If you’re feted for 35 years, this kind of thing is bound to happen. The groans and eyeball-rolling that accompanied the announcement of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children being anointed — for the second time in 10 years — the ‘Booker of the Bookers’ earlier this month, come at a time when slagging off Rushdie has become a popular game among the literati.
“Oh, for crying out loud, that magic realism thing is so-o-o ’80s, not to mention so-o-o pre-post-modern!” goes the usual entry point to the Rushdie rip-fest. And unlike the Big Guys in Literature, two things go against the creator of Saleem Sinai, the telepathic 1947-er: Rushdie’s a celebrity; and he’s still writing.
Let’s take the Rushdie celeb-writer thing first. In today’s world of literary fiction, the preferred position is that of a quiet, reclusive, almost monk-like writer sitting in his metropolitan apartment scratching away till the inspired object appears in the bookstores.
So much razzmatazz
Starting with the aftermath of the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988, and the fatwa from the Ayatollah — not to mention the ban of the book in India that preceded the Iranian ire — Rushdie has been the Paris Hilton of literature.
To add razzmatazz to life-threats, his dalliance with Padma Lakshmi, a leggy whose idea of delightful prose is Jamie Oliver’s cookbooks, Rushdie became a character in a Philip Roth novel. Which, as a real-life author of quality, is not a compliment.
That albatross around his neck, to be sure, is something that Rushdie himself slung to make his life more meaningful and less boring. But if ballerinas are not judged by the movies they watch, why can’t a writer’s worth be confined to his books?
Which brings us to the second aspect of why Rushdie-baiting is such a thriving cottage industry. Sure, there has been a total bummer in his oeuvre, the self-gratifying 2001 ‘novel’, Fury.
Even The Satanic Verses, which liberal readers have a penchant of describing as “harmless but bad”, mostly to advertise their ‘liberalness’ without letting their ‘aesthetic level’ be compromised, doesn’t quite bring the House-That-Rushdie-Built come crashing down to the level of ‘okay’ writers.
The point is that along with Midnight’s Children, the man has created large-canvas masterpieces such as The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999) and his latest tour de force, The Enchantress of Florence.
The problem is that over-the-topness, baroque, playful literature that paints broad brushstrokes to create glorious cartoon patches is out of favour. If writers using a similar narrative style that thrives on an imaginary hyperdrive, jump-cut associations, swirling wordplay and a swashbuckling rejection of ‘naturalistic’ prose are to be feted, they have to be dead (Rabelais, Cervantes, Lawrence Sterne) or obscure (GV Desani, Shibram Chakrabarty).
Rushdie is neither. So he must be, goes the logic, a spent force milking on that book that the Booker folks still go on and on about. To put it in mixed metaphors, those who hate Rushdie’s writings are tea-drinkers walking into a drinking hole.
So like punk rock — that other loud art form — Rushdie’s idiosyncratic and individual style of writing has become a genre, an industry that has lost favour to a quieter, subtler style of writing. And it’s this dilemma of how to read a great writer of our times with an out-of-fashion style — and there are plenty of bad writers of ‘loud’ writing out there — that scares many of us off from reading him with an open, playful, churning mind.