- Most people can’t think clearly because their hearts aren’t pure.
- It is much easier to read, research, bookmark, share and write on modern gadgets. The best books on the internet are incomparably better than almost anything you’d find at the local bookstore.
- It is much easier to read on Kindle.
- The best blog posts are better than anything you will ever read in The New Yorker. Continue Reading
When I was in college, one of my prized possessions was a biography of Sachin with its margins filled by a school girl. Her email password was “Sachin”. The letters she wrote to me were beautiful, though she did not read. In her letters, there was not a single word that would send the reader to the dictionary. I rarely see such purity in literature. The truth is that there are eight year olds who write more clearly than virtually all editors in this city. Writers are born, not made. What separates a eight year old who writes clearly from a literary giant? Plenty of talent. Tens of thousands of hours of hard work.
I read Jai Arjun Singh‘s article on young tycoons of mass market fiction a few weeks ago. He is surprised that many popular Indian writers are convinced that reading isn’t their thing. I don’t know what they are smoking. People have many misconceptions about writing, because they have never really gone through the process of being a writer. I know people who believe that you write from your “heart”. But, writing is an intellectual process. Great writing stems from a great mind. To think deeply, you should feel intensely. But, this does not change the issue.
Then, there are people who believe that you can learn how to write by reading style manuals. It is true that if you grow up reading a lot, you will acquire very valuable skills. If you write for many years, you will acquire skills that writers so need. But, this does not mean that the process can be reversed. It is not possible to become a great writer by acquiring verbal skills—or by learning where to place commas. As the great H.L. Mencken once said, “They write badly simply because they cannot think clearly.”
I don’t know where all these assumptions come from. To begin with, English grammar is too complex to be learned as a set of rules. Any good psycholinguist will tell you that a 3 year old’s understanding of English grammar will be far more sophisticated than any grammar text in the world—if she grew up in the US or the UK. Now, imagine the complexity of the mind of a Nabokov or a Faulkner. Language is mindbogglingly complex. It cannot be taught as a set of a finite number of rules. This is why “schoolma’ms, bucolic college professors, and other such pseudo-literates” fail so miserably at writing, despite their attempts to learn how to write and edit (!) from style manuals. This is also why such beliefs are often found at the lowest rungs of the society—and never in great writers.
As I said, great writers are born, not made. But, this does not mean that great writers were born with skills in English composition. They were born with an innate fluency with language. They were born with certain attitudes of mind. But, they acquired the skill to write beautiful, fully formed sentences. How? As Steven Pinker points out:
“No one is born with skills in English composition per se. Those skills may not have come from stylebooks, but they must have come from somewhere. That somewhere is the writing of other writers. Good writers are avid readers. They have absorbed a vast inventory of words, idioms, constructions, tropes, and rhetorical tricks, and with them a sensitivity to how they mesh and how they clash. This is the elusive “ear” of a skilled writer—the tacit sense of style which every honest stylebook, echoing Wilde, confesses cannot be explicitly taught. Biographers of great authors always try to track down the books their subjects read when they were young, because they know these sources hold the key to their development as writers.”
This cannot be explicitly taught because such skills are too complex to be explicitly taught. World class performers in many fields spend roughly 10,000 hours to acquire competence of the highest order. In writing and science, you need far more hours of practice. I am not even counting the tens of thousands of hours we spend reading. Of course, this is an oversimplification. The amount of practice you need varies from person to person. But, even the best writers work excruciatingly hard. Again, this does not mean you will become a great writer by working as hard as Naipaul, though it is true that Naipaul works really, really hard. You most probably will not. Not one in many millions is born with such enormous talent.
Talent is rare—rarer than people think. A few years ago, I read an article economist Jagdish Bhagwati wrote for Mint. It was badly written. This is not because Jagdish Bhagwati is abysmally read. This is not because Jagdish Bhagwati is lazy, stupid or inexperienced. He was 80 years old when he wrote this. Many believe that he is Nobel Prize material. There could be many reasons. He was not born with an innate fluency with language. English is not his mother tongue. Perhaps he did not read much in his formative years. He grew up in the 1930s when people did not read much. Most Indians were illiterate then. Asians generally have low verbal IQs. Academia does not punish bad writing. Academic journals place too many constraints on writers. They do not write because they are genuinely curious, or because they have a strong desire to speak their mind. They are forced to write. That is how the academia works. There are, of course, other reasons why academic writing stinks. Academics are not able to get outside their own heads. It doesn’t occur to them that what they write is beyond common folk. But, I doubt whether this is why Bhagwati writes so badly.
Again, don’t be too quick to assume that all academics are lousy writers.Almost all my favorite economists and social scientists write well—-or at least, decently enough. Why? Like good writers, they are avid readers too. The best economists, for example, know other social sciences fairly well—at times, extraordinarily well. Some of them read more fiction than most literary critics do.
But, Jagdish Bhagwati is not an exception. Most experienced academics and journalists write badly. The sad truth is that this is a very difficult skill to acquire. Somerset Maugham once said that there were only six writers in human history who knew how to write flawless English. I agree with him. All of us fail ourselves, to some degree, because it is such a difficult task. It is not at all surprising that many obscure Babbits fail miserably.
This is why I am surprised when I hear that it ain’t necessary that writers read. I even see people who believe that editing is very different from writing—and that it ain’t necessary that editors read. Jai Arjun Singh is quite perceptive in such matters:
Being a reader is inseparable from the question of a writer’s abilities. When you start reading from an early age, not only do you develop certain standards, you also realise how much good work has already been done. And it makes you humble – it might even make you diffident about your own work, which can be a problem. But at least it prevents you from being cocky and overconfident and thinking “I think I have a great story to tell, and the world is just waiting for my book; literature begins with me.” During our session, I asked Singh the obvious question: if you don’t read yourself, on what basis do you expect others to read your books? I didn’t get a coherent response.
I’m not a literary snob: my favorite authors include many genre writers like Stephen King, Agatha Christie and Thomas Harris, all of whom have reached very large readerships; as a film critic too, I constantly defend the value of good mainstream films, and my latest book is dedicated to viewers “who are smart enough to take popular cinema seriously”. But at the same time I’m also uncomfortable about some of the narratives that have grown around mass-market writing in India – such as the inverse snobbery on view when bestselling writers scoff at “pretentious” literary types and wonder why anyone would waste six or seven years writing a “heavy” book full of “complicated” words.
This is a view I completely agree with. I do not believe that popular cinema is less artistic. I never believed that popular literature is less artistic. I read many popular writers, and I am convinced that some of them are better than most great names in literature. It is obvious to me that people look down on popular literature because they have such poor judgment. They have such narrow minds. They do not know that Shakespeare was once considered a popular writer. Many great painters and musicians who are considered great today were profit-minded. Sales were very important to Ayn Rand, though she did not place money above the integrity of her work.
I do not look down on popular Indian writers. One of the best things that happened to Indian literature is that there is a now a larger market for popular fiction. This does not mean that the Indian reader is reading more trash. This means that the Indian audience is now more mature. At last, there is a market for literature. One of the greatest tributes you can pay a society is that people are now consuming literature like potato chips. Indian writers do not comprehend Chetan Bhagat because they do not have the brains to see marketing as an art. But, the anti-intellectualism in these self-styled writers is worse than annoying. They are immature, but they think they have the whole world figured out.
Why do people believe in such nonsense? My best guess is that people are mad. They have no sense of reality. They do not know where they stand. This makes me melancholy, because they are unskilled and unaware of it. Cognitive psychologists call this the Dunning-Kruger effect. They are not able to see this. If you are not fluent as a writer, it is hard to say how fluent you are. Nabokov once said that you can’t even give your phone number without giving something of yourself. They are probably fooling themselves, and their readers who are semi-literates. But, they are not fooling their betters. Now, it is obvious why hardly anyone outside India read the many young Indian writers who are tycoons of mass market fiction. The more sophisticated audience in the west is less tolerant.
It is so easy to fool people. A bright fellow cannot miss this. But, it is worse. If you do not fool people, you are at their mercy. Pankaj Mishra is instinctively shrewd. He could not have missed this. When people say that “Pankaj Mishra is very shrewd”, they are not merely damning with faint praise. Any bloke who has “made it” through some contemptible swindle evokes such loud gasps in the average man.
But, there is a strong element of condescension in all this. Even his admirers know that there is not a single notable thought in the work of this smarty. When I asked a writer why she likes “The Romantics”—it is not even a proper novel—she said that she liked his “inquiry into autodidacticism”. A boy said that Pankaj Mishra is very “westernized”. The condescension I sense is not too unlike what his subordinates feel toward an editor whose prose is a notch above that of a headmaster. If he were stripped of his position, they would have spat on his face.
Pankaj Mishra does not know elementary social science. But, unlike his lame critics and admirers, Pankaj Mishra writes eighteen-carat, impeccable English. I’d be the last to miss that it is jealousy which motivates his critics. His prose would not have had any bearing upon this, but Pankaj has oiled his way into the bed of the British Prime Minister’s cousin. They could not have missed this. But, what stays his admirers is the hope that “what he could do, they could do better”. They would better be polite. I am sure that Pankaj Mishra knows this.
Pankaj’s critics have long been pointing out that he is “oddly resentful of the social mobility of other Indians”. Some critics believe that this is self-loathing. Rupa Subramanya writes:
“He must therefore, one presumes, be especially riled that Modi and his many fans at Madison Square Garden are a reminder of his socio-economic origin in India, from which he’s fled so nimbly.”
Deepika Ahlawat observes:
“Note Mishra’s fetishisation of formal education throughout, his mockery of Modi’s background, his disdain of popular culture, and his Socratic horror of democracy. This is a vicious and yet tragic piece. Because Mishra stares at Modi and sees only himself. Just less popular, less powerful and immensely less significant.”
This might as well be true. But, imagine a leftist young man coming of age when India was at the cusp of liberalization. There is no need to imagine. Read Pankaj’s “Butter Chicken In Ludhiana”. This class-conscious philistine traveled across the country, making class/provincial distinctions, sneering at everyone and everything. When he tried to find out what liberalization, westernization and modernization had wrought, it was clear that everything had gone from worse to bad. The progress was already “traveling too fast”. What to do?
What did he infer? Like the provincial-minded NRI who comes back to India, bawling, seething with resentment toward the “white man” who snubbed him, he said, “These people sure are too westernized.” This is not surprising. The liberals who once said that liberalization is not the path to progress did not swallow their pride when they were proven wrong. They claimed that the progress is imaginary.
The economist Ludwig Von Mises made the same observation about the critics of industrial revolution and capitalism in the 19th century in “The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality”:
“The main criticism leveled against the principle of equality under the law by the eulogists of the good old days is that it has abolished the privileges of rank and dignity. It has, they say, atomized” society, dissolved its “organic” subdivisions into “amorphous” masses. The “much too many” are now supreme, and their mean materialism has superseded the noble standards of ages gone by. Money is king. Quite worthless people enjoy riches and abundance, while meritorious and worthy people go empty-handed. This criticism tacitly implies that under the ancien regime the aristocrats were distinguished by their virtue and that they owed their rank and their revenues to their moral and cultural superiority. It is hardly necessary to debunk this fable. Without expressing any judgment of value, the historian cannot help emphasizing that the high aristocracy of the main European countries were the descendants of those soldiers, courtiers and courtesans who, in the religious and constitutional struggles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, had cleverly sided with the party that remained victorious in their respective countries. While the conservative and the “progressive” foes of capitalism disagree with regard to the evaluation of the old standards, they fully agree in condemning the standards of capitalistic society. As they see it, not those who deserve well of their fellow men acquire wealth and prestige, but frivolous unworthy people. Both groups pretend to aim at the substitution of fairer methods of “distribution” for the manifestly unfair methods prevailing under laissez-faire capitalsm.”
In a manner eerily reminiscent of the inanities of the 19th century eulogists of the past, Indian intellectuals now pit the liberalized India against its socialistic past. The abstractions are the same. The concretes differ.
Pankaj’s ancestors were thrown into penury by some legislation or the other, and he probably grew up listening to the moans of the adults who spoke resentfully of the nouveau riche. This perhaps got permanently etched into his subconscious. This, he will never tell you.
Observe. This is how Pankaj ends his critique of Patrick French’s saner work on India:
“Some of the best works of narrative non-fiction in recent months—Rana Dasgupta’s Granta essay on Delhi, Siddhartha Deb’s article in Caravan on Arindam Chaudhuri and Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing—have plunged us into this teeming universe of euphoric desires, resentments and fears, the cities where thousands of Gatsbys and Babbitts are reinventing themselves madly in a manic quest for status and prestige. If there is one thing the Radia tapes reveal most clearly, it is that writers and journalists have only begun to capture the particular exuberance, tawdriness, cruelty and melancholy of India’s own Jazz Age. French’s book manages to remain unaware of this country, even as it heralds the New India where adivasis may not have potable water but can drink Sula wine.”
But, what does Rana Dasupta’s and Siddhartha Deb’s narrative non-fiction have in common? They same resentment and pettiness that drives Pankaj Mishra. It is not surprising that Pankaj Mishra’s “Butter Chicken In Ludhiana” was inspired by Thorsten Veblen’s “1899 work, “The Theory Of The Leisure Class”. Like Mishra, Veblen sneered at the development in the 19th century United States. Like many such mediocrities, this dude too was surprised by the success of his work. But, the critics called Veblen “more than a little mad” in the United States where such nonsense rarely goes unchallenged.
Now, it is fashionable to call foreign journalists and thinkers “Curzons without an empire”, but the truth is that the best analysis of India has come out of them. Unlike Mishra’s Bloomberg rant, Patrick Foulis’ article on Modi in The Economist is well-written, and, I think, largely true. I have never read a sane thinker who believes that the British ruined India. Mishra seems to believe in that sort of nonsense. But, then, I haven’t really seen anyone criticizing Mishra’s views on society, politics and economics. The criticism is often not directed at some view of Pankaj Mishra or the other. They hint that he does not even have point.
Yes. What is the guy even trying to say?
“Yes! I am a man. I love breasts. I stare and share. You got a problem! Don’t talk about patriarchal culture if you do not know how to respect men!”
If the Times Of India reporter had said this to Deepika Padukone, would the twitterati have said, “I stand with the Times Of India reporter”?
The truth is that men’s right to stare and share has the same moral status as Deepika Padukone’s right to flaunt her boobs. A truly liberal society would recognize and celebrate both. But, the Indian society celebrates only Deepika Padukone’s rights, not that of the innocent men who love to see her boobs. Isn’t that mean?
Why are many Indians selectively liberal? Perhaps because the mass media, universal education and popular literature have created a minority that can at best memorize, mouth and repeat cue words.
But, I suspect this is a clever trick to get people to see her new movie, “Finding Fanny”. But, Finding Fanny? (Good God!)
“When I see condemnation of the journalistic standards of “The Times of India” filling my newsfeed, a question posed by Gail Wynand whose media empire spread like bubonic plague comes back to me: “Do you think it took no talent to create the Banner?”
If the admirers of democracy were honest, they would have rejoiced when a tea-seller becomes the Prime Minister. If they were consistent, they would have considered this the logical end result of democratic politics. But, they do not. The liberal intellectuals and journalists still treat Narendra Modi like a pariah. It is perhaps true, as they say, that Narendra Modi is a philistine whose understanding of the world is limited to his narrow experiences. But, they do not realise that the same tribute could be paid to almost any voter. Why is this considered a virtue in the voter- a sign of his incorruptibility – and a vice in Narendra Modi?
For liberal intellectuals, it is very tempting to blame Modi for the “politics of hatred”. But, is there any good reason to assume that the vast ethnic massacres, ethnic cleansing and forced sterilisations that underscored post-Independence India like a long trail of blood has nothing to do with the “politics of hatred”?
But then, it is worse than a waste of time to blame politicians. Without pandering to popular prejudices, they would not have been elected to power. But, the common man could have easily taken reasonable steps to avoid political ignorance. After all, he has nothing to lose. The liberal intellectuals themselves could have read an elementary text on Economics. They too have nothing to lose, except their friends and those positions of power and influence.