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Should writers just write, and not talk?

There is an argument that literary festivals make performing monkeys of writers. Yet they are also places for dialogue

Congress MP Shashi Tharoor with writer Caroline Elkins during the Jaipur Literature Festival on  19 January.
Congress MP Shashi Tharoor with writer Caroline Elkins during the Jaipur Literature Festival on 19 January. (PTI)

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It was like the before times.

The pandemic had receded and the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) was back with a bang. “Are you going? Will we see you there?” writer friends asked.

I wasn’t invited, I admitted sheepishly. Then, to recover some lost prestige, I said I had received an invite for a publisher party at the festival anyway.

But the Kolkata season had also kicked off, with back-to-back literature festivals. There were books to read, writers to interview, dinners to attend. In the tangled skein of insecurities that is a writer’s life, literature festivals provide a booster dose of literary relevance, a way to reassure yourself that your words still count for something. As my friends sent cocktail selfies from the Jaipur opening party, and my Instagram feed slowly filled up with JLF-in-action photographs, I worked diligently through my reading list for Kolkata. A friend was visiting from out of town. We cannot meet till the festival is over, I said busily. Then I sent him an announcement for my session with a Pulitzer prize winner.

Right then another friend forwarded an article from Gawker, titled Writers Shouldn’t Talk—Stop Encouraging Them. Are you saying I shouldn’t talk? I asked him. Or was I not a writer at all but a talker?

It’s not just that some writers are good at talking while others are not. Becca Rothfeld, a contributing editor at the Boston Review, argues in Gawker that writing and talking are different art forms altogether. “(Writers) are drafters and amenders, if not by vocation then by profession, and in conversation, their strongest pronouncements tend to be timid, as if they were editing in real time,” writes Rothfeld. In fact, writing, she claims, is “an antidote to the immediacy and inexactitude of speech”. She says that was why Vladimir Nabokov insisted on preparing his answers to interview questions in writing and reading them aloud. He said, “I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.”

Conversation is like a game of tennis while writing is a solitary sport. Some, like Shashi Tharoor or Javed Akhtar, revel in both, relishing the back and forth with their interlocutors, giving a tweetable quote a minute, bringing the audience to its feet. They understand their role both as writers and as performers. Some writers are soporific, wandering off on a tangent that leads to some blind alley, while the forgotten question limps forlornly, lost in the digressions.

Also read: Jaipur Literature Festival 2023: A select overview of talks on finance, law, and policy

I have seen a moderator’s face turn somewhat ashen as the first guest took the first question and launched into a soliloquy that lasted 14 minutes while the other panellists fidgeted and looked at each other. Pulitzer winner Andrew Sean Greer shared a story from the other end of the speaking spectrum at a session at the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet this year. He once had to interview the great Stephen King on stage. King was ill with the flu and throwing up on stage before the interview but he would not cancel the event because he wanted to be there for his fans. “So he came and he sat there and he didn’t say a word for an hour and a half. And I just kept asking questions and saying, ‘Once you said in an interview...,’” said Greer.

Rothfeld has a point. The writer whose words sparkle with the precision of a lapidarist can appear lost and inarticulate on stage, humming and hawing or droning in endless monologue. It’s not their fault. What we see on the page is a finished product, produced after many, many painstaking drafts. What we see on stage is the first draft, untidy, cluttered and half-formed and served up to the audience without a DEL button.

The Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee would be very much on Rothfeld’s side of the court. In 2011, the reclusive writer made an appearance at Jaipur. He took no questions from the audience and did no media interactions. He told the audience that like most people he had opinions but didn’t find his opinions particularly interesting. So he chose to spend his 45-minute session reading a 45-minute story about The Old Woman And The Cat. It was like listening to a Coetzee audio book.

At the end of the session, the hapless moderator, Patrick French, who had spent those 45 minutes sipping water for lack of anything else to do, said: “Mr Coetzee you have done something remarkable. You have held an Indian audience silent for 45 minutes.”

I was not at Jaipur that year. But when I went the next year, another writer was making headlines by not speaking—but in an entirely different context. This time it was Salman Rushdie and his appearance at the festival had been cancelled after purported death threats. Rushdie, unlike Coetzee, is a voluble and willing talker. But in his case it wasn’t a verbal gaffe, the unedited speech as it were, that exposed him to danger. It was the written word. Decades after writing those words, it was at a literary festival in upstate New York that he faced a horrendous attack last year.

All this circles back to the question—should writers just write instead of talking about the book they just wrote, their writing process, their writing heroes, the state of the nation, the state of the planet, and their favourite restaurant in whatever city they happen to be in? Many lament that in the age of social media, writers are measured not so much by the content of their book but by their Twitter following.

There is an argument that literary festivals make performing monkeys of writers. Yet a lit fest is also a place for dialogue inasmuch as it is a place for autograph seekers. There is something indescribably touching about seeing someone nervously fumble through a question directed at a Booker winner. It is also indescribably sad to see someone’s writing idol fall from grace because he comes across as arrogant and aloof on stage.

A lit fest can seem like an enchanted bubble of self-delusion where writers act as entertainers and drink Sula while in the real word a BBC documentary is blocked because the Union government calls it a “propaganda piece that lacks objectivity and reflects a colonial mindset”. Two opposition MPs defiantly share a link to the documentary, with one of them tweeting, “Sorry, Haven’t been elected to represent world’s largest democracy to accept censorship.”

Oddly, it all carries echoes of Jaipur in 2011. Even as Rushdie’s appearance was cancelled, writers decided to read from The Satanic Verses in an act of solidarity, an act that mired everyone in more legal hot water.

Thus, a writer is sometimes damned if she speaks and damned if she doesn’t. In a 24x7 news cycle, where freedom of speech might be at stake, we cannot all share the story of an old woman and a cat. On the other hand, an off-the-cuff remark, perhaps delivered ironically, can sound completely different when tweeted out of context. The next thing you know, angry protesters are picketing the literary festival.

That is the peril of dialogue. But dialogue is all we have. Several years ago, I remember a literary festival in Kolkata in a tizzy when Imran Khan was a guest. It wasn’t because a Pakistani VVIP was in town but because the power went out momentarily in the auditorium. Not everyone agreed with everything he said but nobody thought it bizarre that he was there.

The conversation was still happening.

Khattam-Shud, the antagonist of Rushdie’s Haroun And The Sea Of Stories, is the “Arch-enemy of all stories, even of language itself. He is the Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech.” In a world where Khattam-Shud grows more powerful, some write, some talk, some write and talk to keep him at bay. And someone in the audience puts up his hand and tells the writer he has two comments and a question.

We roll our eyes but I like to think that as long as that hand goes up, there is still hope.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.


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