Shubnum Khan
Shubnum Khan

The glamourisation of the writer

By Shubnum Khan

When I was young and easily influenced by the likes of Chicken Soup for the Soul and Dr Phil, I scratched a line in my Life Goal book: Publish a novel by 25. And while I even surprised myself when I did it, I think it proves that all my life I wanted to be a writer. Growing up, I thought I knew what being a writer entailed: shunning the world, spending hours behind locked doors searching for words to find meaning in this chaotic world and eating from cans of tuna as my husband and I counted out the rent money mournfully. But it all wouldn’t matter because we had the words to keep us alive. And while I acknowledge my imagination’s flair for the dramatics I was still rather surprised at how reality compared to my expectations.

I recently returned from Asia’s largest literary festival in Jaipur where I was a speaker. This was not my first literary festival but certainly one of the biggest. Every night after the festival had ended, I decked out in party dresses, hobnobbed with film stars, nibbled on prawn cocktails and returned to my five star hotel after attending a variety of lavish authors’ and publishers’ parties. And while I enjoyed myself immensely, I often found myself wondering what all this meant.

I don’t ordinarily hang out with many writers, let alone nearly 200 of them at once. So it was quite an experience to be thrown in the company of some of the world’s most illustrious writers. Authors, I find, sit in circles, shuffling their shoulders as they delicately flick away cigarette butts. They are messy beings who slosh their drinks as they gesticulate wildly (I suspect the words are trying to find their usual route out through the fingers). Surprisingly they are quite cliquey creatures, sitting with those they know and politely ignoring those they don’t. They laugh raucously at inside jokes. Being antisocial with the added disadvantage of not being a smoker or drinker, I sit in corners of the authors’ lounge and sip hot chais as I observe the observers. They throw the word ‘fuck’ around liberally in conversation and often seem to be discussing lewd jokes. The men are generally scruffy, the women elegant, and there is this thread of excited anticipation pulled tautly through everyone. I assume it accounts for the shuffling shoulders. The young people are especially supercilious. They sit huddled together in groups and are often in the company of young journalists. Their conversation is tight and witty; it’s like watching a ping pong ball being slammed across the table, a comment about pop culture leads to a witty remark about a politician to the state of Syria’s government to the reason why Tolstoy should be part of the curriculum at schools. If you can’t keep up you’re quickly flung to the sidelines where you watch anxiously with the others.

(Of course I’m generalising but it’s my job as a writer to generalise in such a way that it becomes truth.)

Some of the most distinguished people I met at the festival have also been the most humble. Some of the least famous people I met have been the most vain. They are the ones constantly updating their Twitter statuses, mingling only with the famous authors and literally turning their nose up at you (I had an author do this to me on a bus – it was a curious sight). You get all kinds at the festival, from those who think their words are a gift to humanity to those who are so kind and sincere that you immediately fall in love with them.

I was referred to as the ‘baby’ at the festival, a term which could be considered endearing and insulting at once. I optimistically opt for endearing but I’m warned immediately by others that writers here can build characters for themselves much like how they do in their novels and that I must be aware that there is an air of performance to everything. Certainly there is an element of acting to the event; it’s easy to be swept away by the constant media attention, the photo-snapping and the school children breathlessly requesting autographs. Writers, with the help of such literary festivals, have suddenly been celebritised.

It’s quite bizarre. Most writers are solitary beings who wrote because they were sent to sit in the margins for too long and now suddenly they’re thrown into the light where their straggly hair and obscure ideas are celebrated.

Of course it is welcoming to finally see the glamourisation of books; writers, along with fine artists have always fallen into the shadow of their vociferous siblings, actors and singers in the family of arts. And with the help of such literary festivals, books have suddenly become fashionable. If social media, which was abuzz with excitement in anticipation for the Jaipur Literature Festival, is indicative of how literary inclined people have grown then the celebritisation of writing is a growing phenomenon that can be viewed favourably.

What perhaps sparked an uncomfortable feeling for me was hearing a writer on stage say, “What do I know, I’m just a poor writer.” That fawning disclaimer is exactly the kind of pretentious cliché we cannot hide behind anymore. Today it’s hip to be a writer. A writer’s opinion can affect the world – posterity even. The truth is many writers today are just not the struggling artists they’d like to paint themselves to be. And perhaps this is where my internal dilemma sparks. As more and more literary festivals begin to litter the calendar I wonder if this is changing the nature of writing. Are people writing as a struggle for truth or, as one writer on stage jokingly answered when asked why he writes, “I wrote to be invited for the Festival.” Which leads to my next concern about the change in writing: as the celebritisation of writers grow, there’s increasingly this push to produce more content and ‘stay visible’. People are constantly haranguing me about when my next novel will be published as if I’m a machine that must churn out more or risk becoming obsolete in this fast paced world. And while that’s probably true, I would rather remain relatively unknown than produce a shoddy second novel that seems to be the appalling growing fashion. Increasingly just like Hollywood, we’re the ageing movie stars that must take B-grade roles in romantic comedies just so that we’re not forgotten.

In this desperate bid to be remembered, young entrepreneurs, including authors, are frenetically spreading their product over every possible social platform and initially even I jumped on the aggressive marketing bandwagon. And yet I understand why products, including books must be paraded like cheap whores and flaunted about in networking events because in this commercialised world you have to sell yourself like a commodity or risk obliteration. I have the habit of talking up the other author on my panels and I’ve always been warned afterward that I’m supposed to be selling my book, not the other person’s. I feel constant pressure to market my novel, and many have already called me foolish for not utilising my public platforms more effectively. Very soon someone is going to offer me my own reality TV series to boost my career and then I’ll really be in trouble.

For me, writers are the ones who struggle to seek freedom and who will never use pretence in their eternal quest for the truth. Writers are supposed to be real but increasingly I find myself in an unreal world where you have to know the right people, say the right things and play the best part.

And so I think it boils down to this for me: do we produce to stay in the game or do we produce because we are dying and scraping out the words from within us is the only way to stay alive?

Shubnum Khan once was intelligent, romantic and naive. Then she went into the world. Now she writes to make sense of it. Don’t expect the usual political stuff. She hates expectations, except perhaps, Great Expectations, which is one of her favourite novels.

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