Thursday, August 29, 2013

Killing the kitsch

I carry a new book presented to me by one of Kathmandu’s many writers back home almost everyday. The books are offered to me to be either reviewed or to publish a news of their release. As multitudes of books flow into my room, they scatter across the floor. Whenever I see the mess created by these books, I think of buying some shelves to keep them on. But do all of them deserve to be kept? Will I really read them in the future? If I am to be sincere, I may sound rather harsh. Except for a few, most of these books deserve to be dumped. Herein a question arises: Why do we have so many writers yet so few books worth reading?
I remember the term ‘kitsch’ here, used by cultural critic Michael Ryan in his essay Bodies and Things. Kitsch is a piece of art or an artefact that is made by imitating the superficial look of the original, more-acclaimed work. To make it clearer, let me borrow the lines of Ryan, where he illustrated the essence of kitsch with an example, “A sign of kitsch in furniture would be detailed moulding work that lacks the kind of fine detail that genuine handcrafted work possesses. Instead, this furniture is usually turned by machines that are incapable of that level of refinement of detail. It looked cheap and clumsy to anyone who is familiar with the appearance of the real thing (sic).” 
Almost all the books that I am given are no more than kitsch—superficial and hackneyed ideas poured into a book that not only lacks acute literary essence but also even basic writing skills. Readers who have access to the writings of many internationally-acclaimed authors would straightaway deride these books as cheap and clumsy and dump them aside. They would obviously say, “Why should I waste my time reading this when I  have a Marquez on my shelf?”
I love Nepali literature and have read more books in Nepali than in any other language. But if readers like me are only offered kitsch, there lies a danger that one day we will quit reading Nepali literature. For example, I was recently given a poetry anthology written by a columnist. The book could not hold my attention for more than 15 minutes. His poetry is but a cluster of grammatically-incorrect long sentences put on paper after breaking them into several short phrases. Other than its form, short phrases do not constitute poetry. His verses do nothing but repeat boring ideas of an idealistic thug. High-sounding, idealistic thoughts prevail throughout the book, but his writing is is so bland that I am reminded of a poem I wrote on ‘nationality’ in the fifth grade. Fortunately, the poem was rejected. 
I feel similarly about another award-winning book of essays. The essays in this book are on the same level as the literary essays that I wrote when I started practising writing for a local newspaper in my district. Fortunately, I was not given any award.
After these experiences, I am more sceptical of the sincerity of writers who are careless with their work. I have three main concerns. The first, how many of our writers take writing as a pursuit that requires one’s full attention, research, and a heightened sense of aesthetics? The second, don’t writers think of their readers when they decide to publish their work? Finally, are they sincere to themselves?
These questions don't seem to be heeded by organisations and committees which designate literary awards, nor do renowned Nepali writers who write blurbs full of praise for the books that I have cited above. The aforementioned poetry collection contains blurbs by some well-known names from Nepal’s modern literary fraternity. One by an award-winning writer reads like this, “A compelling collection of powerful verses; these poems are witnesses to the great changes our country is going through. It is a big contribution to Nepali literature.” How can anyone eulogise such a weak piece of writing? If I were him, I would rather ask the poet to concentrate on how to make his writing worth reading. If this was a first book, I would ask the poet to not rush to publication. Isn’t it the responsibility of established writers to guide those who aspire to be great writers? Eulogising their clumsiness will ultimately hinder the growth of Nepali literature.
The point is, writers need to practise their craft adequately before they decide to publish their works. We need to pay more attention to production and editing. Publishers need to reject works that require the writer to go back to the table. Writers need to understand that self-publishing a book doesn’t always mean the book is good. And established writers must be honest with new writers before committing to write a blurb; after all, there are many people who will buy the book because of the blurb. 
Indeed, there are promising writers in Nepali literature today striving to make a mark, which is where the current vibrancy of Nepali literature comes from. But if the current state of things continue, they will be shadowed in this worthless cacophony of ‘writers’ who don’t deserve the accolades they get.

 Posted on: 2011-03-19 09:16 (The Kathmandu Post)


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