Policy prescriptions are the blackberries Heaney picked as a child. You can’t store them for long and if you do, you should be prepared for the disappointment that comes with the rot
Some friends think that having worked my fingers to the bone for several years, I should now sit down and write a book. They are generous towards me, but wrong. If humanity is to be divided between those who write books and those who don’t, I belong in the latter category.
There are many reasons why I will never write a book, the foremost being that the world is full of crappy books as it is. Adding another to that list may be good for my vanity but not enough reason to write a book.
But let’s list some categories of books, starting with poetry.
I consider writing poetry the most difficult undertaking even though judging by how many people think, and quite seriously, that they can invoke the muse, it would seem as easy and natural as belching after a hearty desi meal.
Which most such poetry is. But while belching may be natural, poetry requires naturalness of a different and much higher category, one that must be wed to an ear for the meaning and music of words. That requires a master. And poetry affords nothing less than the best.
Next is the novel. Novel-writing requires a different kind of talent and a different degree of difficulty. In a recent review of The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie, reviewer Amy Wilentz, herself a novelist, has this to say: “No style should be a substitute for a story. Plot is the hard work of novel-writing.” Clearly, she is not impressed with Rushdie’s “habitual high style of magical realism” and I agree with her.
The question is, how does one find the right balance, granting that there indeed is a right balance, some recipe which favours the palates of the majority even if it fails to get a Man Booker?
This is uncertain territory. One needs patience for it and that quality I do not have. Plus, evidently, one needs a story to tell and cleverly. I don’t have a yarn to tell and I am not clever enough to weave one. Neither do I have the ability to write beautiful, descriptive passages or write fiction that draws from reality and then creates an artistic masterpiece, regardless of the style, Spartan or baroque.
A few times that I did think of writing a novel — if one is not a PhD in these times, the easiest way to become a writer-celebrity is to write a novel that manages to sell — I found that I could not think of anything that others would be interested in reading. It should be obvious, I think, that people will only read what strikes them and I can’t think of anything that is profound or moving or magical or realistic or a combination of various techniques that novelists employ to write the unputdownables.
Somewhere lies some magic formula for the winner. It’s too much trouble finding it, though; besides, the only way one can begin the search is to start writing and go right through to the end. The lucky ones succeed, the majority fails. I am not even prepared to work out the probability, having read Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Here’s what he says about it through Brooklyn-born Fat Tony and academically inclined Dr John.
If you toss a coin 40 times and it comes up heads every time, what is the chance of it coming up heads the 41st time? “Dr John gives the answer drummed into the heads of every statistic student: 50/50. Fat Tony shakes his head and says the chances are no more than 1%. ‘You are either full of crap,’ he says, ‘or a pure sucker to buy that 50% business. The coin gotta be loaded.’”
So there you are. Who wants to take that kind of chance towards success? Not me, and especially not when I also know I do not have it in me to tell a story. Plus, yes, for every good novel there are at least one million really bad ones. If 98 percent of the world can live happily without reading The Brothers Karamazov or War and Peace or Ulysses, to name just a few, surely it can live without being pained by my presumed profundity.
The third category is, broadly speaking, philosophy and theory: the big, conceptual book, some groundbreaking treatise, something that expands the frontiers of knowledge and understanding. Constituted as I am, it would be vanity at its most vain and bordering on vainglory, to even think I have it in me to write at that level.
Too many people have died unsatisfied deaths trying to deal with this vision-capability dilemma, a phrase I borrow from one of our best minds, Moeed Yusuf, who coined it to describe the existing discrepancy between India’s capabilities and its ambition. I mention the genesis of the term so no one can accuse Moeed of indulging in the pursuit of literary pleasures. He is happily virginal on that score!
So, what’s left? Policy. The domain no one wants to claim because it is so unsexy and thankless. Everyone wants this or that done but it takes some courage to shun the romance of the theory and get the boots dirty in the trenches. On the other hand, policy prescriptions themselves are so fleeting that I have seriously wondered if they need more than concise, crisp short pieces. Books should be about long-term ideas.
Policy prescriptions are the blackberries Heaney picked as a child. You can’t store them for long and if you do, you should be prepared for the disappointment that comes with the rot.
…Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
There, then. For me, the job is cut out.
Ejaz Haider is Consulting Editor of The Friday Times and Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times. He can be reached at email@example.com
Source: Daily Times, 22/6/2008