An unambiguously good thing

February 16, 2014

An unambiguously good thing

I can probably count myself among the target consumers of a literary festival. I teach literature and ‘research’ it. I keep up with the literary trends. I join in the doleful chorus that there are not enough literary and cultural events, and the few happening around me do not offer me much to engage with.

So, a literature festival should be, for me, an unambiguously good thing. But it so happens that I am also well placed to be the typical critic of literary festivals. I am annoyed by their tokenism and their cronyism, their opportunist promotion of some types of literature at the expense of others. The discussions are often perfunctory enough to leave me dissatisfied, and in any case I’ve heard or read many of the participants before. In addition, since I tend to veer from being left-leaning (among non-lefties) to a friendly antagonist of the left (among my leftie friends), the charge that these events are elitist and commercialised has enough traction with me to make me uncomfortable.

I did go to the Karachi Literary Festival, and attended some of the panels there. And I’m still mulling over what I got out of it. Is it that no matter how jaded some writers sound on the page, in person they seem jaded in a different and more exciting way? Or is it that for all my impatience with literary debates that revolve around identity, authenticity, and the inadequacy of the reader, I still want, from time to time, to shake my head at a voice with a face rather than abandon a newspaper or magazine article in the middle? Whatever the reason, all things considered I’d go again, even if, the next time, I spend a little more time looking at the nice-looking well-dressed people there than attending the panels.

Whether in the moment of controversy one becomes a champion or enemy of the literary festival, perhaps it’s safe to say that going to one leads to mixed feelings. Literature (which covers writing, arts, politics, and ideas) festivals are not the best or the only form of engagement with whatever you want to call literature.

Yet, their popularity, not only in the subcontinent but elsewhere, is clear. This popularity will be read by some as ideological domination and others as a possibility for creating an alternative political identity, by yet others as a chance to forge a broader reading public. Such festivals will be entertainment for some and opportunities for cultural or social climbing for others. The people who organise them will be well-connected and energetic, and these apart from other faults, will make them suitable objects of resentment.

So, I got the buzz that one gets from participating in a popular event and felt the penitence one feels on having spent a lot of time on an unsatisfying one. It was interesting, after that, to read in this paper articles condemning the literature festival from a clearly ideological position as apolitical events masquerading as political, and as commodified capitalism trying to pass itself as off as progressive engagement. It was also reassuring to see social scientists and journalists step up once again to the duty of telling us the truth about literature and culture.

These concerns are valid and, no doubt, should be debated. However, a few observations:

The elitism is certainly there. However, we should consider that the majority of literary pursuits are conducted in contexts even more elitist than a literature festival (and I include classrooms here) which has the merits of being free and open to everyone. Consistency would demand that every context in which literature is discussed among a homogenous group that has more or less the same interests be one in which it cannot go beyond that context. This would hold equally for events run by progressive or working-class groups. But it is more usual to find literary and political discussion transcending its original context or being sought out by others who are excited by its novelty, by its coming from someone different from ourselves. Progressive thought particularly defies claims of ownership.

I am not attempting to overlook the elitism of certain contexts, including festivals, in which literature is discussed. But, also, neither the form nor the context of an event can determine completely what someone who is present there will get out of it, because that simply won’t be identical to what the participants put into it. No amount of quoting from Frankfurt school theory is likely to convince a member of the audience that what he or she heard was not moving or thoughtful just because the context was elitist or commercialised. Similarly, it is not unimaginable that supposedly radical events can leave audiences feeling that what they have heard, though disinfected from toxic ideology, made no claim on their intellect or imagination.

It is true that in Pakistan, an attempt is being made to recruit these festivals on the side of a progressive liberalism. This should not prevent people from challenging it, but neither does it exhaust their meaning. Using literature and culture to articulate yet-to-be-realised social identities is not really a new enterprise, and no one group has a monopoly over it. However, if literature can be used to create identity and narrative, it can also be used to do the opposite. In this sense, it can make sense to speak of apolitical literature or literary events as having a political impact. Further, whenever there is an attempt to sort out literature, etc., into political and apolitical stacks -- no matter how broad-minded or progressive the units of analysis -- we are also being asked to believe that literary reception is totally dominated by literary production. This is an extremely questionable demand and probably misjudges the purpose and impact of cultural critique.

I agree that the domination of literary activity by festivals -- like the erstwhile domination of music by a single corporate sponsor televised music programme (no prizes for guessing) -- is undesirable; I also think that we need to think more about other forms of literary participation, and especially about the constraints internal to literary and academic fields that limit participation in literary events, or auto-select the kind of socio-economic group that dominates them. Not all of these constraints will be open to simple subversion, and often alternatives proposed merely replicate rather than resolve problems. But anyone who is interested in literature will welcome the opportunity to reflect on this.

An unambiguously good thing