Friday, February 4, 2011

O writers, help thyself!

Brickbats come alongside eulogies for every writer. And writers with thick skin can differentiate criticism from flak and appreciation from eulogies. But writers who cannot resist both these overwrought comments can easily land in peril. The scathing remarks may hurt them and discourage them to write, while the unnecessary extols prevent them from realising their shortcomings. The same applies to the critic as well; pre-requisite to become a critic, one should have the ability to go beyond the irrationality of praising for or ranting against something. Focused on the development of the culture of fair criticism, this argument raises questions against both the writers as well as the critics of Nepal. Have our writers and critics inculcated within them this culture of criticism?

Judging the entire Nepali literary fraternity from this standpoint, our writers seemingly are not being able to thicken their skin. This lack of fair criticism has led to the formation of coteries of writers and critics in Nepal, which often act as rivals to each other. One critic picks up the book written by a member of his own coterie and offers bouquets of praise to the writer and turns a blind eye towards his writing’s weaknesses. On the other hand, this man throws stones to the writer of another group, only scrutinising the flaws in his or her book while ignoring all its strengths. Another critic from the rival coterie repeats the same kind of practice; either eulogizing or bemoaning things. And what remains elusive is the reality; the real strengths and weaknesses of Nepali literature do not come to the fore.

Forgetting the affinity or rivalry between these so-called critics, many of our writers are emotionally swept away by the deluge of biased comments. A senior writer whom I met in a get-together few days back was saying to an editor of a weekly publication, “I have sent my book to you, please don’t give it to that man to review it.” The man whom the writer was referring was perhaps one who hasn’t given good reviews of his books. Had the writer been able to differentiate rants from criticism, he would not have worried much about the one who gave him a critical review. Instead, this writer wants somebody to praise him. He is a writer who has already made a good name through some masterpieces in Nepali literature. But unfortunately, he has not been able to maintain the quality in his latest books. Thus, some honest reviewers have given poised feedback on his books, but he hasn’t been able to digest this. In the same get-together, he expressed dissatisfaction over those reviews, which did not praise him but instead showed the lowering graph of the quality of his writing. This tendency has discouraged serious and unbiased reviewers as well. Habituated to read praise, Nepal’s senior writers haven’t realised how they have been fostering an unofficial and narrow ‘coterism’.

Another acclaimed Nepali writer expressed his discontent regarding a question on overrated and underrated books that I usually ask in a Sunday interview column called Bookwormbabbles which appears in this newspaper. He was dissatisfied because, of late, most of his books have appeared in the list of overrated books. I can only pity over his comments; he doesn’t want to consider why people deem his books overrated but rather wants me to stop asking the question. The fact that writers fear readers will ignore their work because of such comments in newspapers illustrates their lack of confidence in their own work.

What acclaimed literary columnist Govinda Bartaman said to me in a recent interview clarifies another dimension of the unfair practice of criticism, “Nepali critics have ignored good books like Hetchhakuppa and Urgen Ko Ghoda because the critics are engrossed with their own narrow prejudices.” These books can stand out, despite their weaknesses, amidst the hordes of books recently published in Nepal. But they were not reviewed by popular Nepali critics. They ignored these books because failing to pass scathing remarks about these good books would make them disloyal to the coteries of which they belong. These books’ authors are inclined to leftist ideas. And this very inclination has created problems for right-winged critics. Though most often rightist critics suggest that writers purge themselves of political ideologies when they write literature, they didn’t dare challenge their own small coterie to write about these books. Not only these books, there are many other writers who cannot align themselves in any of the popular literary coteries, especially in Kathmandu, and consequently are ignored. They cannot appear in any Top-10 lists because reviewers as well critics do not bother to read the books of these “non-aligned” authors and write about them.

Though critics and reviewers can manufacture consent (to borrow Chomsky’s idea) towards certain books—which plays a vital role in the quality of literature, readers always hold their own personal judgments. John Keats, one of the acclaimed romantic English poets, was vehemently criticised and attacked by critics like John Wilson Croker and Leigh Hunt through their write-ups that appeared in Quarterly Review and Blackwood’s. Keats nearly quit writing poetry. Shelly, in his elegy to Keats, has mentioned the pain inflicted to Keats by those reviews. But those criticisms did not stop readers from appreciating Keats’ poetry. The present-day readers also cherish Keats’ verses like “beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

I find it worthwhile to borrow Keats’ response to those criticisms,

“Praise or blame has but a momentary effect on the man whose love of beauty in the abstract makes him a severe critic on his own works.”

Lastly, a humble request to Nepali writers: it is the high time to be sceptic about oneself and one’s own coterie. This practice will certainly make your skin thicker and help foster the culture of fair criticism.

-Ujjwal Prasai
source: The Kathmandu Post