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No prizes for second place

By October 30, 2017No Comments
Source: The Hindu

Expecting prizes alone to sustain literature is like expecting lit fests to be much more than just good parties with some writers present

In October 2007, when journalists waiting outside Doris Lessing’s London flat informed her that she had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, she had just emerged from a taxi with her son. “Oh, Christ,” she replied, and turned back to pay the taxi.

The video of her reaction is on the Internet, and it is a classic. Lessing doesn’t look so much like a famous writer who has just won the Nobel, as like someone’s adorable and exasperated grandmother. “It’s been going on now for 30 years. I can’t get more excited,” she says, waving off the mikes. “I’m sure you’d like some uplifting remarks.”

Lessing was 88 at the time. In over a century of the award’s existence, she was only the 11th woman to have won the Nobel. With her clear-sighted gaze, I don’t think she missed anything. I have no doubt she was happy to have won, but somehow I don’t think she was carried away.

Lessing and winning

Her acceptance speech later that year, called “On not winning the Nobel Prize”, is a deeply felt reflection on storytelling and the literary tradition. But in typical Lessing style, it is also unflinchingly honest, and asks uncomfortable questions about access, equity and value in literary culture. I reread it once a year, and it gives me hope.

It begins with a memory of a Zimbabwe school in the 80s. She is visiting a friend, a teacher from London, who now wants to ‘help’ Africa. But he does not know how. There is nothing in the school: no textbooks, no notebooks, no pens. The headmaster has made off with the school funds. Students are of all ages, because education is often interrupted and they must come to learn when they can. They cannot do homework because they have no electricity. Girls must do housework before coming to school and after they get back.

But miraculously, heartbreakingly, in the midst of it all, there is this: “As I sit with my friend in his room, people drop in shyly, and everyone begs for books. ‘Please send us books when you get back to London,’ one man says. ‘They taught us to read but we have no books.’ Everybody I met, everyone, begged for books.”

Unfortunately, there are few prizes for those whose voices are unheard. “I do not think many of the pupils of this school will get prizes,” reflects Lessing.

She then describes a visit to a privileged London school. She tells the students about her visit to the Zimbabwe school. After her talk, she asks the teacher how much the students use the library. “You know how it is,” replies the teacher.

Many of the boys have never read at all, and the library is only half used. “I’m sure that some of them will one day win prizes,” adds Lessing dryly.

I was reminded of Lessing’s speech when I read Amit Chaudhuri’s thoughtful essay published in The Guardian earlier this year about the Booker prize and its impact on writers. Chaudhuri writes about the absurdity of regarding the Booker prize, essentially a marketing exercise, as a way of judging a writer’s work. From the longlist to the shortlist to the bookies placing bets and then the final announcement, he says, it celebrates the market’s “convulsive metamorphic powers, its ability to confer success unpredictably.”

The Booker effect

The entire process treats the work of writing, publishing and being read like an elaborate marketing fairy tale. “What it creates is not so much a form of attention but a midnight ball… The announcement of the winner renders invisible, as if by a wave of the wand, the other shortlisted writers. The princess and the prince are united as if the outcome was always inevitable.”

Prizes are an important source of support for writers, who deserve the money and the sales; for readers who follow prize lists; and publishers who support the production and dissemination of the written word. But to expect prizes alone to sustain meaningful literary culture is like expecting lit fests to be much more than a good party with some writers present.

Chaudhuri doesn’t propose that the Booker should be done away with; what he is saying is that an alternative approach is also required, not in the form of yet another prize, but by writers reclaiming agency. And this can happen only by creating the space for, and engaging in, conversation and debate. Writers, he says, have ceded this space themselves.

A party for writers

I would add that not only writers but readers, too, must reclaim agency. It is tedious to hear that only prizes ‘get people reading’; it is patronising that people have to be ‘got’ to read; it is tiresome to hear that people read only for exams; it is also untrue.

We have only to look around us to see something happening. That, slowly, people are returning to print after the brief infatuation with ebooks; online bookstores are realising that they need to set up physical outlets; on one street in Bengaluru, there are three wonderful used-book stores, and they are flourishing.

Last year, a travelling bookshop from Bhubaneswar took a truck filled with books across the length and breadth India. For a few days, they were parked on the corner of Bengaluru’s Brigade Road, and it was wonderful. Every single book felt special because it had literally travelled across the country.

Community libraries are reappearing in urban neighbourhoods. On the Internet, people crowdsource small libraries for rural schools. One such crowdsourced library will come up in a border village in Rajouri.

At Deepalaya, a small, free community library in Delhi’s Sheikh Sarai, volunteers have signed up over a 1,000 members in two years; most have stayed on. Most of them are first-generation learners. Here is a real story from Deepalaya, shared on their Facebook page: Balmiki, one of the library’s young members, comes over at lunchtime everyday to read his favourite book, an NBT children’s biography of Dr. Ambedkar.

One day he can’t find it, so the librarians suggest another one, a picture book about Ambedkar, The Boy Who Asked Why. Balmiki checks out the book for the weekend.

On Monday, when he returns to the library, they ask him if he liked the book. Yes, says Balmiki, and shows them his notebook: he has copied the entire book, line by line.

This story, and the fact that there are little Balmikis seeking out and reading stories despite all odds, gives me hope.

Inside the pages of magazines and newspapers, in libraries big and small, at tiny independent publishers, at corner bookstalls, in universities, in coffee shops, at book clubs, on Internet magazines, on social media — we have only to open our eyes, and we see that there are readers everywhere.

Anna Karenina in Africa

Yes, I love that this year’s Man Booker prize-winning novel is about an American president sitting with his dead child inside a bardo, a Tibetan middle stage between two lives on earth, surrounded by the chattering voices of the dead. I love that the Man Booker International winner is one long, savage, heartbreaking monologue performed by a standup comic in a bar somewhere in Israel. I also know that I would have read the books anyway even if they had not won the prizes.

The activities of writing and reading have survived not just because of prizes and marketing exercises but also because of a more fundamental human urge for stories. Lessing describes this in her speech, with another story from southern Africa.

A young black woman with two children, is standing in line at an Indian store to collect precious water, reading a torn-off segment of Anna Karenina as she waits. (And how did that piece of Anna Karenina land up in the shop? A UN official had torn his book in three, explains Lessing, to make it easier to hold and read. Somehow, one chunk of the book had found its way here.) The girl sees a bit of herself in Anna. Isn’t that what literature does: show us a glimpse of the universal, what connects us and makes us human?

“I think it is that girl, and the women who were talking about books and an education when they had not eaten for three days, that may yet define us.”

When I read about that young African girl, I am reminded of another woman, far away on another continent. My mother was from the Doris Lessing generation of women who just got on with the work without making a project of it. For her, books were a part of daily life; she read whenever she could, she read whatever she wanted.

She carried a book in her handbag and her shopping bag, and taught us to do so. “You have to read to think,” she told us. She didn’t wait for a favourite reading corner or the right cushions or the right cup of tea, she just read. Rocking the grandchild to sleep with one hand, she had a book in the other.

Letters in the dirt

In the hospital waiting room, on the chemotherapy bed, sitting by the seaside balcony when she couldn’t sleep, she read. She read them all: thrillers and 19th century Russian novels and soft, small-format little magazines in Tamil from Matunga. She didn’t read for a book club or to attend an author’s reading. She read as if she wanted to consume all the books before she passed on.

Prizes and festivals make writing seem like just a jolly club, but it is not so: it is hard, lonely work, and hardest for the writers working in the most marginalised places. In her speech, Lessing talks of writers in Africa who taught themselves to read by reading the labels on jam jars, or from an encyclopaedia salvaged from a rubbish heap. “A difficult road to literacy, let alone to becoming writers.”

A huge achievement, and yet: writing on sheets of paper is one thing, publishing a book is another. Without support for their writing, without a literary ecosystem or glittering prizes, they struggle on.

And so do those, she says, who teach others to read: “I have seen a teacher in a school where there were no textbooks, not even a chalk for the blackboard. He taught his class of six to eighteen-year-olds by moving stones in the dust, chanting ‘Two times two is …’ and so on. I have seen a girl, perhaps not more than 20, also lacking textbooks, exercise books, biros, seen her teach the ABC by scratching the letters in the dirt with a stick, while the sun beat down and the dust swirled.”

These images are sobering reminders that to be able to write, and be published, and even to be able to read in a world where so many children have not even held a book in their hands, is a privilege that we should not take for granted. Stories are what keep us human and alive. We must keep looking for new ways to share those stories.

The author is in the IAS, currently based in Bengaluru.

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