Amitava Kumar’s latest book is seemingly about the craft of writing, but it rises above prescriptive lessons, emphasising instead its personal and literary dimensions, writes Vineet Gill.
Writing Badly is Easy
By Amitava Kumar; Publisher: Aleph; Pages: 298; Price: Rs 699
Reading may have lost its cultural appeal beyond retrieval, but strangely enough, writing still seems to be gaining ground as the defining pastime of our age. Actors, marketeers, prime ministers—everyone these days has a poet or storyteller in them, waiting not so much for inspiration as a sabbatical. In response to this near-graphomaniac surge, more books are being published than are being read. And these include more books about writing than ever before.
One of the opening epigraphs of Amitava Kumar’s Writing Badly is Easy comes from the American novelist Richard Bausch, who tells us that “Amazon.com lists 4,470 titles under the heading of How to Write a Book”. With the present book, Kumar has made his own ill-fitting contribution to the genre. Ill-fitting because it rises above the merely prescriptive, and takes us towards the personal, the anecdotal and the literary.
There are no creative-writing recipes in these pages (take two characters, add conflict to taste). Nor are there any market-savvy pointers (know your readership et cetera). The how’s of writing are only perfunctorily addressed in Kumar’s book. Not that there’s any other way. How does one write? Well, as the old formula goes, by applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. By sitting down to it every day and persevering. By routinising the struggle.
Many of the authors quoted here offer versions of the same advice: do it daily, even if it isn’t going too well. For a bad draft is better than no draft at all, and it’s easy enough to write badly. The rest depends on how much honing, polishing, rewriting and deleting your drafts can take. Such is the motivational drift of the book’s title, where the word “badly” is crossed out—a reminder that all successful writers are compulsive rewriters. Even Nabokov used to say, “My pencils outlast their erasers.”
The best books about writing are informed by a spirit of collaboration, in that they appear to have been written, owing to the abundance of quotes on every page, by more than one author. Writing Badly is Easy is aligned to the same polyphonic tradition. Almost every chapter here is buttressed with either quotes from published work, or extracts of interviews that Kumar had conducted while researching the book. The writerly wisdom on offer ranges from the poetic to the practical. There’s Emerson’s romantic call-to-arms: “The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when all your arrows are spent.” And only a few pages later, there’s critic Lis Harris’ helpful tip that writers ought “to think about oblique angles and fresh approaches to a subject…”
Kumar is among the few adherents of this angular approach in contemporary letters. As an imaginative writer, he has committed himself to exploring what the author David Shields has called “the frontiers between genres”. (Kumar’s previous novel, The Lovers, was one such free-form exploration.) And as a scholar, he has long championed voices our literary culture finds it hard to categorise—John Berger, V.S. Naipaul, Geoff Dyer and Teju Cole among others.
But besides the canonical—Susan Sontag is another figure that bulks large in this particular pantheon—Kumar is also sensitive to the peripheral. The Marathi writer Daya Pawar and the Tamil writer P. Murugan are subjects of two short but insightful chapters in this book. And among the most moving pieces collected here is the record of a visit Kumar once made, unannounced, to the little-known Bengali writer Subimal Misra’s home in Calcutta.
Misra is a maverick experimenter inspired by the films of Jean-Luc Godard. He writes stories that are formally complex and morally challenging. And he shuns the mainstream to the extent of setting “a suggested exchange amount” instead of a retail price on his books. When Kumar goes to see him, Misra is in poor health, “sitting up in bed, under a pink mosquito net, a quilt drawn around his shoulders”. A few nights before, he had fallen off the bed and, Kumar writes, “remained on the floor for hours”. There are moments in Writing Badly is Easy—there are many such moments—when the book shifts focus from matters of craft to the stuff of life, always an energising source of material for writers.
It’s difficult to pinpoint what makes a piece of writing work. But bad writing generally lacks life. Examples are all around us—from social media rants to bureaucratic patter. This context also elicits the inevitable discussion on academese. You attack or endorse it depending on whether you’re writing from within or outside the academy. A professor of English at Vassar College, Kumar, of course, is an “insider”. But as a creative writer and proponent of a clear, accessible prose style, he is also something of an outlier.
“To be inside and outside a position at the same time—to occupy a territory while loitering skeptically on the boundary—is often where the most intensely creative ideas stem from.” This Terry Eagleton quote is carried as a footnote in this book. But it actually deserves a more prominent spot, perhaps right up there with that Richard Bausch epigraph, not least because it reads like a statement of purpose issued by Kumar himself.
Indeed, the author’s conflicted loyalties in relation to academic culture are at the heart of Writing Badly is Easy. Most of the book is devoted to this topic. While Kumar is often impatient with the langue de bois of scholarly prose—“post-capitalist hegemony”, “the gendered body”, “normative logic”—he holds in high regard the “beautiful” complexity of academic writing and its commitment to intellectual heavy-lifting. He is well aware of the formidable contribution academics have made to the sphere of ideas. But he is equally alert to the fact that few academics in publishing history have been able to engage readers on the level of language. At one point towards the end of the book, Kumar writes, “…I’ve never copied a passage from a book of academic writing to save in my journal.” Thus, he throws in his lot with the writers and not the scholars of the world. Because writing well is mighty difficult.