Are Writers Performers

In a world awash with new tools for communication and engagement, the symbolism, mystique and magic of anonymity, however seductive, is losing ground to new anthems celebrating the spirit of contact, connection and interaction.


In today’s market-driven world, has the soul, spirit and persona of the writer undergone a change? Is he more marketer than writer, hot-wiring his talent to tango with themes that are reader-friendly and market-driven? Is he cleverly exploring and exploiting the public space via new technology and forums to ensure and maximize mass-connect? Does the interaction diminish the magic and mystique that defines the sacred relationship between the writer and the reader?

The acclaimed author Amitav Ghosh recently reflected on “the way in which literature is coming to be embedded within a wider culture of public spectacles and performances,” noting: “Writers and readers have not always stared each other in the face. Until quite recently, most writers shrank from the notion of publicly embracing their readership.” He went on to mention some celebrated names — American novelist William Gaddis and Noble Prize winning South African author J.M. Coetzee — who apparently refused to even read from their work and suggested that this is largely a twenty-first century phenomenon. Ghosh believes that “through the last century the relationship between the readers and writers was largely impersonal. The reader related in the first instance to a book — not the reader — and writers for their parts, did not confront the audience in the manner of musicians, singers, actors and so on.” In Ghosh’s view, reading out aloud to audiences and inserting herself between the reader and the text, diminishes the autonomy and integrity of an author’s work.

High-profile, script-writer, poet, lyricist, activist and Rajya Sabha member Javed Akhtar begs to differ: “It’s like this. Urdu poets, down centuries have always recited, even sung, their verse to their constituency. Once it was the court due to royal patronage. Later it was mushairas. This tradition, in its own way, remains and it has never ever come in the way of their creativity or genius.” Akhtar believes that a writer creates in private to exhibit in public. “It is indeed a lonely and solitary calling, but the end-product, surely is about reaching out, popular-connect and feedback and therefore, interaction is a boon.”

He is also extremely upbeat about writers invading new platforms in the public space for another reason. For too long — in Bollywood and other successful arenas — literary drones have been overlooked, neglected, ignored and encouraged to stay in the shadows, unsung and unheralded. Their work may have been lauded, but poorly rewarded and individually they remained Nowhere men. These new platforms provide them the much-needed and long-overdue social, cultural, emotional and financial compensation.”

The acknowledged poet laureate of B-town, Gulzar concurs: “With due respect to Amitav, I look at this issue differently. Writers, authors and poets who choose to reside in their private space and believe that any physical connect with their readers will marginalize their sense of elusiveness and exclusivity are welcome to do so … but increasingly, even the most reclusive among them seem to be coming out to sample the real world and enjoying the rewards.”

He cites the example of gifted Marathi poet Arun Sheute who toiled for years to put together 40 poems for a paltry Rs 2,000 from his publishers. Frustrated, he one day, brought them out himself in magazine form during Diwali, attracting many advertisers and ended up netting at least Rs 20,000. Gulzar says the diverse, communication avenues and vehicles available to writers enable them to connect with their target audience. These platforms “only help to enlighten, enrich, entertain and empower both reader and writer, so it’s a win-win situation all the way.” He believes that Ghosh’s ivory tower approach appeals to one kind of cultural intellectual, “but overall, isn’t pluralism and inclusiveness a large part of the creative agenda and impulse?”

Irrepressible ad filmmaker Prahlad Kakkar, who confesses enormous admiration for Ghosh as a brilliantly insightful writer and master of detail, nonetheless disagrees with his pean for anonymity. “What’s the big deal in remaining hidden in today’s let-it-all-hang-out world, my friend? Isn’t a book meant for readers, audience, people, or is it meant to be a closely guarded secret? If an opportunity to interact with the public comes along, it’s fantastic, because feedback is critical. Also from a readers’ perspective, if the writer is impressive in the way he fields questions and tackles them in a warm, witty and intelligent fashion, then the brand equity of the writer goes up and influences the reader to buy the book.”

Sunit Tandon, director of the Indian Institute of Mass Communications, believes the answer varies from writer to writer, “For every writer who prefers solitude, there are others keen to leap off the page to embrace the public space.” He finds it odd that Ghosh, who is so dismissive about exposure, has no problems going on book tours at home and abroad. Columnist Anil Dharker insists that “the real magic lies in the work of the author and not the much-touted solitude. The words and the world they trace, are the real stars. As for the interaction part, it’s wonderful because it provides a fantastic platform for the writer and his audience to meet and interact. This is, by its very nature, formal and not personal or intimate, so where is the question of this interaction and connect diminishing any autonomy or creativity?”

Communication Guru Alyque Padamsee says new interactive platforms are a boon “because the writer is then, seen, as a flesh and blood human being, a person one can relate to and make tangible contact with, not some vague, esoteric figure residing in imagination. Also a peep into his mind and thinking process makes for an engaging experience. Remember, all human beings, at heart, are performers and the translation from the page to public space can be truly amazing! I am all for it!”

Palash Krishna Mehrotra, author of The Butterfly Generation, rejects Ghosh’s assertion that writers cannot be performer, citing examples of not just 20th, but 19th century writers, who “performed week after week, and enthusiastically, across cities and continents, much like mega rock bands do now. They did it because they loved doing so, as also to make money.”

In a column in India Today, he points to examples of such dazzling literary giants as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mark Twain, Thomas Carlyle, Oscar Wilde and of course Charles Dickens “who frequently performed in his room, playing out characters, before writing them and later performing them on the stage as well…. The power and versatility of his genius was such that at his final performance in 1870, 6,000 people were turned away at the door! ”

To each his own, but in a world awash with new tools for communication and engagement, the symbolism, mystique and magic of anonymity, however seductive, is losing ground to new anthems celebrating the spirit of contact, connection and interaction. The writer is unquestionably increasingly a performer. The real question is could a performer alone become a writer?

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