Publishers are steeped in traditional ways of thinking, and they keep repeating the old formulas, with inevitably mixed results. No wonder the industry is in crisis in old colonial countries, says TABISH KHAIR.

It is often asked, especially in places like UK: what’s wrong with the publishing scene these days? European editors grumble about how difficult it is to get readers to buy books. There is an almost tangible feeling of panic, reflected in the shrinkage of lists of new books on offer and the inflation of advances to a handful of ‘bestselling’ authors. I think the answer is not the global recession or even the increasingly class-based structure of mainstream publishing. It is worse than that: the answer is a lack of imagination that goes far beyond the publishing industry.

What was called by different names – say, postmodernism – in the 1970s-80s was largely the consequence of some radical reactions to the first six decades of the 20th century with its increasingly suspect grand narratives of colonial progress and nationalist emancipation. It was not incidental that Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children pitted national and colonial history against ‘his stories’. This was a common trend in both postcolonial and postmodern fiction, which shared a topical horror of grand narratives.

One of the ‘postcolonial’ novels that explored this most effectively was Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, a novel whose misleading success as a film has obscured its achievements as literature despite a Booker. The English Patient is, among other things, an intricate exploration of the tension between the public and the personal. Its love stories revolve around this tension, and the novel explores the ways in which public identities entrap a person. Stories are scribbled in the margins of histories throughout this novel. And finally, the ending, with its one clear magical realist element and its one deceptively magical realist element brilliantly yoked together, abandons the colonial/national/public for the personal: the daily act of brushing against objects in ordinary life. It is an index of Ondaatje’s talent that he replaces the public not with the individual, which is a complex ideological construct, but with the personal, which is another matter.

Throughout the 1960s-80s, this skepticism of ‘histories’ and grand narratives (which are not necessarily the same) led to a celebration of personal stories. It made sense: given the grand narratives that led to the brutalities of colonialism, fascism, communism and, in country after country, rampant nationalisms. Unfortunately – and for obvious ideological reasons – most of mainstream publishing and intelligentsia in the West have stayed stuck there. They have failed to take into account the fact that, over the past few decades, these small stories, once celebrated as emancipatory, have also at times been revealed as oppressive. They have even failed to fully understand that the really significant contemporary writers, like J. M. Coetzee and Roberto Bolano, have already traced, in different ways, this fraying in their works. I still read, with great amusement, articles celebrating such writers along old lines of the-personal-is-our-saviour-from-the-public. More than that, international prizes like the Booker still champion this ideological construct, one well past its sell-by-date.

Personal story no better

To champion the personal against the grand narratives of modernity or progress was necessary, once, though even then there was the danger of confusing the personal with the individual; and, of course, as extinct Marxists would have pointed out, Capitalism runs on individualism and also, at the same time, constructs it by erroneously defining the individual as opposed to society. Consumption, in any case, is always for individuals. But even the personal has its problems: for instance, not all personal wants are needs. I might want a Mercedes, but that does not mean that I need it in the sense in which the starving need food. Moreover, a personal ‘story’ is not necessarily better than public history: one prefers institutional American accounts of racism to the account of a member of the Ku Klux Klan, just as one trusts official European accounts of the holocaust more than Ahmedinjad’s personal ‘refutation’ of it. My ‘sense’ is no more (or less) trustworthy than other people’s.

Such problems of the personal have become evident over the years; the matter has even come to a point of crisis with the current recession which is partly the consequence of some personal wants outstripping many public needs. What we are interested in is a contextualised and nuanced relationship between the two.

Unfortunately, many of the powers that be – including those in mainstream publishing – are so embedded in traditional ways of thinking, and the privileges accruing from them, that they are unable to see what is happening. Instead, like B-grade Bollywood producers, they keep repeating the old formulas, with inevitably mixed results. No wonder publishing is in crisis in these old colonial countries! The few writers, like Coetzee, who have slipped through the extant net of exegesis, have done so because their work can also be read (partially and with great disservice to them) along the older lines of celebration. Otherwise, much of the mainstream publishing world cannot understand radical writing anymore.

This does not always show as it has become fashionable to be radical at other people’s expense. So instead of a radicalism that shakes the premises of one’s own literature and worldview, we have the gesture of being radical in terms that provoke mullahs, pundits, redneck republicans and similar sad jerks. But radicalism that discomforts others and not one’s own self is not radical, just as literature that regurgitates the dominant worldview shows a dismal lack of imagination. Of course, the powers that be are unlikely to bring this to your attention. You, reader, will have to notice it on your own.

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