Review: Writing Badly Is Easy by Amitava Kumar
Amitava Kumar started working on this book in 2009. He then broke one his own rules of writing – “finish one thing before taking up another” – and let other book(s) jump the queue. Ten years later, benefiting from his additional in-between readings and reflections on good and bad writing, Writing Badly is Easy has arrived and is a comprehensive read on how to write.
Also on how not to: “The double disjunction of a hybrid simultaneity and of the economic and ideological deformations of neocolonialism is the condition within which both authors and texts are produced.” The above sentence is a mind-boggling commentary on the lucid writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie, both of whom Kumar greatly admires.
The strike through of “badly” in the title sets the tone for the almost-300 pages that dwell on style, form and voice. Kumar demonstrates to perfection the big fat case he makes for blurring the line between critical (read academic) and creative writing with this work.
He gives ample examples to make the reader believe that they are not alone in their loathing for what is routinely produced by the academe/academy. He quotes Geoff Dyer to show his despair for the “state-of-the-fart-theorists”: “That is the hallmark of academic criticism: it kills everything it touches. Walk around a university campus and there is an almost palpable sense of death about the place because hundreds of academics are busy killing everything they touch.”
Writing Badly is Easy may have added to the existing 4,470 academic and non-academic titles on how to write listed by Amazon, as Kumar mentions, but this book, though by an academic, is not the exclusive property of that closed little pompous world. Kumar has been teaching creative writing in the US for decades, has made a mark with his own writings (especially Passport Photos) and, is, therefore, perfectly at home rounding up the hurdles faced by writers.
Closer home, he cites hilarious examples of Babu English and the language used by Indian courts. Both unwilling to abandon lifeless templates and brandishing their manufactured unintelligibility like a trophy.
Bewildered, bitter and often amused at the production of “monstrous prose” and “the dreadful sameness in the vocabulary”, Kumar laments missing “an easy traffic between the sensual and the cerebral”. Notes, pictures and newspaper clippings collected by Kumar, some dating back to the early days of his writing and teaching career, are threaded into the text to hammer in the nuance of language and the fundamentals of writing.
He explores in detail ways to marry academic scholarship with literary ambitions without compromising intellectual integrity and to ensure that the academe does not fall prey to this “rigid binarism”. He offers advice from scores of award-winning creative writers such as Suketu Mehta, Atul Gawande, Alain de Botton, VS Naipaul, Teju Cole, and drops quotes from some of his literary crushes throughout the book.
Advice on the importance of deciphering style and form comes early on in the book. Also, the importance of walking (or exercising). Conversely, he compares running with writing. An athlete runs every day to stay fit; a writer should emulate a similar writing schedule to stay in top form.
He nudges writers to experiment with form and style. He quotes Zadie Smith here: “Forms, styles, structures – whatever word you prefer – should change like skirt lengths. They have to; otherwise we make a rule, a religion, of one form…” He invokes Umberto Eco too. “You are not Proust. Do not write long sentences,” Eco’s admonition in a guidebook from the 1970s to tell-off students preparing to write their thesis like Proust or the poet, ee cummings.
Kumar writes that finding the right voice, or just the right topic to begin with, gives the book its distinctiveness. He cites example after example from the works of renowned and little-known writers, opening the window to the works of those who have experimented with form, style, voice. Bhanu Kapil Rider’s Vertical Interrogation of Strangers is based on a set of 12 questions (“Who was responsible for the suffering of your mother” is a question she asks random Indian women). Kumar is all praise for Suketu Mehta, too, who develops a unique relationship with his interviewees. They seem to be discovering truths about their own selves or events they have witnessed as they speak to Mehta, he observes.
There’s plenty of writerly advice in the book. Coming from an insider, all of this can only be taken seriously - Salman Rushdie’s “Writing is an act of love. If you don’t love it, go do something else for God’s sake. Go get a job.” There are anecdotes on the early failures of now famous writers. Mehta’s first-hand report on the aftermath of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy met with editorial cuts and was finally dumped as a magazine’s cover story. Mehta finally got noticed for a piece commissioned by Granta on Bal Thackeray – the result of the “colossal failure” of his Bhopal write-up.
Kumar documents his own journey as a writer in a chapter called “Rage on the Page”. Decades after being a self-conscious immigrant writer and then being seen as “an expert on writers who need a little less suntan lotion on the beach”, he says writing has helped him deal with “the malady of distance”.
He recommends that even if a writer isn’t writing he should sit down and perform the ritual of writing. He cites Anne Boyer’s brilliant poem “Not Writing” - on what she isn’t writing about to forward his point. He encourages future writers to read junk so that they are able to outperform and insists that they revise their work: “Virginia Woolf even revised her suicide note.”
However, before getting on with that reading, writing and revising, they should switch on the “Freedom app” and get off social media. The end result should be - “Make me see, make me see”, as Kumar tells his creative writing students. This is a reference to Henry Belk, a blind editor, who would call his young reporter and tell him to make the report more descriptive and make him see!
“Writing Badly is Easy” is a scholarly work, even though Kumar has managed to keep the tone non-academic. He also doesn’t waste time giving advice on how to become a published writer, but exhorts everyone to read and ritualise the writing process, to write every single day and stay in form even if it’s only to update that Facebook status.
Kumar keeps the books he is likely to return to, his “personal classics”, on a bookshelf near his writing desk. This book deserves a similar special spot on all bookshelves.
Lamat R Hasan is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.