Through most of literary history, great writers have either tended to look down upon the art of storytelling or have regarded it with ambivalence. We can trace this attitude all the way back to Don Quixote’s plotless meanderings. Or even further back, to Shakespeare’s rambles and language games. More recently, the Modernist assault on narrativity seemed to have put paid to our storytelling instinct for good. And when James Joyce said that all stories should begin with the phrase “once upon a time”—the opening words of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—everyone understood that he was just having a laugh at the expense of the raconteur. 

Even those among modern writers who were interested in the story saw it as an extinct form. The story to them was an old-world relic that was out of place in the complex of modernity. Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller” interprets the death of the story as the necessary consequence of the birth of the modern era, in which the “communicability of experience is decreasing”. Benjamin’s essay celebrates the simple pleasures of reading the Russian writer Nikolai Leskov’s stories, by identifying “a new beauty in what is vanishing”.  

Then there is Virginia Woolf’s essay on Chaucer, which indulges a similar nostalgia the modern writer felt for the straightforward tale. Chaucer, Woolf writes, “has pre-eminently that story-teller’s gift, which is almost the rarest gift among writers at the present day”. 

So this essentially was the modern stance towards the story: informed by a belief that the talent for spinning yarns, a vestige from a more innocent past, was the rarest of gifts. The story, in this view, transcended all artistic ideals, even if, for the writer, it meant catering to popular tastes. As the man on the golf course in E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1927) says, “You can take your art, you can take your literature, you can take your music, but give me a good story.” 

Most publishers and authors today are on the same page with Forster’s philistine golfer when they endorse the story as the sine qua non of literature. Indeed, the term storyteller itself has become a badge of honour, flaunted by representatives of pulp fiction and high literature alike. Susan Sontag, of all people, had once, late in her life, proclaimed, “I am a storyteller”. A scandalous admission, given the experimental and edgy tone of her fiction. 

It’s in this context that the title of the recent literary symposium held in Delhi, Against Storytelling, begins to resonate with a somewhat radical ring. Sontag, of course, is in that title. Her brilliant essay, “Against Interpretation”, was the standout hatchet job of its generation—an attack on all narrative forms that submit to conventions and provoke easy answers to the question, “what is it about”. For a writer to be against storytelling, then, is in a way to preclude such boring questions, and to say with Sontag that “art is not about something, it is something”. 

It has been the writer and critic Amit Chaudhuri’s lifelong concern to locate the literary somewhere outside the narrative arc. He is the one who put together Against Storytelling, with the help of his associates and friends, and with a view to creating an alternative setting where literary ideas can be discussed away from the tamasha of literature festivals.

“At a certain point in history,” Chaudhuri said at the seminar, “people started saying, we are born storytellers. And they said it with an air of satisfaction.” This point in history, according to him, coincides with the dawn of globalisation. So the reference is to the 1980s and ’90s, which also marked the hijacking of the literary arts, and pretty much every other area of human life, by the market. This was when publicists and publishers were merging into one corporate entity. Books were beginning to be viewed as a commodity. The sales pitch for literature and toothpaste were becoming interchangeable (“it isn’t just worth buying, but is also good for you”). And the story began to re-emerge on the literary stage as a tool for moral guidance, and as the writer’s main stock-in-trade.  

“One began to hear that storytelling is the primal human and communal function. That we’ve been telling each other stories from the beginning of time… No, we haven’t been telling each other stories from the beginning of time,” said Chaudhuri. There is also an orientalist aspect to this idea that irritates him. The idea that non-Western traditions are somehow more story-oriented than others. “To me,” Chaudhuri said, “this doesn’t ring true of non-Western cultures, of Indian culture, where the gestural or the synechdocal are such important ways even of relating an epic.” 

Examples abound. Chaudhuri read out an excerpt from the Kena Upanishad during his talk on Day-2 of the symposium, for a taste of the synechdocal in the old epics. (Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”, a passage from one of James Salter’s books, and a scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo were among the reference points for Chaudhuri’s wonderful talk: the eclectic range on display here being typical of his work and thought.)

A poet might find it easier to break free of the shackles of the narrative form. Actually, the anti-story sensibility might itself be poetic in nature. At the Delhi symposium, there were other poets—apart from Chaudhuri—in attendance: Geoffrey O’Brien and Charles Bernstein; Tiffany Atkinson (who delivered an engaging lecture on embarrassment and poetry using one of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems as an example); and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. 

“I was reading Geoffrey O’Brien’s introduction to Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights,” Mehrotra said, “and I came across a phrase I’ll never forget: live moments. You don’t need anything in literature but these live moments.” The story Mehrotra read out at the seminar—originally by the Hindi writer Vinod Kumar Shukla and translated into English by Mehrotra himself—was full of such live moments; and maybe we need a term other than “short story” to categorise such texts. 

Just as we might need a term other than “symposium” to categorise such events. The air of academe attaches too thickly to the word “symposium”. This was, of course, an academic event, co-organised by the University of East Anglia, where Chaudhuri teaches, and by Delhi’s Ashoka University, whose Saikat Majumdar was among the speakers here. 

There were other academics, too, like the JNU professor Uday Kumar (who made an interesting point, in relation to Dalit autobiographies, about how the story form might be inadequate for communicating certain extreme human experiences). I am not entirely sure if he was the one who dropped the word “aporia” during one of the sessions. Maybe it was Atkinson (or was it Majumdar?). But I was glad that I wasn’t the only one who had latched onto that term. “All these academics frighten me,” the writer Anjum Hasan said to me before her talk. “The words that are being used. Aporia!” Hasan’s talk on Kiran Nagarkar was itself far removed from the jargon of academic theory. So, to be fair, this was that rare academic event that makes room for the non-scholarly. 

Towards the end, Against Storytelling left you with too many ideas to process. That explains why I have been gliding over all those names and talks. Maybe the ideas would be better engaged with when the lectures delivered here are published in book form, which happens to be the plan. (Literary Activism, edited by Chaudhuri and published by Oxford University Press, was the result of a seminar of the same name, organised more or less by the same group of people who worked on Against Storytelling). But it would be wrong to view this event simply as a forum where ideas are exchanged—where writers say their piece, eat their meal, sign their book and make their exit. I think there’s a political purpose to Against Storytelling. In the sense that it can be viewed as a sort of collective statement made to a demographic majority by the marginalised: we, too, exist. After all, how many writers do you know who reject both Sontag’s high regard for the story and Benjamin’s nostalgia for it? 

Replies to “Literature is not the sole preserve of the storyteller”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

*

*