot afford to. The average reader who picks up a novel from the bookstore, loves reading. He intends to devour every single word. He would love to draw a mental image of the story, its characters and its scenes, from every sentence.

But then, there are so many other things that he must do. Like earn a living, raise a family, check email, watch TV, watch a film, Today, given a choice he would rather take a flight over the river, skippng the myriad minute details and seeing only the most intersting sights enroute. He would want to finish the journey faster, than walk along the meandering river.

I took a quick scan of the latest Indian fiction in English. And everywhere I found this river. Book after book was replete with flowery language and descriptions, beautiful analogies and insightful anecdotes. This style of writing has held sway over the literary scene of India for decades perhaps. Masterpieces of literature all, these were the books that Sir Vidia had shot down.

And I realised that he was probably right. The meandering river must be replaced by a six lane superhighway. For the novel as a medium of expression and entertainment is cometing with rivals unprecedented in history. With multiple media for telling a story, the faster ones have an edge.

So is the novel, as we know it today, going to die? Will we have to dry up this river of literature and build tar roads instead? Is that what Vidia Naipaul meant by the statement he made?

My conclusion is that the present novel will reclude. It will never die because it has a spirit of its own. It will remain alive in the hearts of men and women who worship literature. Poeple like us, boatmen and fishermen who live off the river. We shall always keep following its meandering path.

But for wider acceptance, for the regular reader to keep reading, we probably need to come up with "novel" ideas to write our novel "ideas".


Blogger SPECKLED_BAND said...

I don't think that was Sir Vidia's point at all. What he meant was that most Indian fiction today (and for some time now, if not from its inception) is drawn from the writers' individual lives - hence the autobiographical tag. And one must admit, however reluctantly, that it is true. Very few writers have explored themes external to themselves and their environments: either they lacked the imagination, or they were plain no good. When you see an exception like Amitav Ghosh, whose works hark back to universal perspectives - historical, in his case - you can readily see Naipaul's point.

17 October, 2004 21:17  
Blogger zigzackly said...


Some more food for thought for you here:

18 October, 2004 00:25  
Blogger dinesh said...

I don't know: when i pick up a book its usually to get away from the real world for a while and the more i can forget my email, my computer etc, the better it is. In my opinion, a reader knows this before he starts reading and hence there is no urgency in getting to the end. If you consider an exagegration as an argument, the novels of the future will end up as 6 line blurbs written so that the reader can scan it between bytes :). Ironically enough, blog posts may serve just that purpose, to give a modern hardpressed-for-time person something quick to read.

18 October, 2004 14:09  

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