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Write on a toothpaste tube

india Updated: Feb 15, 2012 23:19 IST
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What is bad writing? One definition of bad writing is that it only entertains but does not edify. It does not raise 'important questions' regarding political or social ills but, instead, runs away from them. Put simply, bad writing reinforces popular attitudes even if it's at the cost of harming a cultural fabric. Bad writing's goals are self-serving. It aims to make money for its publisher and author and win popularity for its writer without caring two hoots about the greater common good or making the reader think beyond the text.

Opponents of this position will, however, be quick to point out its shortcomings. The real problem for them is that unlike the empirical disciplines, good writing - especially fiction - is as man-made and culturally-constructed as the method of enquiry used to analyse and judge it. To put it in another way, it is not simply the text that is defined by its context of place and time, but the act of literary criticism and review itself changes over place and time. Simply put, the meaning of books changes constantly so that multiple interpretations and value judgements always compete for legitimacy at the same time.

So for many, it's India's English-rea-ding elite who are actually the marginalised lot as they turn to western - mainly Anglo-American - literature to define their identity as writers instead of looking 'inward'. But those who read, say, Chetan Bhagat are more 'self-confident', for they establish their own criteria for what qualifies as valuable reading and, therefore, participate more actively in their own culture than the 'aesthetes'. Their criteria are no more or less culturally-constructed than those adopted by the literary 'elite'. Hence, opponents would point out, no text - and, by extension, an author - is universally or eternally good. So who is to say that Bhagat's works do not inspire people? This kind of reasoning states that if the reader has the right response, even the writing on a tube of toothpaste can be motivating.

But this kind of reasoning is fallacious. For it takes more than bad writing (or, the writing on a tube of toothpaste) to subvert the inequalities of their realities. In our imperfect world, we need good writers so that they can fulfill that important function of reading: introspection through writing that is neither condescending nor self-righteous.

As long as India's 'literary' writers do not come down from their high horses and cater to the aspirational classes, it will be the 'bad writers' who will grab this place - and demographic power. It will serve no purpose to stifle 'bad writers' or to exclude them from literature festivals. For, what India needs today is literature and literature festivals that open up debates between the two brands of writers, not close them.

If good writing is to prevail, 'good writers' must slug it out in the open with 'bad writers'. Because the need of the hour is not only accessible, inclusive literature but also a literary community that does not patronise readers of 'bad writers' as being 'half-baked' or 'wannabe' but, instead, gives them the tools to think critically so that they can dismiss bad writing on their own terms.

Nandita Patel is a Mumbai-based writer

The views expressed by the author are personal