Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Some things I've been reading

Some things I've been reading recently:

"Do [Indian] anglophones paddle in the shallows" by Mukul Kesavan, who is in my opinion among the sharpest thinkers and almost certainly the best prose stylist among columnists in the English-language press in India, and whose piece closes with a line worthy of a great short story. My friend the writer Amitava Kumar, who has on occasion left comments of great erudition on The Middle Stage (such as here), and whose book A Foreigner Carrying In The Crook Of His Arm A Tiny Bomb will be out shortly, has a response to Kesavan here. A reverse angle on Kesavan's argument is provided by Aakar Patel's recent essay "Try and say this in Hindi -- bet you can't".

"Adventures in editing: Ted Solotaroff's Commentary Days", a very long and entertaining piece by the late Ted Solotaroff on his years as an editor at Commentary magazine, which is, among other things, about learning the art of editing from other highly skilled exponents ("Well, what she proceeded to do was a revelation. What I had thought was a solid review turned out to have as much fat as a sixteen-ounce blue-plate special. My resentment at being told I was ponderous turned into gratitude once I began to see with her eye and fall into step with her pace. 'Why the double adjectives here? Give me a good precise one.' My overzealous development of a point--example, comment, further example, more comment, final example -- turned into an incisive statement and the best example, and moved on. She showed me how removing a transitional or topic sentence from the head of a paragraph could energize the line of discussion and more involve the reader"). Part 2 of the piece is here: "Further adventures in editing".

And lest we forget that this is an Indian blog, and one that wants to know and to circulate what is happening at home as well as away, here is a beautifully tossed-off little memoir -- one wishes it were longer-- by Rukun Advani called "Academics among writers", about the experience of editing an entire generation of Indian writers -- sociologists, economists, political theorists -- closely linked with academic activity yet also interested in producing polished writing ("When I joined publishing as an editor it was with the expectation that my job would involve reading wonderful new book-manuscripts all day long. At the end of each week I'd tell my boss which the well-written scripts were, and he'd give me the go-ahead to publish those. The bad ones we'd save for a bonfire and watch gleefully as rotten prose met its fate, becoming even more like the dust it already was.")

If you give these essays the time they deserve, you could do worse than spend another hour reading this recent symposium of four good American editors at publishing houses, which offers many insights into the contemporary world of publishing: agents, advances, the rigours of editing, publicity, the corporatization of publishing, the impact of new technologies, why books are published first as hardcovers, and so on.

And here are two marvellous interviews at the ReadySteadyBook website with the poet and translator Michael Hoffmann and the translator Charlotte Mandell. I was particularly struck by Mandell's counterintuitive revelation that she never reads a book all the way through before beginning a translation ("I feel I’ve never really 'read' a work until I’ve translated it. I also make it a rule never to read too far ahead in the book I’m translating – that way everything is fresh and new, and I can’t form any preconceived notions about what will come next. I figure the author never had the luxury of reading his book beforehand, so why should I?"). Mandell also has some interesting things to say about her translation of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones here.

Lastly, I leave you with Adam Kirsch's splendid "In The Word-Hoard", an essay on Dennis O'Driscoll's book-length interview with Seamus Heaney, Stepping Stones. And if all this is too literary for you, I can see your point, and so here is a really good essay by Jonathan Wilson on football: "Why is full-back the most important position on the pitch?"


Rohit Chopra said...

Hi Chandrahas,

As always, there is much to respond to in your rich, detailed, and insightful posts. (Many thanks for drawing my attention to Nemahas' essay in your earlier reflection; I have been meaning to write in about that and hope to do so later.)

I'll restrict myself here to another matter, to mark my respectful disagreement with your characterization of Rukun Advani's reflections. (I'll be AWOL for a while, but reading Middle Stage surely; I did want to use this occasion to draw attention to what I think is a disturbing mindset among several commentators in the world of Indian letters).

Advani's piece seems marked by an obscene resentment of, and ignorance about, several disciplines as well as the work of scholars in these discipline. He is perfectly entitled to his opinion but it is somewhat curious that an academic editor should have such strong biases, and should have made up his mind in advance that entire areas of scholarship are not worth publishing.

Unfortunately, his views reek of a certain musty anglophilia-- of the kind that one associates with the patronizing elitism of the Indian International Center in Delhi. It is also redolent of the more conservative minded English departments in India, which paradoxically-- and somewhat ludicrously I may add-- see themselves as the guardians of a nineteenth century version of all that is hallowed in English literature, even as English departments almost everywhere in the world have moved on.

Advani, ostensibly to be provocative, eagerly affirms his taste for all things colonial (especially of the British variety). There is a supreme irony in this. It was precisely those kinds of colonial attitudes-- that he so cherishes and valorizes-- that resulted in Advani leaving OUP India, apparently on orders from OUP Britain. See this article on Advanis ignominous departure, by Christopher Hurst, from The Hindu, reproduced at As the article notes

"OUP will also be unable to escape the imputation of something closely akin to racial discrimination in that what is permitted in Oxford (Ivon Asquith and Kate Jury) is apparently not permitted to the Press's Indian servants. It will also suffer the imputation of imperialistic behaviour. OUP India's unique status in being wholly owned by foreigners is being used in a way that harks back to before 1947."

The long and short of it is that Advani's partner at OUP India was asked to leave for violating company policy. However, individuals in the same situation in OUP's London branch were not asked, similarly, to resign.

The kind of postcolonial critique that Advani bitterly dismisses that might explains why he was treated the way he was by the OUP head office in the UK. And the kind of work on how gendered and racial discrimination intersect with colonial history that Advani laughs that, again, might explain OUP UK's decision.

There are other problems with Advani's perspective as well, which he has repeatedly expressed in Indian newspapers and magazines. This is not the place for a longer critique (if his views deserve that) but Advani's biases are easily noted.

The world of literature does not divide into those who love Virginia Woolf and Eliot on the one hand, and postcolonialist, postmodernists, etc. on the other
This is a false distinction. There are plenty of people whose work involves one or more of these theoretical paradigms, who also appreciate and write with great insight, acuity, and beauty about Woolf or the other figures he lists. Woolf, one might note, is an important and foundational figure in the area of gender theory.

Advani seems completely oblivious of the fact that literature could have something to do with politics. It may not be coincidence, then, several figures that Advani names in his list of favorites were political reactionaries including Evelyn Waugh and P. G. Wodehouse.

Amitav Ghosh, Ranajit Guha, and Sunil Khilnani are fine prose stylists, but there are many other very fine writers (Indians and others) in the academy. They may not be to Advani's taste but that is another matter. Ranajit Guha's work uses numerous terms that are central to postcolonial theory, including some that the Subaltern Studies Collective introduced: subaltern, hegemony, domination. Guha's work Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency is very much a Marxist text, with specialized Marxist terminology that also finds echoes in postcolonial writing. Bernard Cohn, who published several texts with OUP India, shared many theoretical concerns with scholars working in postcolonial studies (in literature, anthropology, history, etc.)

Finally, I wonder if it ever crosses Advani's mind that his judgments may be a function of a failure of his vision. His rhadamanthine judgments beg the question of where he derives his authority to pass judgment on who is a good writer, a great academic, what kinds of work count as valid scholarship, and what kinds do not. One can ask the same question of Ram Guha and Mukul Kesavan in some of their writings (their views on Indian academics in the west, Guha's views on Arundhati Roy, Kesavan's views on bloggers, for example)

Unfortunately, these liberal defenders of all that is good and just in the world of Indian scholarship and in the humanities and social sciences often come across as singularly ungenerous of spirit, close-minded, and parochial in their tastes and interests.

I suspect Indian academics may not have publicly disagreed with, or responded to, Advani's views because of OUP India's prestige. Under Ravi Dayal, and possibly later as well, it was considered the number one press anywhere in the world for South Asian Studies. Advani's skills as an editor nor his deep literary knowledge may not be in doubt. But it is possible that these biases and shortcomings of vision may have cost him several fine texts and authors.

Rohit Chopra

Anu said...

The Mukul Kesavan link was interesting.

I wonder if people return to the language of their childhood - my grandmother was monolingual and in her last days we heard quite a bit of the village Tamil of her childhood...

L said...

Mukul Kesavan: The sad part is for most of us, learning and gaining fluency in English means the death of our mother tongue. I realised how poorly I speak tamil when I went to teach some 12 year olds in a village school. I dont know words for terms like 'hypothetical'. said...

Dear chandrahas,

I was impressed with your reading and novel at IIT KGP and i am dying to meet you again. I hope you will write some reviews in our magazine..