Must the reclusive writer die?

Debojit Dutta

Man reading book: Western Railway Local Train at Vile Parle, Mumbai. Photo : Gopal MS

Man reading book:
Western Railway Local Train at Vile Parle, Mumbai.
Photo : Gopal MS

Two days after the conclusion of Jaipur Literary Festival 2013, in his aptly titled article Literature festivals as theatre, published on the Live Mint site, Sundeep Khanna made some interesting arguments opposing the idea of public discourse with writers. In Khanna’s short piece, which could have stimulated a debate, the most assertive paragraph comes towards the end, where the writer, concerned as he is, declares aggressively, ‘Having an author come and read his work and often punctuate it with explanatory notes, is a monstrous piece of modern passivity on the part of wannabe readers. Actually, every reader supplies his own accent and pauses in the reading process. This voyeuristic interest to see and hear a writer implies that our appreciation of the book will in some way be influenced by that interaction. Which is balderdash!’

The essay, in its criticism of the theatrics of such exhibitions, brings to mind the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh’s blog post from the previous year, which stirred up a hornet’s nest in the literary world. Among many points on which the two pieces agree, a common concern is the intrusion of a writer’s privacy: the death of the reclusive writer.

Picking different writers to cite, JD Salinger in Khanna’s case and William Gaddis in Ghosh’s, both men argue that the romance between the reader and the text is fast becoming a thing of history. Ghosh recollects his meeting with Gaddis in the 1990s where the American author was reluctant to sign copies of his books, taking questions from readers or even reading from his book, reasoning that ‘books should have lives of their own and that writers could only diminish the autonomy and integrity of their work by inserting themselves between the reader and the text’. Gaddis’ belief, his use of the word ‘insert’, as if calling the writer a gulf and not the medium as literary festivals suppose the case is,  posits the spectators, organisers, literary agents, publishers, and most importantly the readers and the writers on a shaky plane.

The publishing world has undergone a sea change in the past few decades under the influence of resounding voices bearing prophecies of impending death. Writers in their bid to survive have adopted, or have been forced to adopt, various publicity measures which range from being omnipresent on the social media — tweeting, facebooking and maintaining a personal blog (as Ghosh does), to being part of ridiculous advertising billboards on metro stations (like Chetan Bhagat), to posing for outrageous photoshoots (as in the case of the Canteen magazine, which in 2011 commissioned 16 photographers to shoot as many authors, insisting that such be the impact of their revolution that we demand ‘the PEN Award require a turn on the catwalk! Hold the National Book Awards on a sliver of sand populated by buxom models in horn-rimmed shades; let the champagne pop for the cameras, as Oxford tweed gets wet on Temptation Island!’). In such a world of objective cacophony, where does the melancholy, the inherent grief and elusive loneliness of an Arthur Rimbaud, an Emily Dickinson, a Herman Melville, a Franz Kafka find place? Where goes the unsociable writer who is so conscious of his being, and so burdened by it, that he forgets his steps on being made aware that he has caught a passerby’s indolent gaze? Will no one again die a death like Robert Walser’s or live reminding in the Swiss writer’s words, ‘No one is entitled to behave towards me as if they knew me’?

Some might argue that melancholia being a state of mind need not be brandished in public. But to reveal the self, even if partially, must be a task for this breed. So what do they do? It is hard to say. And foolish it is to base one’s judgement on the account of someone who claims to have interviewed such writers. One can only wish to have a fortune like Ghosh’s.  As for us, we can only pretend.

I would like to pretend I have spotted two writers from two different countries, who, assuming I have Ghosh’s fortune, adopt different defence mechanisms to adapt to an environment where they don’t belong. While for the first, Upamanyu Chatterjee, it is through aversion and silence, an expected route; the other, Howard Jacobson, does it through contained aggression and angst-ridden criticism.

Chatterjee is the writer of one of the seminal works in Indian English literature, English, August, a novel published in 1988, which chronicles the life of an urban Indian man named Agastya, who has just become an officer in the Indian Administrative Service, and has been posted in a boorish small town, where after the initial phase of repulsion, the character starts finding pleasure in the absurdity of such delirium: he regularly interacts with a frog which is stuck inside his bathroom, masturbates as if it is customary, lies for entertainment, and finds scatological humour in all his meetings. Over the years, many critics have tried to find autobiographical traits in this work. The idea is based on the fact that the writer belongs to the same profession, and is supposed to have led a similar life. There are other things, I reckon, Agastya borrows from his creator: the wit and a pair of eyes continuously hunting for details. And the reluctance to dissipate in a crowd.

‘We are men without ambition, and all we want is to be left alone, in peace so that we can try and be happy,’ Agastya would say. ‘So few people will understand this simplicity’. Chatterjee counters intrusion with an aloofness that might very easily be confused with arrogance, for the latter is an attractive quality, desired in a hero.

Present at the Jaipur Literary Festival to read from the same book, he began with his old hardback shaking in his hand, his speech pausing at unnecessary intervals. While over the course, his reading normalised, constantly fiddling around with the microphone stand, Chatterjee managed to avert all questions directed at him, oftentimes leaving the moderator, Rupleena Bose, wordless and in dearth of expressions. Questions, both on his book and self, were evaded either with incongruous gestures, monosyllables, or long non sequiturs which, as if purposefully, deviated from the issues they had been expected to address. Once, on being asked by the moderator how he feels about still being a civil servant after all these years of English, August, Chatterjee responded shrugging his shoulders, laughing, ‘I am okay… Even if I don’t look okay, I am fine. I reassure you’, repeating the question again to the audience, ‘If you mean to ask, ‘Do I hate people?’ Yes I do… I hate everyone.’ According to Chatterjee, that novel of his wasn’t political, never did he intend it to be any form of social commentary, although it has been so perceived by the book’s well-meaning reviewers; it was, in fact, about one guy who does nothing but masturbate; a collection of jokes were put in to make it readable.

Later at the book signing, he returned a friend of mine her visiting card, scribbling his email address on the back of it. She protested, reminding him, ‘This is my visiting card’. Chatterjee responded saying, ‘That’s why I am giving it back to you’. To another young journalist, in a polite tone, he said grinning, she was free to mail him, but he would “absolutely” not reply.

There’s an interesting anecdote from an article published by the Hindu, where on being asked by the interviewer ‘why he murmurs’, Chatterjee had replied, ‘I should maybe meet more people’. In Jaipur, however, amidst so many, he might have realised that that wasn’t a noble idea. Perhaps there is a reason why he refuses to give up his 9 a.m.–5 p.m. job, and become a full-time writer (whatever that means). We must be allowed to let loose our imagination and picture him hiding behind large, dusty files, and like Bernardo Soares, the famous heteronym of the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, a clerk who accounted his daily tedium in fragments in the form of The Book of Disquiet, write manuscripts such as that of English, August, Weight Loss, or The Last Burden.


Even a decade or two ago, Indian parents, in search of groom for their daughters, would insist that the suitor must have a government job. That sentiment carried no hidden reference to writing, but it seems such glamourless occupations shelter many writers. Still not to everyone do colourless vocations like these appeal. There are some of the romantic variety, the kind who die of penury, leaving behind monumental bodies of work in steel trunks, scraps of paper, tattered diaries, most of them unpublished during their lifetime. It shouldn’t surprise that this variety often sees death as a way of life. And unless one happens to share acquaintance, one isn’t aware of their existence in a contemporary world. Naturally, in their generation, they are of few people’s fancy. Thus we should not be heartbroken knowing that contemporary literary worlds prefer a third variety: the ubiquitous author. This variety is present in the public platform as opinion-maker, trendsetter, often picking writing as occupation. However, unlike the second variety, they are not shy of speaking their mind.

The British Jewish author Howard Jacobson falls into this category. Author of twelve books of fiction, including the Man Booker prize-winning novel The Finkler Question, and five collections of works of nonfiction (including a collection of his articles), Jacobson’s views on all subjects, his likes and dislikes, lie open in front of any reader who cares, a Google-search away. Jacobson, in many ways, is the literary hero the world looks for: humorous, outspoken, and argumentative. We are aware of the music he likes (J. S. Bach, Mozart and Louis Armstrong, among others, says Wikipedia), we are aware of his political leaning (liberal Zionist, many influential publications have claimed, although he himself might think otherwise), we are aware, albeit on supposition, but with good reason, that his characters are autobiographical. Almost two years back he made his displeasure over an essay of Alice Walker’s, Why I’m sailing to Gaza, public with a counter-piece titled Why Alice Walker shouldn’t sail to Gaza; he criticised Caryl Churchill’s play Seven Jewish Children, which was based around the Gaza war of 2008-09, in his column for The Independent: it resulted in two write-ups being published in defence of the play in two different newspapers (one by the playwright herself, one by the critic Jacqueline Rose), and another, again, by Jacobson justifying his stand.

Yet there’s discomfort one can sense in the way Jacobson responds to intrusion. There are adequate reasons: the talk of him being a Jewish Jane Austen and not an English Philip Roth, which he had once jokingly suggested, has become a mandatory cliche to be inserted in every article about him; the reputation of his characters being his alter egos have struck on just because they have shared professions, ambitions or passing thoughts with him.

In the middle of an interview a friend and I got to conduct with him during the Lit fest, he reminded us that “ideally”, he “shouldn’t be giving interviews.” And instead, he should say that he has nothing to say. Minutes later, Jacobson, as if someone else, looked disconcerted at the mention of a review of his latest novel, Zoo Time, in the Independent. The book, an unabashed, often hilarious, commentary on the publishing scene, has been accused of being written in a manner that is consciously trying to be “reviewer-proof”, as if the writer has drawn out “a safety net of self-awareness” around the main character. There was a perceptible change in Jacobson’s manner when he asked us, ‘So? Do I have to write a book according to them and their criticism?’. Eventually, a few sentences later, the writer declared, ‘I am a better critic of my own work!’.


Guy Ableman, the protagonist of Zoo Time, is a novelist whose last book, Who gives a Monkey’s? (a title that was to end with fook, but that word had to be omitted), has become a surprise success, people are reading it, and much of his problem begins with the fact that people are reading it. Women accuse him of misogyny, he is certain that the novel is dead, the Jew in him is a grammar-Nazi, his publisher has no faith in his future project (in fact, urges him to put in some vampires in his novel if he can), his agent has vanished, and he despises Kindle, iPad and other such innovations.  The meta-commentary which drives the book, might remind us that numerous critics have time and again alleged Jacobson of being harsh to his female characters. In a recent interview with The Guardian, he went ballistic over the de rigueur genre fiction: ‘Now people are reading soft porn! What happened to the fun of reading a good book? There are people who, when they say they prefer Henry James to Fifty Shades of Grey, they do actually mean that’.

Zoo Time follows the writer’s trademark style of self-mockery, and is replete with self-reflexive ruminations. Somewhere, reading from a journal, Ableman calls interviewers’ common questions like “what time we started work, where we got our ideas from, could we name a book by any living writer we admired…” stupid. Still at the same time, he realises that “the greatest threat to the modern writer was that we had forgotten how to walk”. Ableman isn’t that kind. He is, in fact, a tireless walker.

The observation made by the Independent’s reviewer should not be rubbished off, primarily, because the only bridge between a writer and a reader in a reader’s world is text, from which the latter can only speculate; and this done correctly or not, doesn’t take anything away from Jacobson’s art. Writing works with biographical details is no crime. But what disturbs, perhaps, is that the line between what is borrowed from one’s own character and what is borrowed from the imagination becomes too hazy to be distinguished. On accepting that Guy Ableman, Julian Treslove or Max Glickman are parts of him, the writer, in a naively judgemental world, makes himself vulnerable to being thought of practising misogyny, which in reality he vehemently opposes.

Historically, writers aren’t known to take to criticism genially. Poor John Keats, a writer of the second variety, was so disturbed by the constant criticism of his poetry that he convinced himself he wouldn’t ever attain fame in his lifetime. Salinger’s hatred of being seen and judged is now part of lore: the writer turned more reclusive after the phenomenal success of The Catcher in the Rye, and the criticism and adulation that followed, insisting that his pictures be taken off all his book covers. Jorge Luis Borges went a step further by trying to purchase all the available copies of some of his early works, to ensure their destruction, for he deemed them unsatisfactory. In Borges’ days, writers had the luxury of print being the only preserve of their oeuvre. In a porous world like ours, where internet footprints are irreversible, it is impossible to undo a note from the past, which, wisened, we might realise had gone errand.  Add to that the flurry of literary festivals in every city of every country, and we have completely stripped the writer off.

Such endeavours undertaken for purely monetary reasons are understandable — condemnable, still understandable — but that it is done on the pretext of serving art is one of modern literature’s greatest tragedies.  For contrary to what the literary makeup artists believe, writers are yet to die longing for the paparazzi, buxom models and red carpets. Even when placed below floodlights, the writer will be invisible, because “the writer is a Dalit,” says Uday Prakash. And Marguerite Duras thought that “to write is to howl noiselessly.”

Debojit Dutta is a journalist with the Sunday Guardian newspaper in Delhi. Some suspect he secretly writes fiction, evidences suggest he is fictitious. You can write to him at

Gopal MS Is an copywriter based in Mumbai working for an advertising agency who also documents Mumbai streets on a daily photoblog at


Filed under Non-fiction

3 responses to “Must the reclusive writer die?

  1. Pingback: Readers Anonymous | Northeast Review

  2. I read an interview with Martin Amis in Paris Review, in which he said, “it has to be said, perhaps with some regret, that the first thing that distinguishes a writer is that he is most alive when alone, most fully alive when alone. A tolerance for solitude isn’t anywhere near the full description of what really goes on. The most interesting things happen to you when you are alone.” As an aspiring writer, I can agree with that.

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