Essay: A Particular Understanding of Literature Precedes (and Shapes) its Usefulness or Uselessness


In the past few months many essays and interviews have appeared in different Kashmir-based newspapers and magazines discussing the English literary scene of the place. Before writing this essay, I have tried to go through as many of them as I could find. Apart from many other allied issues they talk about, the central concern in all of them, in my view, is whether there is a necessity or any usefulness of literature in general, and English literature in particular, being produced by Kashmiri writers. Different artists, at different times, have variously taken up the question of purpose of art. As such, I am not particularly interested in adding anything to this debate. Nevertheless, what I am interested in is taking a step back, and asking, “What is this ‘literature’ we are talking about?”  

In order to arrive at the purpose or usefulness of anything, I suggest we must first know what the thing itself is. The problem we encounter here is that literature, and even Literature for that matter, is usually understood as an established fact whose meanings, parameters, and boundaries are well defined. What needs to be said though is that this is only ‘our assumption’ of what literature or Literature is. When I say ‘our assumption’ I don’t necessarily mean our individual assumption. It is rather a collective belief, and that is exactly why we think it is a given.

In the course of this essay, I will try to analyze four different assumptions of what literature is from two essays and two interviews that have appeared in the past few months in various publications in Kashmir. In doing so, I want to demonstrate that there is no “universal” meaning of literature, as has been amply discussed and debated by various literary theorists. More importantly, and this is of my paramount interest, our understanding of literature is significantly linked to what and how we read and write, and therefore further goes on to decide its purpose. If fiction, for example, is literature for me then I will give more importance to fiction if I decide to read or write something. Similarly, then, I will try to evaluate the usefulness of fiction vis-à-vis Kashmir.

This is exactly what Muzaffar Karim does in his article titled “Kashmir: ‘The Uselessness of Literature'” published in Greater Kashmir on 16 October 2017. After being asked, “what will literature do when people are being brutally murdered,” he thinks of how Scheherazade saved her life by narrating stories to King Sheheryar. Muzzafar’s answer is particularly directed to his student’s question who while lamenting on the uselessness of literature in Kashmir is basically asking about Shakespeare and Donne. The student’s question and Muzaffar’s answer therefore stand on a particular idea of literature: poems and stories of faraway lands garbed as universal tales.

Muzaffar further goes on to provide a defense of consuming literature in Kashmir with remarkable lucidity. He is dismayed that people have lost the belief in the ability of words and language. He stresses on preserving the fictionality of fiction. Further, like Barthes, he targets the author-figure and tries to elevate the position of the critic and criticism.

I am least interested in whether one agrees or disagrees with his arguments. I only want to highlight two points here that serve my line of argument.

First, throughout the essay, he is defending fiction. For this, he gives examples of numerous fiction writers such as Maria Vargas Llosa, Virginia Woolf, Kafka, Marquez and Dostoevsky. One can even add Scheherazade to this list. Moreover, he uses the word fiction and its derivatives at least thirteen times in just three paragraphs. He also uses David Foster Wallace’s quote "I just think that fiction that isn’t exploring what it means to be human today isn’t good art" to state what fiction is in terms of what it is not. Again, why this is particularly important is that if we invariably think of literature as fiction, then fiction is what we will be interested in.

Second, in the latter half of the essay, he talks about the need of criticism to evaluate the literary works produced by Kashmiri writers. This is interesting because hardly anyone ever talks about this. We read a lot of reviews of books in newspapers and magazines but seldom do we ever read any evaluative essays of the same works. This is again because we think we have to write books to produce literature, which will in turn guarantee us a place on the larger English literary scene. We don’t think of essays about other literary works published in magazines as literature, and therefore we hardly spend any time on writing or reading them. When we think of literature, we think of books stacked and piled in bookstores and our personal libraries. We don’t think of literature as a whole nexus of writing, reading, evaluating, and feeding back into those works. At most we think of criticism as criticism, not literature, and that is exactly how we diminish the importance of criticism.

More than a week later, Huzaifa Pandit responded to Muzaffar Karim in the same newspaper. If Muzaffar was defending fiction and criticism, Huzaifa rather eloquently defended Resistance Literature. However, upon some deeper investigation, one feels that he is not exactly defending Resistance Literature, but literature produced by Kashmiri writers because it is Resistance Literature. If until now the term literature seemed loaded, the complex nature of the term resistance added to it increases the complexity manifold.

Huzaifa uses the term resistance or its derivatives almost the same number of times as Muzaffar uses the word fiction. However, the difference is that when he talks about Resistance Literature he doesn’t use it as a synonymous of literature, as Muzaffar almost does with fiction and literature. He has clearly demarcated the two: Resistance Literature is literature, but not all literature can be passed off as Resistance Literature. Towards the latter half of the essay we are told that literary production in Kashmir must be seen through the prism of Resistance Literature “that subsumes other yardsticks of formal literary evaluation so dear to us in the academy.” If one wonders how to determine what counts as Resistance Literature, then the answer is somewhat simple: “It is a literature determined by and manifesting a clear political position. It is partisan and clearly takes positions rather than being objective or neutral.”

Huzaifa never conflates Resistance Literature and literature anywhere in the essay, which is how it should be. However, he does believe that there is something inherent in certain kind of literature (like having a clear political position) that makes it Resistance Literature. This is exactly the point I am trying to make: that there is nothing inherently literary about any text, but as a collective enterprise, at certain points of time in history at certain places, we do accept that something constitutes the “literariness” of literature, and “that thing” will go on to determine how we produce and consume literature. Having a clear political position, in this case, is necessary for writing Resistance Literature since that is what determines the category, and therefore consciously or unconsciously, this will determine what and how we read and write.

If literature and Resistance Literature weren’t complex enough, Shahnaz Bashir tells us rather unapologetically in an interview published in Wande Magazine that 'writing serious literature is resistance'. One does not even need to read between the lines to understand what constitutes literature for Shahnaz Bashir; he simply gives himself away. If Huzaifa Pandit provided us with some explanation as to what constitutes Resistance Literature, Shahnaz Bashir not only takes literature as a given, but confounds it by adding “serious” to it and then goes on to form an equation where serious literature is equal to resistance.

For Shahnaz Bashir, writing is “inherently” and “naturally” resistance. However, he is not talking about Resistance Literature. He is simply talking about resisting “certain notions, certain conformism which any society can be replete with.” The point is clear then: “serious literature” is literature, and what is not serious is either trivial literature or not literature at all. Even though he doesn’t provide any explanation as to what constitutes serious literature, he is very clear that what he is writing is serious literature. I don’t wish to agree or disagree with his idea of literature here, but the idea that there is something inherently and naturally trivial or serious about some kind of literature is an alarming one for it can relegate a whole category of writers and writings to dungeons and elevate the other kind of writers and writings to bookshelves.

Further, in an answer to a question on the ‘body of work produced by writers who are not from Kashmir’ in the same interview, Shahnaz Bashir says, “Fiction which is based on research is never as universal as the one based on one’s intimate experience which one can have only by belonging. It’s dangerous to write about cultures one doesn’t belong to. About feelings one doesn’t feel. About people one doesn’t speak the language of. It can never become universal literature.” Here, the idea being given is that there is something called ‘universal literature’ which can be written only if you have experienced what you are writing about. It is almost like saying Brahmins cannot or should not write about Dalits and that men cannot or should not write about women, and similarly men cannot or should not write about half-mothers.

Therefore the notion that one must have experienced what one is writing about can have serious implications on what we decide to read and write. Again, there is hardly any point in contesting whether such an idea is right or wrong, because anyway we are going to have some or the other notions of what literature is, but at the same time one must be able to see how Literature as well as literature is a construct and not a solid brick out there.

Finally as one comes to Mir Khalid’s interview in Kashmir INK, the notion that canon in general and Western canon in particular is literature and only one who reads and follows the same can write literature is propounded. Accordingly, an English novel from Kashmir can only be called literature if The Guardian compares that novel to one by Dickens, or Hardy, or Woolf, or in the case of Mir Khalid, with Ondaatje and Ishiguro. Similarly, the “poetry dabblers” of Kashmir must read Emily Dickinson and the “prose aficionados” must know “who David Remnick is and what Kazuo Ishiguro’s work corpus entails.” The idea given here is that the canonized works of “established” authors is literature. The point that our idea of literature impacts what we read and write is illustrated by the fact that Mir Khalid openly propagates reading a few authors he mentions and then following the framework they have provided while writing. The usefulness of literature, again, will be evaluated accordingly. If the literature produced by Kashmiri writers follows this framework then it is useful. If they digress from the same then it will amount to production of “lightweight” literature.

As I have tried to demonstrate, Literature or literature in these four cases means somewhat or altogether different things. One can perfectly argue that all of them are right and none of them is wrong, and I wouldn’t disagree to that. The point is that Literature isn’t as stable a word as its dictionary meaning sounds. However, most importantly, how we understand the term has significant consequences for the ways in which literature is produced, consumed, and evaluated; and more importantly, whether it will be produced, consumed, and evaluated at all.

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