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Millennium Post

When writers attack other writers

Controversies in the literary world always gladden me and the past year had doled out quite a handful of them as a way to remind us that our writers, poets, novelists, playwrights, memoirists and literary journalists still put their reputations at stake in defence of the written word, or to challenge long-held beliefs. Literary spats are actually heady exchange of ideas, albeit in a ferociously public and theatrical manner, much to the consternation of some people, while raging delight for the others. They are the occasions to beat out a finer texture of meaning from a coarser and nebulous system of ideas, half-expressed, half-understood and often ill-received. Legendary skirmishes have dotted the road to literary superstardom, and while some had begun for ostensibly extra-literary, really silly reasons, others have had libraries of scholarly tomes burnt up (metaphorically) to fuel the fire of the argument.

Take for example the latest in the long and illustrious line of famous war of words, though in this case, it could also be termed as a head on collision of practically two parallel universes of ideas. When Girish Karnad almost ‘eviscerated’ Sir V S Naipaul at the Tata Literature Live! Festival in Mumbai in December last year, the pen-pushing class rose to arms, some in favour of Karnad, while some defending their infallible Sir Vidia. Farrukh Dhondy, the British-Indian screen-writer and playwright, got the sobriquet ‘the faithful’ as a result of his ceaseless advocacy of the bellicose Nobel laureate. Swords of ink and printed page were drawn; TV channels went berserk over the ‘limits of (pseudo? obnoxious?) secularism’ of the Karnadian variety. Who would have thought that Dhondy and Will Dalrymple would suddenly find themselves in the opposite camps of Battleground Naipaul? Yet, both Dhondy and Dalrymple will be greeting each other again in the forthcoming Jaipur Literature Festival in the last week of January and the entire Karnad-Naipaul fiasco will be served up as the icing on the cake of a hearty banter-filled anecdote.

That’s how it goes sometimes, if the litterateurs are willing to let bygones be bygones. After all, Sir Vidia (yes, he has been the eye of the storm in many cases) did shake a hand with his one time protégé and then public enemy number one Paul Theroux at the 2011 Hay Festival, after 15 long years of a much-publicised feud, in which the British-Trinidadian writer tried to even sell one of Theroux’s books (gifted to Naipaul and his wife) online, just to spite the younger English author. In retaliation, Theroux had written the book Sir Vidia’s Shadow to etch out Naipaul’s ‘elevated crankishness’, but lo behold, under the benevolent choreography of Ian McEwan, the Booker-winning British novelist, Theroux and Naipaul attempted a public end to their famous fight.

Our prodigal son Salman Rushdie is no stranger to literary skirmishes himself. Though his notoriety rests on the Satanic Verses row and his flamboyant party-hopping lifestyle, he is, equally, a master of verbal duels. His famous spat with British feminist Germaine Greer started when Greer, his longstanding rival from his days in Cambridge University, not only refused to endorse the petition in defence of the provocative book, but went on to caricature him as a ‘megalomaniac, an Englishman with dark skin’ (if Rushdie, with his peaches and cream Kashmiri complexion could be called ‘dark’, but so goes the colour gradient on the slippery slope of which many a worthy mind has tripped!) In return, Rushdie called Greer a ‘sanctimonious philistine’ and repeated those words as Greer once again locked horns when British Bangladeshi people living in Brick Lane protested against the eponymous Booker-shortlisted debut novel by Monica Ali. According to Greer, Ali had a responsibility not to reduce her portrayal of Sylhetis of London’s Brick Lane into ludicrous figures, just to charm the English readers, but Rushdie, in Ali’s defence, insisted on his pet cause: the freedom of expression and imagination.       

Somehow ideas of and one’s relationship with Islam have been at the forefront of most of the literary duels, which have a connection with Indian or South Asian writing. However, Rushdie, in a view to expand his horizon of public criticisms, recently called potshots (calling him ‘patsy’) at the first Chinese Nobel Laureate Mo Yan, apparently for the latter’s silence on the treatment meted out by the Chinese government to fellow Nobel-winning countryman, the Peace prize-awarding Liu Xiaobo. And who rose to Mo Yan’s defence? Not a Chinese, but the Indian literary critic and writer Pankaj Mishra. In a well-argued piece written for
the Guardian,
Mishra rebuked Rushdie for his ‘selective humanism’ and ‘an unexamined assumption lurking in western scorn for Mo Yan’s proximity to the Chinese regime: the Anglo-American writers, naturally possessed of loftier virtue, stand along with their governments on the right side of history.’ Here Mishra underlined the hidden prejudices of venerated writers such as John Updike, Saul Bellow, Martin Amis, Vladimir Nabokov, and even Ian McEwan, all of whom have, from time to time, brushed their shoulders, or publicly supported, their governments’ infamous wars, thus calling into question the very premise on which the reproaches of Mo Yan were based.   

In November 2011, Mishra also engaged in a ferocious war of words with the right-wing British historian and unapologetic Empire-touting TV pundit Niall Ferguson. Much like Karnad, Mishra tore apart Ferguson’s magnum opus Civilisation: The West and the Rest (Allen Lane, 2011) in a scathing review on the pages of the prestigious London review of Books. Heated exchange of letters ensued between the ‘injured party’ i.e., Ferguson and the fierce literary critic and the fractured dais of historical scholarship came alive with pitiless dissections on both sides. While Mishra debunked Ferguson’s theory of ‘six killer apps’ (namely, competition, science, rule of law, medicine, consumerism and work ethic) that helped the West surge ahead, Ferguson challenged Mishra’s counterargument by calling it ‘character assassination’ and a ‘libelous’ attack on his personal integrity. Canons were fired from both ends with Mishra clubbing Ferguson’s work with ‘white people’s histories,’ the accounts left over by ‘pith-helmeted missionaries,’ and calling Ferguson ‘an exponent of collapse-theory and retailer of emollient tales about glorious past.’

The 20th century literary firmament, too, was star-spangled with super-spats. In Latin America, the rivalry and an unbelievably protracted feud between the two giants, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, is legendary. American writer Norman Mailer was at loggerheads with the recently deceased writer and filmmaker Gore Vidal (of the Caligula fame). Salman Rushdie also crossed swords with John Updike, when the latter panned Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown in the New Yorker in 2005. Women, too, have not been far behind. The bitter differences between Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman started when McCarthy called Hellman a ‘tremendously overrated, a bad writer, a dishonest writer’ on a television show, causing an infuriated Hellman to bring a $2.5 million lawsuit against the former for her slanderous statements! And last but not the least, the brilliant poet of the Caribbean mythography, Derek Walcott, had once lampooned, who else but Sir Vidia (Sir V S Nightfall!) in these very words, ‘The plots are forced, the prose sedate and silly / The anti-hero is a prick named Willie.’
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