The Highs and Lows of Literature

What, under the shining sun, consists of literature?

Poetry does. In all the literature departments in all the universities in all the world, they teach poetry. And all the literature students in all the universities in all the world hate it, except those frizzy-haired ones with a dreamy look in their eyes who firmly belong to The Dead Poets Society. Some libraries will have a 'Poetry and Literature' section; some cleverer ones have the Poetry section completely isolated and sanitised. if you think this is an uncharitable attitude to poetry, I'm allowed. I'm a poet myself.

'High Literature' certainly does. This consists of sombre, depressing stuff like what Hermann Hesse and Albert Camus churned out. They get eternal lionisation or Nobel Prizes or both. No cheerful, happy-go-lucky soul, with a song in his heart and a smile on his lips will read them. University Professors do not either, even though they write academic papers and critical notes for the consumption of other university professors. Students of literature do, because they need to get on the pass list of their examinations. And yes, the chaps who sit on the Nobel Prize Committee, because they need to find some soul-wrenching thing that promises to change the world, or else they won't get to sit on next year's committee. But ignore these, these are the ravings of a writer who hasn't got a Nobel Prize.

They are excellent reads though, especially if you have to kill time when spending two weeks at home being diagnosed with Clinical Depression (as I did). Especially Albert Camus' Stranger, which in its English translation is quite lucid and readable.

Some of the romantic types think 'Literature' is about escaping into another world. But if you wish to escape into another world, the Harry Potter or Twilight series will do adequately, as millions of crazy fans will fanatically testify. But there is no professor of literature (or newspaper reviewer) who will willingly admit that these have anything to do with 'growing higher in intellect', which is allegedly, another of Literature's objectives. Their attitude will more often be condescending and elitist. Just see this commentary ( by The Economist, a paper that the intellectual types swear by.

I keep bumping into people who crib about how the commercialisation of the publishing industry has meant that a novel is chosen based on its ability to drive sales, rather than for any merit in it. I stop them in their track, put on a scowling expression and ask in a sneering tone of voice, "When was 'content', whatever it means, ever king?"

And then I launch into a short lecture which I will replicate (unabridged) here:

I don't think 'content', whatever it means, was ever king, despite being a popular mantra. In the 19th century, the English speaking world was familiar with Penny Dreadfuls and Shilling Shockers - thrillers and romances published on cheap paper (what we call Pulp Fiction now). The biggest hit of that century was Rookwood (based on a highwayman), but we have entirely forgotten it now, in favour of Dickens. Most of our own Brown Sahibs in the making (like Satyendranath Tagore, the first Indian ICS officer) wouldn't have known Rookwood, having to read Milton and Shakespeare for their papers. I guess it was this first, academically sanctioned encounter with English literature was what led to the birth of this common perspective among English-educated Indians.

Most folk I know will admit to Treasure Island being 'High Literature', in the same vein as Dickens' Great Expectations? The former is a racy thriller that was a huge bestseller in its times. I've read the full, unabridged, Victorian version. But if R. L. Stevenson was writing it today, to be published in today's idiom (and not the convoluted Victorian idiom which is used to torture us in school), would we consider it for a Booker? The list-making types, when they make a list of 'Best English Novels', will bung in a Dickens or two, quite likely David Copperfield and Oliver Twist. His own Pickwick Papers, with several parts of it in London's lower class Cockney slang, is not likely to feature. Yet it was his most cheerful and among his best selling ones. The attitude persists today, with writers who write in the common idiom (Hinglish) being looked down upon by those who write in the Queen's English. And we'd probably classify 'A Tale of Two Cities' in the twilight zone between Pulp Fiction and High Literature – too racy to be considered for a Booker or Nobel; but with enough 'depth' to be considered respectable reading.

Some literature departments that want to show that they know their stuff will include Tom Jones as literature (it dates from 1749 and is quite hard to read now). It caused quite a scandal in its time, dealing as it did, with infidelity and promiscuity among working class people; its hero is born illegitimate. Not too far off from most of the novels written today which we delight in trashing. Especially when invited to a literary meet and offered the dais.

Jane Austen is now a paragon of English literature, but in her time, writing a novel was considered disreputable. It didn't stop her from selling a lot of copies. High literature then consisted of Shakespeare and Milton and Chaucer. I wonder if apologists of High Literature would cozy up in their sofas reading Paradise Lost. Ask them in public, and they will passionately say yes. Sneak upon them when they are reading something cozily in a couch, and I'll bet my fortune they're not reading Milton. Perhaps three centuries later, when English has declined further (as every generation says of the generation following it), Shobhaa De will have the same status as Jane Austen has today. But now it is fashionable to pooh-pooh her, as Farrukh Dhondy did at a recent 'Literature Festival' (See

So when was content the unchallenged king, and when were sales figures not important?

Good reads will survive on their own, even if they do not make great sales figures - Dickens from the previous century, and Salman Rushdie from the current. I cannot quite say what a 'good read' is though; the opinion varies from person to person. Though I think clarity of thought and lucidity of expression are worhtwhile criteria. I know that this year's Booker panel had verbal acid thrown on it because of its stress on readability. But I still think they got something right, because there was no other way Julian Barnes could have won.

I wonder how many folk have read 'Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha' (it won the '93 Booker). I haven't because I didn't know it existed till I googled a list of Booker winners, and I cannot find it any good bookshop in Mumbai. But I do want to read it, because it is written in an experimental style, irish English from the perspective of a 9-year old (so I glean from its Wikipedia entry). Would it make a 'good read'? The style might put off many, including, I suspect, several intellectual snobs who officiate at the altar of 'High Literature'. Of course in public they will do nothing but rah-rah it.

And this attitude persists not only with regard to English literature, but Indian languages as well. So Kalki's Ponniyin Selvan qualifies, none of Rajesh Kumar's oeuvre of more than 1500 novels do. Sell well, and be damned forever by the 'horrible gatekeepers' of literature (as Jerry Pinto describes himself).

Perhaps then, 'High Literature' is about being unreadable to some extent. Which explains why a saga like Beowulf (perhaps the earlist existing written piece in English), qualifies, even though it would be considered crappy were it written today. Shakespeare, considered cheap and 'vulgar' at one time (and hence needing 'Bowdlerisation') must now be read (and performed) in the unabridged, unrevised Elizabethan English. You must wax eloquent about Vikram Seth to be taken seriously as a 'literature buff', even if the Onegin stanzas in his Golden Gate are beyond you.

My advice to Chetan Bhagat - wait a half millennium, and you'll get a pedestal to sit on, because by then your English will have become inaccessible. If you want faster fame, write the same stuff with random enjambment – enjambment has the effect of making the reader feel inferior to the writer. Even using the word enjambment can have the same effect.

Or write poetry.


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