Being in a family of overachievers can be tough, especially when they do anything they put their mind to effortlessly while you (i.e. I) have a brain with only one functioning hemisphere. While siblings and other relatives racked up the PhDs in obscure sciences and secured fat scholarships, I discovered I can’t add, chemistry scares me, biology involves too many body parts for me to remember and that idiocy could be an advantage. The highest I scored in accountancy was 2 on 100, thus ensuring I never had to return to that class, and one physics teacher actually begged me to not answer examination papers because apparently my answers were so wildly and originally incorrect that after going through my paper he felt like he’d forgotten everything he knew of the subject. While all this traumatised my parents, I remained reasonably unperturbed because I knew from a very early age that I was going to be a writer. The elders in the family humoured me by asking kindly, “What are you going to write?” Stories, I told them. “What kind of stories?” As a kid, the answer seemed obvious: “Good ones,” I would say with the confidence of a 4 year-old who hadn’t discovered the word ‘rejection’. My father, of course, had to make my life difficult so he asked me, “And how will you know a story is good?” I think I stared blankly at him at that point and after a few seconds returned to my Postman Pat 8-piece jigsaw puzzle.
Over centuries academics and critics have tried desperately to create some sort of equation to understand why a piece of creative writing works. Thousands of texts, from Aristotle onwards (maybe even earlier but names escape me now), have tried to pin down what makes a work good. Some novels feel dated within years while others retain some sort of charisma over centuries. It’s the structure, we say and then discover a perfectly-structured novel that leaves a reader bored. We marvel at the use of language, puzzling over how the most florid of language can be poignant when written by an author while simple, monosyllabic words reek of melodrama. With the deadline for a story looming disturbingly close, my way of dealing with being unable to write has been re-reading my favourite novels. If this story I’m writing ends up, by some unlikely freak, to be good, then I’ll say I turned to those old books for inspiration. Actually, it’s just a desperate attempt to distract myself from writing my own book but it did make me realise something about the stories I consider good: they tap into the fears and confusions of a particular time. Whether it’s Jane Austen‘s heroines, fearing a bleak life and a loveless marriage, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez‘s eccentric heroes with their fading memories, the most cherished books reflect a world gone awry and we as readers trust our authors to set it right. Not necessarily with happy endings but by the act of writing it, because it makes us confront that darkness and that in itself is a little closer to setting things right. If not anything else, at least you can close the book and trap that fear within its covers.
Slate had a nice article on Iceland and its literary community recently. Iceland is one country where the government actually paid salaries to authors. It’s almost as though what oil is to the Middle East, literature is to Iceland. And now, with the country officially bankrupt, the writers seem to be aware that they have some kind of a bardic role to play.
“The literary world has come at the collapse with new fervor, she [author Vigdis Grimsdottir] says, with previously standoffish authors stepping into the fray. “Now they’re writing articles in the newspaper, much more than before,” she tells me. “So many writers are coming from their shells.” Vigdís has noticed a difference in public attention, too: Beginning last winter, when she was doing publicity for her latest book (a biography of an Icelandic everywoman), each reading she gave was packed. To her, this spelled impending crisis. “I could feel it in the air,” she says. “There was something changing. People wanted to hear about—themselves, maybe.”“
Salman Rushdie in a recent interview said of his infamous “The Satanic Verses“, “I’m pleased that it’s finally being read like a book.” It’s perhaps the most well-known title of our times and for all the wrong reasons. As Rushdie said in the interview, the book has been studied for its politics and its infamous take on Islam. The novel isn’t one that everybody likes. A friend of mine described it as “just too flashy”, which is precisely how I’d describe the eighties, the time setting for the central thread of Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha. Rushdie’s characters had in them the glee and the despair that so many felt in those times. I think that’s one of the things that makes it a difficult read. The 80s crammed into a single book is an overwhelming experience, especially when it culminates with a man called Farishta [the word means messiah] committing murder and suicide.
We didn’t have the rage and the conviction that we have now as we sink quickly and inevitably into a violent quicksand of wars, recessions and global warming. Back then it was more of a quiet dread that everything was changing and we didn’t know whether our devils would be able to do a Saladin Chamcha or if we’d all be going to hell in a handbasket. Perhaps it was because we were never sure just how bad things were. News reached us late, often watered down, and we amused ourselves with poufy hair, shoulder pads and candy colours. In 1988, when “The Satanic Verses” came out, “Man in the Mirror”, “Faith” and “Sweet Child o’ Mine” blasted through radios while perestroika kicked in, Saddam Hussein gassed Kurds in Halabja, people took to the streets in Burma and PanAm Flight 103 blew up over Lockerbie. The cruelty of the times – kidnappings, bombs, genocide, riots, wars – makes you wonder how the hell a miraculously-slim Belinda Carlisle managed to have a hit that year by chirpily singing “Heaven is a Place on Earth”.
Good stories seemed easier when I was a kid, perhaps because “potatoes in jackets” were magical delicacies and not simply baked potatoes with their skins on. And because when you shut your eyes, the monsters in the dark corners of room went away and after a bit, it miraculously turned into morning. Of course, what I didn’t realise then was that the story was good not because the monsters disappeared but because they were there in the first place. Tonight, stranded in front of a page almost filled with a list of happenings from the late 19th century that add up to nothing, I wish I was 4 years old again, with that confidence of being able to craft a good story by answering the question of what happened next. There are no angels in my story and no demons; just a few men and their prosaic world full of petty, uninteresting details that won’t let me past to see what lurked behind the neatly-recorded interviews and train journeys. Quite obviously, this is not going to be a good story.