The missing post: an explanation

If you look for Chapter 24 in the 4th volume of Tristram Shandy, you will find it missing. If you glance at the page numbers, you will find a gap of ten pages. At the start of Chapter 25, Sterne explains:

— NO doubt, Sir — there is a whole chapter wanting here — and a chasm of ten pages made in the book by it — but the book-binder is neither a fool, or a knave, or a puppy — nor is the book a jot more imperfect, (at least upon that score) — but, on the contrary, the book is more perfect and complete by wanting the chapter, than having it, as I shall demonstrate to your reverences in this manner  —

He then spends the rest of this chapter telling us what had been in the previous chapter that he had decided to omit. And then, he explains why he had to omit that previous chapter: it was not because it was not good enough, but, rather, that it was too good:

[The omitted chapter] appears to be so much above the stile and manner of anything else I have been able to paint in this book, that it could not have remained in it, without depreciating every other scene ; and destroying at the same time that necessary equipoise and balance, (whether of good or bad) betwixt chapter and chapter, from whence the just proportions and harmony of the whole work results.

Now, I wish I could claim as much for my own missing chapter – the post that had appeared here yesterday afternoon, and, having been up here for an hour or so for all to see, mysteriously vanished. Now that it has vanished, there is no reason why I shouldn’t make grand claims for it – that it was written in a style and manner so much above anything else I have written here, that retaining it would have destroyed the inner harmony of the blog, and so on. But no: the sad truth is that it was an intemperate post written in a fit of extreme annoyance; and that, once I had calmed down, I realised that it did little to advance the image I try to project of myself of a jovial, avuncular figure, radiating to all a genial goodwill and a Pickwickian benevolence.

Or something like that.

This is the article that had aroused my ire. I have had occasion to take issue with Robert McCrum before, but on that occasion, I had been merely amused by what I took to be the foolishness of his writing; on this occasion, I was angry, and one really should not write when one is angry. Or, at least, having written, one should not reach for that “publish” button.

This particular article of his is, admittedly, jokey, and not intended to be taken seriously, but nonetheless, I couldn’t overlook what he had to say about Indian literature:

This could be seen as a subset of either Booker lit or Commonwealth Lit, and is represented by Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh and many others. For a while, it seemed as if the English literary tradition would be sustained exclusively by writers from the sub-continent.

That the only Indian writings one need bother with are those written in a Western language for a predominantly Western readership, while those written in one those funny little languages of theirs need not even be acknowledged, is a contention widely accepted though never explicitly stated amongst Western literati; and, for me, it is the proverbial red rag to a bull: I find it offensive and insulting – especially when it comes from someone who had been editor-in-chief at Faber & Faber for twenty years, and really should know better. And in immediate response, I wrote a post that was written in heat, and generated little light. I shouldn’t have done

In any case, I have already had a bit of a rant about this matter only quite recently.

The last word should, I think, go to Laurence Sterne:

— I question first by the bye, whether the same experiment might not be made as successfully upon sundry other chapters —

If there is any other post that you think this blog would be better without, do please let me know!

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17 responses to this post.

  1. I actually saw the post as I subscribe by email. When I came over to comment “Poof!”, it was gone. I thought that it was actually well reasoned.

    I certainly understand your frustration with the lack of attention given to literature written in Indian languages. You various comments on this literature has actually sparked my own curiosity about it.

    Reply

  2. Damn it, here I was hoping for another one of your great rants, and nothing!

    Reply

  3. I second Brian’s reaction: I wanted to say that perhaps the word genre was really directed to bookshop stocking–ie shelf space for books in translation.

    Reply

    • Yes, one needs some sort of taxonomy to organise books in a bookshop, and direct people towards what they like and away from what they don’t. But I do feel that the focus on the concept of genre in literary discourse but serves to create literary ghettoes. However, it was not so much the focus on genres in McCrum’s article that got me going: that, after all, was intended as a joke. What made me lose my temper was his unthinking equation of “Indian literature” exclusively with books written in non-Indian languages. I do not, for instance, see how someone like Rushdie, who has lived virtually his entire life in the West, writes in a non-Indian language, and who, indeed, doesn’t even know an Indian language, can be considered not merely an “Indian” writer, but, indeed, the principal representative of contemporary Indian literature. Not that I object to books written in English by Indian authors, or by authors of the Indian diaspora; and neither do I doubt that there is much talent there. It’s the usurpation of these writers of the “Indian literature” tag, while Indian literature itself if not so much as acknowledged, that frustrates me.

      See what you’ve done now? You’ve set me off again! 🙂

      Reply

      • I’ve never read Rushdie so I can’t comment on him as an author, but don’t you think that that sort of thing happens in other cultures too? People become the ‘spokesperson’ for a culture and it’s quite absurd.

        I can see the marketing point of genre, but the term has a way of diminishing books down to the salient characteristics. The best books seem to transcend genre anyway. I can’t believe the rubbish tagged as ‘literary’fiction these days. And what’s that supposed to mean anyway?

      • Hello Guy,

        Yes, agreed, certain people are always picked out as “spokespersons”. But when someone has lived most of their lives, or even all their lives, in the West, and when, quite often, they do not even know any Indian language, one does wonder what possible credentials they could have to be considered spokespersons for India, or representatives of Indian literature. Every now and then on British television, or in the UK papers, we’ll find one of these people gamely pretending to be an expert on Indian affairs, or on Indian literature, and quite frequently, they know even less about Indian culture than I do!

        I don’t mean to pick out Rushdie for attack, by the way. It is true that I have not enjoyed what I’ve read of him, but I am happy to put that down to personal taste. I do dispute, however, the description of him as an Indian writer: we might as well refer to Saul Bellow as a Russian writer. Rushdie has lived virtually his entire life in the West, writes in English predominantly for a Western readership, and, by his own admission, knows no Indian language well enough to read its literature. Rushdie may well be a fine writer – I offer no judgement on that – but by presenting the works of writers such as Rushdie as “Indian literature”, other writings that have a stronger claim to that description are being marginalised and ignored.

        On the question of genres, I agree with you entirely. it may e convenient for marketing, but once it becomes a major concern in literary discourse, then we run into problems, I think,. And the concept of a “literary genre” is absurd: I had a good rant about this some time back.

  4. Posted by Malcolm on November 24, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    I thought something had gone wrong with the site or my computer and was going to check with Himadri about this. It didn’t sound too much of a rant to me, though I would expect a writer writing for an English audience to concentrate on writing in English. It is the same here, I suppose, for Maori writing. It doesn’t get much attention if it’s not written or translated into English. But of course the audience for Maori writing is very small, whereas for various Indian languages it will be extremely large. But there still won’t be a huge audience in England for this writing.

    Reply

    • Books written in Indian languages, Even when translated into English, are routinely ignored in the West.

      Translations into English do exist for the Indian market: it is easier to translate into English than into various Indian languages. But Western publishers don’t even want to look at them. In the West, the term “Indian literature” refers exclusively to works written in English, and mainly for the Western readership.

      As a consequence, you can walk into any large bookshop in the English-speaking world and find translations from Japanese, Spanish, Arabic, Turkish, etc etc. But not from Indian languages.

      Reply

  5. This was the best explanation for killing a post that I have ever come across. The use of Sterne was a fine surprise. Now I wish I had written an angry post.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on November 25, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    Obviously, everything written that is of merit and quality should be encouraged to be read and admired by all of us

    . Sadly, although of Bengali origin like you, I cannot read or write the language, but do speak it a little. Effectively this makes me illiterate as a Bengali and an Indian, since I don’t speak, read or write any other Indian languages either.

    This means I have to read Indian writers in English, whether translations or original. I know that I am missing out greatly but I am grateful that there is good writing from India written in English or translated. I particularly admire Rohinton Mistry.

    Could there not be a danger, with the specific matter of language, of detracting from either end, as it were? If you start championing those who write in English only you are losing too much that has been written in Indian languages, much of which is truly great.

    However, if we go the other way, we may not be doing justice to a lot of authors who have written in English, possibly for financial reasons, but who are still excellent.

    Should we undermine good writers for trying to make money or gain acknowledgement for their skills? For example, I think Mistry would be a fine writer whatever language he wrote in, Seth a good one, Rushdie a less than average one. All three calculatingly write to attract a readership outside their own country.

    Should this effect our opinion of them?

    Also, what can a publisher who publishes material in the English language be expected to do about writing in other languages, really?

    Reply

    • Hello Shonti, I was hoping you’d see this.

      You say, quite rightly, that “if you start championing those who write in English only you are losing too much that has been written in Indian languages, much of which is truly great”. I would modify “much that has been written in Indian languages” to “that which has been written, and continues to be written, in Indian languages”. And yes, I agree. this is very much the state of affairs as it stands now.

      You continue: “However, if we go the other way, we may not be doing justice to a lot of authors who have written in English, possibly for financial reasons, but who are still excellent.” My immediate answer to this is that there is currently no danger whatever of “going the other way”. If there were, I’d no doubt be writing posts bewailing that Indian writing in English is being neglected. But I don’t know that, given the current situation, we need be too worried by a possibility that is so very unlikely.

      In a comment earlier on this thread, I had said this:

      Not that I object to books written in English by Indian authors, or by authors of the Indian diaspora; and neither do I doubt that there is much talent there. It’s the usurpation of these writers of the “Indian literature” tag, while Indian literature itself if not so much as acknowledged, that frustrates me.

      It is not that I object to the presence of writing in English by authors from India, or of the Indian diaspora; and neither do I deny that many of them are indeed talented. What bothers me is the “usurpation”: what bothers me is that these writers, and these writers only, are seen as representatives of Indian literature.

      I would also dispute whether writers of the Indian diaspora can properly be regarded as “Indian writers”, especially when, like you and me, they have lived much or indeed all their lives in the West. It amuses me – and angers me at the same time – that whenever Western newspapers, or Western television programmes, need someone to comment on some matter relating to India, they get someone who, like ourselves, have lived all our lives in the West, and who know and understand very little of the issues they have been asked to comment on. I feel like saying : “Why didn’t they ask me? I can spout ignorant nonsense just as well!” That such people who are about as ignorant of India as I am are seen as representatives of Indian literature is both sad and farcical in equal measure.

      Reply

      • Incidentally, anyone interested in modern and contemporary Bengali literature in translation may be interested in this site:

        http://arunavasinha.in/

        This is the site of Arunava Sinha, who has translated, amongst others, My Kind of Girl by Buddhadeva Bose, which I wrote about here recently. The site contains not only a list of other titles translated by Mr Sinha, but also generous extracts from his translations, and also complete translations of shorter fiction. Why Mr Sinha should make the fruits of his labour available for free, I have no idea, but this is well worth a look.

  7. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on November 26, 2012 at 12:35 pm

    It has been a cop-out by the networks, newspapers and most disappointingly, the publishing industry of the west to use these writers as representatives of India. TThe worst aspect for me is how they have a propensity to depict the poor or ordinary Indians as somewhat jokey or lacking.. which is the standard template for the elite in India regard them.

    Everyone in the west: media, politicians etc still seem to require ‘representative’ or ‘leading’ voices to consult. It’s like you could only find out anything about the U.K. from Hilary Mantel or Boris Johnston because everybody else is ignorant and backward.

    I recently caught an episode of a Michael Wood historical series on India. I thought it was perfunctory, as it it would enevitably be with six one hour episodes, but very informative, especially considering I did a bit of studying of the period 1857-1947 for a history degree..

    Reply

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