Art & Culture

Why literature festivals, as a writer, fill me with utmost dread

Tabish Khair
Tabish KhairDec 16, 2016 | 11:35

Why literature festivals, as a writer, fill me with utmost dread

The fun literary festival season has commenced in India. It will hit its peak in January, when I too am scheduled to appear at the legendary Jaipur Literature Festival, and the upcoming and exciting KALAM in Kolkata. As always, I am honoured to be asked, and totally torn in two by such invitations.

There is no doubt that literary festivals do much good: they bring writers in contact with readers, they enable readers to buy a book or two along with the pau-bhaji or burger that they usually buy during outings, and they focus publicity on some lucky books.


So why is it that I have mixed feelings about doing literary festivals and similar public appearances?

I will try to explain. Being born in middle class circles where one has to earn a salary, I have perforce skirted around full-time writing. Writing is a vocation for me, but in order to write, I have had to hew out careers — first as a journalist in India and then an academic in Denmark.

The vocation of writing demands total commitment — something that my careers do not permit. But they come with their advantages too, apart from the necessary salary. Journalism trained me to write accessibly and keep a deadline. It enabled me to meet the sort of people — criminals, politicians, bigots — who were not part of my circles. Academia allowed me to read widely, and in some depth. Both fed into my vocation as a writer.

But there was also a glaring difference. Journalism and academia have strong public dimensions; "creative writing" is a private endeavour. Yes, when you publish a novel, poem or essay, it becomes public – but by then you are no longer working on it as a writer.


The actual act of writing is a deeply private one, no matter how public your themes. A writer qua writer is never a public figure. This, of course, is not how writers are seen today – or often like to see themselves. The difference of "creative writing" from journalism is obvious enough - journalism is largely a matter of having "contacts", following "leads", using "sources".

Even in academic research much can depend on so-called networking, if done honestly. There are stories of scientists unknown to each other meeting at a conference and combining their different expertise to solve a problem.

This is not the case with writing qua writing. Were you to meet Sappho, Kalidas, Shakespeare and Ghalib in a pub, it wouldn’t help you as a writer. "Networking" works for writers only at the public — some would say commercial — level. Contact, buzz, attention. These are all legitimate cravings, but they have nothing to do with writing qua writing.

What about the writer as intellectual and activist, you may ask? It is true that there is an honourable tradition — largely with French Republican roots — of the writer as intellectual engagé. Even the term "intellectual" was first coined in the late 19th century to designate writers like Émile Zola and their necessary intervention in the (in)famous and very public Dreyfuss Controversy.


As French Republican traditions greatly influenced anti-colonial and anti-racist agitations all over the world, one can argue that, like the French tradition, post-colonial, Black British and African American literary traditions are defined more by the figure of the writer as an intellectual engagé than core "White" Anglophone writing, though even there it is hard to think of someone like George Orwell as anything other than an intellectual engagé.

This is a necessary lineage. Why should I then shy away from playing the "public figure" as a writer? By hesitating, am I not buying into the currently dominant notion of writing as entertainment – that is, a commercial matter that has to do with bestseller lists, not ideas or issues?

"Creative writing" is a private endeavour.

Actually, that is part of my problem: the notion of the writer as "public figure" is no longer the same as the notion of the writer as an intellectual engagé. There is some overlap, of course, but the two are often different matters. The writer as a public figure is now seen as a performer for the crowds. I have nothing against entertaining in and through the texts I write, but I dislike the notion of being turned into a performer — so that my extraliterary gimmicks might help sell my texts!

This issue has been exercising me for years now, actually ever since my books started getting enough notice to get me invited on to public platforms. I have become queasy about this public role thrust on me — a private writer. After all, what originally attracted me to reading — let alone writing — was that I could do it on my own (in a small town of Bihar).

One feels inclined to shout: "Writers of the world, hide! You have nothing to lose but your advances!" But no, even that would not be an option.

There are writers who gain from being in the limelight. Some genres, poetry for instance, can demand to be performed. Festivals and public readings are necessary for such writing to thrive. Yet I, for one, do not want to be a public performer: I want my writing to reach my reader, and my reader to reach for my writing. I do not want to intervene or mediate between my writing and my reader.

Once I have written a novel or a poem, I do not even wish to comment on it. Why should I have written it in that form, if I could quip on "what it is about" in two quick minutes (or 30 long minutes, if given a full "panel")?

Despite the good done by festivals, I cannot help feeling that the temptation to perform in public is greater if you have not had the phenomenal inaugural success of a Pynchon, Roy or Adiga, and hence it has to be greatly resisted.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Last updated: December 16, 2016 | 11:35
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