Gouri Dange: Writing a novel? Who isn’t?

25 Jan,2012

By Gouri Dange


We are in the midst of an epidemic – an overabundance of unimaginative, thinly-veiled autobiographical pretend-fiction: how I loved and lost in IIT; how I lost and loved in JNU; how I was Cinderella in med college; how I was Cinderella’s ugly sis in IIM, and on and on and on.


My uncle, his neighbour and his neighbour’s sister and her brother-in-law and their cocker spaniel – they’re all writing a novel, it looks like. Ever since Arundhati wrote about ordinary things happening in ordinary places and their far-reaching impact, all of us Indians have come uncorked with our stories.


Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no snob who believes that English fiction writing is the exclusive turf of the chi-chi haw-haw strata. Or that fiction has to come from the deep tortured insides of a writer. I don’t care about the distinction between high brow and low brow and middle brow and no brow. Everything is narration.


What I find (as a reader and as a book editor who reads the works of hundreds of hopefuls) is that too many aspiring Indian writers in English are totally mired in autobiographical material. Again, nothing terribly wrong with that, all writers ‘mine’ their minds and lives. Why, however, a lot of it is unreadable is that many writers are simply unable to take what happened to them and universalize it in any way. The autobiographical never makes the jump to the kind of writing/narration to which other people can relate and in which they can hear echoes.


If the memories and incidents from the past came with any kind of emotional/social/intellectual insights, these stories might have held some interest and become publishable. This is not the case. There is nothing touching or instructive or engrossing or revealing in any of the strings of episodes that a lot of people choose to simply prattle on about.


So much unpublished guy writing (called lad-lit, like chick-lit) is about life in school or engineering college hostel, and monotonously tells you about the adolescent crush on another boy, or the English teacher, the smoking/drinking experiment, or goes into excruciating and baffling detail about the physics lecture. It often boils down to nothing more than those ‘hey remember when we were in college…” kind of reminiscences that are ok when you’re sitting around with four friends, but does not make the cross-over to being readable literature, frankly.


It’s the same with a lot of young (and old) women writers, who are putting in a lot of hard work, no doubt, in telling stories that no one wants to hear. That’s because, again, the stories simply don’t ‘travel’ from the writer’s life, to touch the life of the reader.


The minute you say this kind of thing (as kindly as possible) to a person who wants to be published, sadly, the response is something like: “Oh everyone can’t be a Rushdie.” But I’m not talking Rushdie here at all. I’m not talking about ‘classes’ versus ‘masses’ kind of distinctions. I’m all for more easily accessible writing, but if you’re writing fiction (and not just your autobiography), it has to grow horns, a tail or two, some sharp nails, some moments and nuances in the content as well as in the way you tell it. Or else it’s just canteen (or kitty-party or chai tapri or board-room) chit-chat trying to pass off as fiction.


Sometimes, people write down stories or incidents/anecdotes from their life to better understand the past and its impact on the present. It is therapeutic, perhaps, this exercise. And I’m all for it. However, this does not necessarily automatically transform it into a piece of writing that is accessible and/or of interest to anyone else. For this kind of self-examination to turn into fiction of any kind of wider appeal, much more would need to go into it.


The art and craft of writing is definitely more demanding business than simply uncorking your memories and theories, is what I’m trying to say here to all of you (us) working so hard and hoping so fervently to be published. Self-absorption and contemplating your navel are rarely the right tools to become a good writer, frankly.


There are so many avenues for people wanting to talk about their pasts or their presents, without having to do the complicated hard work of fictionalizing and universalizing the story. There are blogs, and chats or diaries or amateur, informal writers’ forums.


There is a Marathi sentence that I always find very touching when people use it: “Mala kahi sangaychay” – ‘I have something to tell’. This is a universal impulse – but that doesn’t necessarily make it literature. Hemingway put it wonderfully: “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that it all happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.”


If you can do that, you are a writer.


Naming no Names is the mid-week column where novelist, columnist and counsellor Gouri Dange presents her tongue-in-cheek view of our world.


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3 responses to “Gouri Dange: Writing a novel? Who isn’t?”

  1. Salman Roy says:

    A debate I once found myself in was about whether creating writing classes help one get from lovingly watching one’s own navel to universalizing that experience. What do you think, Gouri? Or does that merely make the navel-gazing writing that much more cloying, without making it readable? In other words, is a great storyteller born, or can she/he be cultivated?

  2. Mini says:

    Oh I so agree. I have my own experience – started writing a novel about three girls in college, and it sounded so boring to me as a reader, though it was fun to write. I had the sense to abandon it! Actually, I think if one has this impulse to write, the internet is such a good place to do it. I can post those pieces on our college e group and they would love it, and that should be enough.

  3. aditya kripalani says:

    interesting. Need to ponder over these things a bit. Nice piece Gouri.

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