How publishing a book and becoming an author has become the latest fad

Writing will plumb the depths of mediocrity further unless as readers we seek uplifting themes, and as writers, we delve into our souls before punching each word down

By Asha Iyer Kumar

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File photo used for illustrative purpose only.
File photo used for illustrative purpose only.

Published: Mon 20 May 2024, 9:49 PM

At least three people I know are now in the midst of writing their debut novel, and many others, armed with unique life experiences, have serious intentions of documenting them in memoirs. Writing and publishing a book has never been this easy. Anyone who has a tale to tell or skill to share and a language to say it in is jumping on the bandwagon of authors, aided by tools that make publishing books a heady side hustle. And this, even when writing is not anymore a lucrative business.

Books are rolling out in reams regardless of the fact that readership is rapidly shrinking. Writing is not any longer a serious undertaking that took years and profound thinking to materialise. Given this, I wonder what significance modern writing (I hesitate to categorise today’s frivolous bookly endeavours as literature) will have for mankind and its future. Is the era of writing for change, to positively influence societies, to impart courage, to reflect the good and denounce the bad and to comfort a deeply wounded global civilisation over? Is literature now turning into mere candy floss with little gains for the reader except satisfying the senses?

We live in a highly sensitive world that takes umbrage at the slightest hint of criticism. Rancour is the foremost sentiment that governs human behaviour, and while compassion and empathy are still values that are spoken about highly, there is a dearth of these good old qualities in real time. And this dearth probably has begun to show in the kind of writing that is being churned out, making me suspect that we are more easily influenced and shaped by incendiary (and often indecent) works than by narratives of hope. Traditional publishers are now betting on the returns a manuscript would bring than the comfort and message it would give. Literature, like all other forms of art, has fallen into a deep malaise characterised by greed and selfishness.

What prompted many distinguished literary figures of the past to put their thoughts on paper was not fame or the reward it was likely to bring, but an urgent, private need to decode themselves and explore their existential strife. Many including Emily Dickinson, Franz Kafka and John Keats led reclusive lives and did not even have their works published during their lifetimes. Their journals were only discovered after their death and publicised.

Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali is known to have brought comfort to a world torn by war and oppression in the early 20th century. It offered spiritual solace to readers and drew them away from external chaos, inspiring peace and contemplation. Anne Frank’s simple yet deeply stirring accounts of war in The Diary of a Young Girl (1946) brought huge respite to populations exposed to the horrors of World War II. Victor Frankl’s memoir Man’s Search for Meaning chronicling his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps couldn’t have come at a better time. It underlined the efficacy of literature in bringing hope and purpose to life even in dire circumstances.

People who have gone through turmoil write about it not just to expose the pain they endured, but also to shine a torch on the resilient nature of human beings in the face of hardships. They wrote because they wanted to tell the world that they had survived the worst, and so will we all if we had the will and mindset.

By this, I don’t mean that literature has to always have a meditative and philosophical slant, but when writing descends to levels of serving only the senses and not the spirit, it becomes debauched and demeaning. When people write cookie-cut books with the sole intention of adding the suffix of “author” to their names to fuel their professional lives or to boost their egos, literature falls from grace.

It is to such insufferable kitsch that we are largely treated to in the new age of shallow writing ably aided by writing tools and thought purveyors. Somewhere in the midst of telling stories that exaggerate human misery, over-simplify man’s failings and crank out sleazy fare that will titillate, writers seem to have given the main purpose of literature – to inspire – a massive pass. Books are getting written for the sole purpose of claiming individual glory and not for a combined cause.

There can be fluffy stuff and chick lit that provide temporary escape to readers from the harsh realities of life and to occupy our breezy layovers; but as along as the written word does not bring perspective to our everyday struggles and give us an opportunity for emotional catharsis and empathetic considerations, no writer has done justice to this glorious craft. The power of the written word lies in its ability to find a universal reason for our existence, by navigating through our experiences and recording them for posterity.

Doubtlessly, the demand for juicy pieces of writing and reporting human conditions will only grow, making us all wanton voyeurs. Writing will plumb the depths of mediocrity further unless as readers we seek uplifting themes, and as writers, we delve into our souls before punching each word down.

(Asha Iyer Kumar is a Dubai-based writer and columnist.)

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