Readers Write In #518: My two cents on ‘serious’ literature

Posted on October 22, 2022

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By ​G Waugh

Whenever someone asks me whether there is any ‘holy’ distinction between a mainstream work of art and a ‘serious’ one, I used to be either tongue-tied or I would plunge into a long-winding sermon lasting for hours and hours. I had never been able to define pithily and precisely what distinguishes a mainstream work of fiction from a popular work. Then one day, I came across an essay from Jeyamohan’s blog. Contrary to many intellectuals who would not like to have a distinction between the two forms, Jeyamohan was very particular about establishing it. Since I don’t remember his exact words, I am giving my version of what I had understood from him which might run as follows:

“A parallel/alternative/offbeat/serious work of art is something which the reader/observer has to walk towards to get, understand and appreciate it. The onus of the effort rests on the reader/observer. Whereas a popular/commercial work of art is something that takes pains itself to come and reach the reader/observer. There is not much work for the reader/observer to do except enjoy, indulge in and appreciate what has come directly to him”.

There used to be moments when some of my friends not having been much exposed to reading trying to start with books such as Jeyamohan’s Vishnupuram or Kottravai. I have seen people who start their reading habit with Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I have immediately raised my objections to those people asking them to stop picking those books. Whenever I used to tell them that they might not have had the qualification or maturity to understand those books at that point of time, they immediately used to call me a snob or a hubristic idiot. I used to tell them to start either with Kalki or Sujatha or Chetan Bhagat or PG Wodehouse before venturing into ‘serious’ works such as these. They never had the patience to listen and understand my seriousness because what they were going to commit was something very close to a very fatal and an irreversible error. People who had never had the habit of reading books deciding someday to start with a difficult habit such as this are very rare and precious. A person addicted to or smitten by the internet for over a decade deciding someday to brush all of that aside and engage in an onerous task such as reading is in fact a very special person. What that person requires immediately and firstly is not a book but a person who can guide him properly into that difficult but extremely rewarding world. When such a person decides to take the road oft not taken, he immediately needs to be welcomed by someone with a red carpet strewn with flowers all along. If he is not given in any way such a reception with open arms, he is bound to be extremely disappointed which might result in the most unfortunate event of that person never coming back into the reading fold at all.

Needless to say, that was what happened with these people, my friends. Every single person who had picked the books I have mentioned above had decided to stop midway. And none of them had the rare fortune to realize the error of their ways and go back to Bhagat or Blyton. They returned to the world of the internet which had seductive temptresses waiting in line to entertain them. They never came back. The loss was mine too. I had nobody to discuss my books with. I had none to listen to what my maverick brain had painstakingly come up with after dallying with a compelling novel. I should have prevailed upon these people and made them comfortable at my ‘home’. I had failed. 

***

The first book I had read was if I remember correctly, Five Point Someone by Chetan Bhagat. It was gloriously entertaining and I had decided to finish Bhagat’s Two States as well. The second one was a bit meh, but by then reading was an elite habit in my circle and I was proud to announce to my friends that I had some exposure to ‘literature’ as well. Soon I was reading one or two of Jeffrey Archer’s novels and I had to admit that they were nice page-turners too. Both of them were spy thrillers and a third one by Robert Ludlum was thrust into my hands by a friend of mine. I started it with the same energy with which I had greeted the first two books of Archer but soon I began feeling a kind of sameness in all these stories. People following one another relentlessly, minor characters shifting loyalties in a second or announcing themselves to be working for the other camp, attractive women seducing villains or their sidekicks, broken marriages or relationships haunting the hero on a sleuth, all of which were themes that kept recurring in every single spy thriller.

My first brush with ‘serious’ literature happened with Fyodor Dostevysky’s Crime and Punishment. It was not an accident. I had consciously decided to break the mould of a book-reading IT employee whose preferences had never moved beyond the Bhagats and Amishes and Sheldons. If you think I was an emotionally intelligent person whose appetite for engagement with a ‘cerebral’ work of art was propelling me towards Dostevysky and Kafka, you are wrong. There is a quote by Bertrand Russell I read on Goodreads- “There are two motives for reading a book; one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it”. I belonged to the second category. I had wanted to appear intelligent and even more refined atleast in my circle.

For a fledgling reader like me, Crime and Punishment needless to say was a punishing experience. For almost three hundred pages I was reading only to stick to my resolve to announce to my circle that I was reading an international classic. Only a few pages before I finished the book, the whole point of the book seemed to strike me. Most books especially that belong to the mainstream genre engage you emotionally the moment you start reading itandleave your senses immediately after you close and shelve it. But Crime and Punishment began for me only after it had ended.

For those who have read me in the blog, I need not announce that I am a Marxist sympathizer by nature and/or nurture. For someone who doesn’t have an inclination to feel angry with the injustices of the world and change it for the better, Marxism may not work. And for Marxists, the idea of a ‘revolution’ is simply what religion is for the masses- the ‘opium’. And Crime and Punishment I strongly believe was written precisely for people like me. Raskolnikoff wants to change the world. He doesn’t want to live like everyone else. He is infuriated at the excesses of the possessing classes upon the largely innocent and mostly hard-working masses. He just cannot stay dormant or indifferent to the society just like most others do. He draws inspiration from revolutionary leaders of history who have had the guts to initiate big and earth-shattering changes.

One fine day, he decides to embark on his ‘revolutionary’ work. He murders a cruel and ruthless local money-lender brutally. The act initially gives him a great high. He has done what million others wouldn’t even think of doing. He after all has murdered someone who was making a living by sucking the blood of hundreds of the poor and the toiling masses. He considers himself the Messiah who has just begun the task of liberating the poor and the wretched from the yoke of slavery.

But soon, the enormity of his ‘revolutionary’ act begins to gnaw at his insides.The lofty principles that drove him towards his ‘revolutionary’ act begins to criss-cross with his primal, human impulses. His conscience begins to burgeon into an ogre and threatens to smother him altogether. The act that initially looked like one of ‘emancipating’the society from its scum has transmogrified into an act that reeks of bestiality and cold-bloodedness. Raskolnikoff’s pathetic and dramatic decline into a mental and a spiritual abyss forms the rest of the story.

If I am able to talk this much about the novel, it is only because I hadn’t given up on the novel as soon as it had started repelling me unlike what my friends had done. But there was only one reason why I hadn’t given up on reading it and that was my ‘exclusive’ advantage- my fascination with the English language that began from my childhood. I can keep reading reams and reams of good English even if the content is ordinary or run-of-the-mill.

This penchant for good English came in good stead even when I had decided to switch to ‘lighter’ works of literature as well. After all, I wasn’t a film-maker Mysskin who could keep on reading serious stuff day in day out. At the end of Crime and Punishment, I had decided not to go back to ‘serious’ literature for at least three months.

Thankfully there was a friend who could lend me his copy of ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ written by Arthur Conan Doyle for a month.

***

My recap of what I had learnt from Crime and Punishment stresses on one important thing – ‘serious’ literature often is written not for the consumption of everyone. A subject like Crime and Punishment might work only for those who are intrigued by the ideas of revolution or sometimes misplaced idealism. Even if one is not propelled by ‘revolutionary’ instincts or a fervour for one, the reader must at least to a very minimal extent be able to sympathize with the peculiar nature of the protagonist. And such a sympathy can either come through personal experience or through a cultivated exposure to a wide range of fiction. Under whatever aforementioned categories a particular reader might fall, Crime and Punishment in my humble, flawed opinion is not simply a book for everyone.

The reason why I am trying to ‘exclude’ people from serious literature is to emphasize a very crucial point. A few years back, Suhasini Mani Ratnam had told openly in an interview that only people who have the ‘skills’ to review or criticise a film must engage in that profession. Those who don’t have the specific skill set she implied must leave it to the specialists. This was widely interpreted by a lot of people that she was talking ‘elitism’ or asking masses to stay away from criticising a film. I recently saw a video from a famous YouTuber who took umbrage at what he saw as Suhasini’s arrogance asserting angrily that common people like him will continue to do video reviews to insult her back.

This kind of misunderstanding is very similar to the brickbats I had faced when I asked some of my friends to stay away from ‘serious’ literature at least for a while. What is often misunderstood is that we guys are not trying to exclude a certain section of people in order to protect the sanctum sanctorum of the artist from their ‘defiling’ touch. People who are engaging in film criticism today are often people who don’t have even an iota of knowledge and specialization that the profession strictly demands. Both cinema and literature are all extremely specialized fields that demand a level of sophistication or training not only to make them but also to understand and analyse them.

Films such as Hey Ram and Viswaroopam are still being labelled as pro-Hindutva and anti-Islamic films respectively despite the fact both the films wear their secular and progressive ideas right on their sleeve. Despite Kamal Haasan’s explicit left-liberal credentials, even knowledgeable people don’t hesitate to call him names that refer to his birth and every film of his is viewed through that muddled perspective.

Just like how you and me cannot perform a cardiac bypass surgery without training, qualification and experience, criticising a film is also a very specialised activity that every Tom, Dick and Harry simply cannot succeed in doing. If excluding people who don’t have experience in performing surgeries from an operation theatre unless they are there to learn and assist is an acceptable and a necessary practice, the same standard can also easily be applied to people who try to become professional reviewers for a living.

And if some people reading this essay think that I am scaring them away from ‘serious’ literature, I would like to remind them that my intention is not such but completely quite the opposite. My mother who did not know how to ride a bicycle was introduced to learn a scooter in her later thirties. She fell once from the bike while learning and broke her elbow. She is in her mid-fifties now and even now she is shit scared about handling a two-wheeler all alone.

‘Serious’ literature is something that is written by people who are kind of self-obsessed with their subject. They have absolutely no intention to impress the reader. Their primary concern is to satisfy themselves and such works of fiction make virtually no pretence to pander to an audience. Even trained readers and professors in the subject of literature haven’t yet devised a one-size-fits-all methodfor the masses to approach ‘serious’ literature because many of them themselves have no clue about how to engage with and appreciate them.

My method of approaching them too has not been very simple. I keep books of that kind to a very minimum on my annual reading list and whenever I am doing them, I make sure I have a ‘lighter’ book of fiction to read in parallel. I had a Ponniyin Selvan to do in parallel while I was reading Anna Karenina. I had a PG Wodehouse in parallel when I was doing the Karamazov Brothers. And it is not that these works of fiction are all exercises that only ‘drain’ you and are not going to‘enrich’ your system at all. It is better to remember that these works of fiction sometimes have a point of epiphany interred somewhere beneath its layers as you leaf across and once you get there, take it from me that it is going to be nothing less than a ‘ball’! No work of a ‘lighter’ nature is going to entangle you in its web as much as these works do and the satisfaction that you are deriving as you waltz along will be one of life’s most precious rewards.

So, to sum up, there is only one method that I know that works.If you are a first-time reader and you decide to read a ‘serious’ work in September, first make sure that you start with a Sujatha or a Jeffrey Archer or a Christie that January. You should keep reading these works for at least three months until you reach a point – where you have by now started reading simply for the ‘pleasure’ of it and not for the plot or the subject of a novel. And by July or August, only if you think that these books are good but not good enough for you, it is better to start hunting for ‘serious’ novels and that too only those whose subjects which you think might interest you. My favourite subject was ‘class’ struggle then and hence I could begin my journey from the boarding points of Crime and Punishment, Grapes of Wrath, Darkness At Noon and Pin Thodarum Nizhalin Kural. Only after having gotten used to the way these stories are imagined and written that I was able to move on to those whose subjects were distant to me – Sentimental Education and Madame Bovary by Flaubert, Rishimoolam by Jayakanthan and the works of Marquez, Kafka, Murakami, Kundera and Jeyamohan.

Even after more than a decade of reading and some reasonable exposure to ‘serious’ literature, I have been kicking myself for over the last two weeks for having given up on one of the so-called greatest works of fiction ever written – Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. I started it with great expectation in October first week but within days, I simply couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Last year, a similar incident happened with Su Venkatesan’s award-winning novel Kaaval Kottam.Even as I write this piece, a small volume keeps staring at me from my table and whenever I make eye contact with that, my mind immediately cowers with fear – I was led into borrowing a copy of The Cat and Shakespeare by Raja Rao on a friend’s recommendation this week. I have read only some twenty pages or so and I am already sure that it is going to be the third book I am going to give up midway in my decade-old reading career.