Why Literature still matters

“Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not simply due to the bad influence of this or that individual writer.”
— George Orwell


George Orwell had a sixth rule for writing: Break any of these above rules sooner than say anything barbarous. George Orwell was perhaps not talking about political barbarisms alone, but the barbarity of inappropriateness in general. His sixth rule pretty much gives the licence to write or say anything, short of being barbarous. But because barbarity is itself a relational call, where does it leave us?  George Orwell’s sixth rule intrigues me.

Or, is there a universal understanding taken by all of us on what constitutes barbarism? I do not think so.  Let me therefore deviate partially here, before I disclose the other five rules. The other day on TV, I saw the launching of a new US troop carrier, named the New York. Its bow is made from steel melted from the WTC shell retrieved from “Ground Zero.” Now the Navy spokesperson, talking to the CNN reporter, very solemnly invoked the memory of those who had died on September 11th and proudly also stated that, “this ship can take our forces to go to war anywhere in the world.”   There is a barbarous choice of words here. It is the righteousness in the voice of the young Navy spokesperson, when she talks about the readiness to “to go to war” anywhere in the world, that is worrisome. Why do the big powers inculcate such marauding language in the mental makeup of their citizens? Should someone break the news to this person, that there is an element of barbarity she is engaging in?  Can language and literature be removed from the politics of the times? Can literature be independent of social development? Of course not!

Why is Literature Still a Must?

Without being disdainful about blog and twitter/facebook language (being a partially active practitioner myself) there is an emerging need to uphold the literary event, that is the written word. The book. The novel. The work of fiction. The well-written, well explained document that does not simply engage in a pop haze, a txt language miasma that passes off as literary expression. There is a place for that and there is need for pop culture experimentation, but literature needs to be preserved for distilling the truth, instead of promoting a haze in the name of experimentation.  In the social conditions we inhabit, or in Orwellian language-the times we live in, the word is blurred by sound, fury, effects and Mbps transmissivity. If you don’t trap it in a blitzkrieg millisecond, it has gone past you and delivered to those who live in bytes and pixels. Their needs are fundamental and cannot be suppressed. The flamboyance of the web and the 140 space compact with Twitter is actually a curious deal with the devil. It forces the truth to be stated in a precise and economic manner, for those who wish to convey anything seriously. And for those who don’t wish to do so, the obscure 140 space ramble is possible. It is self serving. Unless one can use this same medium and invent a way of telling the truth. I know of someone who is writing a whole novel on Twitter. Space by space in 140 space releases!  Literature is however, for the time being, only conceivable as the permanently printed hardcopy version! And there is a dire need to preserve that medium.

Now obviously there are five other rules, which we are all interested in and which if stated first would make the life of an aspiring writer considerably self-conscious, restrictive and possibly miserable. I could have blithely started out on this essay by saying, “When I first dived into writing this editorial essay…etc etc etc  ” and I would have ended up on a well travelled path.  Incidentally, one of Orwell’s first rules is: “Never use a metaphor, simile or figure of speech, which you have seen before in print.” There are several other rules about not using long words, when short words exist, cutting out superfluous words, using foreign words unnecessarily, not using the passive when you can use the active —- violations which we have carried out and which I am doing right now, instead of stating simply that “We violate the rules, often.” But most of all we often write stuff, that we have seen somewhere else.

This essay and editorial is not so much about the rules of writing as much as it is about the need for Literature to be preserved and allowed to flourish, as a significant means of mass communication and artistic endeavour in changing times.  Literature is all about telling a truthful story.

What is of the essence in Orwell’s writing, and more so in Homage to Catalonia, than in 1984, is to state the distilled truth, the absolute truth, the feeling that is at the heart with as few words as possible. Are we always able to achieve what we really intended to say? Can we say in a single word, or a phrase, or a sentence what lies at the core of our mind? With half a million words available in the “official” English language to play with and the new words that we can create and introduce,( because the language does not belong to any ethnocracy), can we come across with the clarity of a freshly poured glass of water in a super clean tumbler? Is there a morning that we can describe that best reflects the news that we read in the newspaper? Is it a coffee morning? Is it an alcohol morning? Is it a flower morning? Is it a blood drenched morning? Is there an inherent deficiency in language that disallows true expression or do we garnish the truth with unnecessary eloquence?

Writers, novelists, authors cannot live by rules. The rules are there to assist. In fact writers must settle down to earth early in the morning, after flying around late at night in a daze of expressions and words. The task of the editor then sets in.  Seeking the truth and expressing it, is the cardinal need. It is the essence. But, style, eloquence and a certain cadence intercedes as technique. In fact, writers do engage in deception. Juxtaposing words in an unexpected manner to wake the reader up and cause some interaction and interest. Thus careful and accurate choice of words is followed by an attractive style. Such is the essence of Literature.

In this issue of Montreal Serai, we have combined several poems, short stories, book reviews,  filmmaker interviews and essays that uphold the idea of telling the unambiguous truth.  Included are award winning writers like Rawi Hage and Jaspreet Singh, as well as our own prolific and much published Maya Khankhoje and frequent contributors Nilanjana Iyer, Lesley Pasquin, Anna Fuerstenberg and others.

Rana Bose is a novelist and editor of Montreal Serai.