I come before you in this essay without any intellectual pretensions whatever, because that is precisely what I will try to probe here, whether certain varieties of contemporary and short writing, inter alia, can be considered representations of literature. So, I begin with the fundamental question, ‘What constitutes literature?’ Conventionally, one may stick to traditions of art forms, writing mainly, that are beautiful and pleasing to read and thought provoking, stand the test of time, and appeal to aesthetics. This is what we universally agree upon, the definition of literature we are taught in school, and one we have consciously and subconsciously imbibed and one we are expected to subscribe to. Fair enough proposition, nonetheless under the title of ‘Literature : short and contemporary’ one could question this premise.
We could begin with the proposition whether any writing in any publication, print or online, that is short in length and has literary merit akin to conventional literature as defined above can be satisfactorily categorized as ‘short and contemporary literature.’ As an ex journalist, I have wondered if good journalism, by definition short and contemporary, fulfills the definition of literature. After all, we have been taught in media school that journalism is as good as headlines and bytes and that what is read with interest today will grace the wastepaper basket tomorrow. One of my teachers would trenchantly advise us, “This is journalism, not literature, please write your ‘War and Peace’ elsewhere.” However when I think of the writings of Ryszard Kapuscinski, Tom Wolfe, George Orwell, Winston Churchill, Martin Bell and closer home MJ Akbar, Ashok Mitra and Khushwant Singh among others, I am compelled to put the traditional definition of literature to the test. I would defy anyone to say ‘The Soccer War’ by Kapuscinski is not literature or that the same does not apply to Tom Wolfe’s ‘Bonfire of The Vanities’ or ‘Byline’ by MJ Akbar or ‘Naturewatch’ by Khushwant Singh. When we were in school, it was also often advised to read editorials of the late Statesman editor, C R Irani, to learn good English. An editorial in an English newspaper, is by definition short and pertains to current affairs, however certainly I would submit many of Mr Irani’s writings would fit the bill for literary tastes. I would say the same for opinion editorials or opinion features in newspapers, and not only in English but in Bengali. I am quite sure they exist in other regional languages too. Many of these pieces, although touching upon burning issues of the day, stand the test of time and get collected in compendia or books that have substantive lasting literary value. I vividly remember that I was particularly moved by the literary allusions made by Amartya Sen in his defence of tribal activist Binayak Sen in The Telegraph where he invoked Rabindranath Tagore to defend his stance on Mr Sen’s imprisonment. I have also found very strong literary elements in the writings of Ashok Mitra in his English newspaper editorials.
In Bengali, there are substantive literary sections in newspapers and one newspaper firm in Kolkata attained repute by providing employment to artists and writers. Whilst writing features in a newspaper and earning their salary, they would be free to pursue their artistic pursuits. Joy Goswami, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay and Sunil Gangopadhyay, all writers of formidable repute, and individuals I have interacted personally with, fall in this category. They wrote and continue to write regular features in newspapers that have major literary value. Their enterprising efforts call into question the contention that what is written in newspapers is meant for the trash can the day after publication.
Does literature always have to be intricate and flowery to fit the definition of a class act? Must literature always be high brow or sophisticated or above the reach of the man in the street? I remember listening to Benjamin Zephaniah, the British poet in Kolkata at a packed auditorium where he made a comment that will stay with me for a lifetime. Speaking about comprehensibility in literature, he revealed to the audience that he was once criticized for his poetry by a literary friend who told him, “You know the problem with your poetry, Benjamin? People UNDERSTAND it!” Enjoying the uproarious laughter in the hall he went on to narrate his experience with this friend who took him to a poetry reading festival in New York where he “met this guy with his face buried in a book so deeply that I could not see his face and he read something I did not remotely understand. He closed the book and went away and he was DEEP!” Of course, Benjamin Zephaniah’s writings are short, easy to understand and many of them address contemporary issues, especially his incisive poems on animal rights and the problems faced by farm animals.
In one way or another, all literature is contemporary, because whatever an artist writes is a reflection of his times and is influenced as such to a large extent, the barometer of that writing attaining the status of literature perhaps lies in temporal life. This would be the same criteria for any form of modern writing of brevity to be considered as literature. How short is short though? The difference between a short story and a novel is sometimes blurred, one notable example being Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ that is considered to be both a short story and a novel. The same would apply to many writings of George Orwell, who has been described as a journalist par excellence, the war accounts of Martin Bell and reminiscences of Winston Churchill. The reputation of journalists like Alpha of the Plough and Robert Lynd stood on their lyrical compositions in newspapers of the period. They are still taught in English courses today.
Compendia of interviews also have considerable literary value as I found in a recently published Bengali self improvement book named ‘Jaya He’ edited by journalist Goutam Bhattacharya. A collection of interviews of twenty five celebrities, including actor Zeenat Aman, cricketer Rahul Dravid, footballer Diego Maradona, singer Enrique Iglesias and film director/actor Aparna Sen, among others, the book brings a very strong literary aspect in a novel format, that is, in presentation of both questions raised by the journalist and answers delivered by the interviewee.
I have also found short stories written by Jhumpa Lahiri, features of Arundhati Roy and Shashi Tharoor and sports commentaries by Simon Barnes very beautiful and profound indeed. Same applies to ‘Countdown’ by Amitav Ghosh on India Pakistan relations in the wake of the nuclear tests. These writings are contemporary and short, sometimes published in newspapers and periodicals, nonetheless they are literary productions all the same.
And this aspect of short and contemporary literature is not restricted to well known and famous writers, I have found many writings by so called commoners, very poignant and touching, some of them just narrations of personal experiences on many fora and periodicals, including online fora like Montreal Serai. I am therefore of the firm opinion that literature need not be incomprehensible, boring and restricted to classics and particular genres of books, it can also be manifested in newspaper editorials, features, poetry and short stories written by artists and authors, famous and unknown, in structures and media that may elude the expert eye. Long may this tradition continue.
1) Ashok Mitra is the former Finance Minister of West Bengal and columnist in the English newspaper, The Telegraph.
3) Gautam Bhattacharya is the sports editor of Anandabazar Patrika, the most popular Bengali news daily.
4) Aparna Sen is a renowned Bengali film actor and director.