Monday, March 28, 2005

The Emperor's attire

Is it just me (I !!), or are there other people in this world who think that R.K. Narayan is actually a very pedestrian writer? Three issues here.

If a man publishes books (as distinct from topical articles) in English, perhaps he should write English and not an Indian dialect? The great R.K.'s work is full of the very warts that I abhor - "am wanting", "was in the habit", passive voice. This might seem to be quibbling, but his language seldom rises above that of a competent clerk.

You there by the window ... I know what you're going to say. Style over substance? The man is a writer. I assume he has something to say, but then, so does my grocer. A writer is a craftsman. Or should be. Would you pay a carpenter for a botched-up cabinet on the grounds that his design was wonderful on paper? Ergo, if a man has a bushel-full of great ideas but lacks the ability or the effort to express them fluently, is he still worthy of praise?

One of my favourite themes, in keeping with my belief in the free market - a writer does not pay the reader, it's the other way around. Therefore it behooves the writer to work hard to retain the reader's interest. (This holds equally true for films, for music, for any form of creative art. I'd rather read Bill Bryson than Marcel Proust, rather watch "Notting Hill" than "The Others".) I'd say that RKN doesn't make the cut on this count. He is not a very good story-teller.

On the other hand, his books sell. Therefore he is a successful writer. But not, in my opinion, a good one. His acclaim may be the outcome of a good marketing machine. Or there may be hordes of retire civil servants and Southern gentlemen who buy his books because they feel comfortable and nostalgic. And are reassured that the English they use is acceptable, even good!

Point to ponder (thank you for the 50-year cliche, RD) - if one were to accept my premises, Dan Brown is a better writer than RKN. Hmmm. Back to the drawing board, fellas.


32 comments:

Ph said...

RKN is like an old uncle we all have. He doesn't dress quite right or always say the right things. But one can't help liking him.

Dan Brown however is a whole OTHER issue.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Well put, Phantasm. Except that I do not like uncles, old or otherwise, who drift to the fringes of the far right.

J.A.P.

neha said...

To me RKN, was respite at the age of 9 when all around you Enid Blytons were sitting like little pale British ghosts.

RKN was so damn easy and fluid and yet, it was something I could relate to. The constant reference to the food I ate, or the reference to the ritual at home, all that made it easy to like him.

He's an old uncle, with his tales to tell. Nothing to like or dislike. If you relate to his stories, you automatically are drawn to him.

I won't go into the style and content paradigm. God knows I don't understand a lot of writers who supposedly have style. But RKN in essense is a 'story-teller'. And he tells a story well. :)

Gypsy said...

Ah! So you been hiding here!!!!!!

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Neha, I get the point about relating. No coincidence that both you and Phantasm like Uncle there.

And Gypsy, I might 'fess up to hiding from you if I knew who you are.

J.A.P.

Gypsy said...

You can run, but you can nevah hide :P

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Since you brought that up ... which world champion said almost the same thing about a quick-footed opponent named Billy Conn? (He can run, but he can't hide)

J.A.P.

Gypsy said...

Uh oh! Trivia time. Joe Louis. Hail Google! And what happened to Billy Conn, Sir?

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

For those who bet on him, he turned out to be just another Conn man.

J.A.P.

Gypsy said...

Right. So now you know. You can nevah hide.

And say, aren't you all eaten up with curiosity as to who I am, Sir?

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Curious, yes.

Eaten up, not yet. Would you rather wait till I am, or spill the beans now?

J.A.P.

Gypsy said...

It's worth the wait methinks. You are a tough one to crack, Sir. A little premature to even try. Not time yet.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

I repose great faith in your sense of timing.

But I do read some other blogs, you know.

J.A.P.

the still dancer said...

JAP,
Yes, I too have always held the opinion that he's pretty pede(s?)trian. Did somehow manage to finish "The Guide," but cannot say the same for the malgudi chronicles. And to hell with all the panegyrics sung in favour of
"simple english."
Incidentally, you need not leap to Calcutta's (Kolkata???? pray, what is that?)defence, not against me, at least. For I, too, am of the riverine race. The first name is a synonym for the sun from the gita, as also the name of a Samaresh Majumdar hero, and the last name marks me, gotra-wise, as a descendant of Bharadwaja. That should be clue enough. Moral of the story, this is no heathen marauder, but a true-blue bangasantaan.

Gypsy said...

Interesting! I wonder... DO you?

nixxin said...

What's wrong with passive voice, 'cept that it doesn't conform to 'standard practices'?

NoHairBrain said...

Tsk Tsk .. Bongs!

Jay said...

I must confess to absolutely hating Dan Brown. Those pretentious one-word sentences, the mini-clifhangers, his annoying overuse of the '...' all drove me nuts.

I especially detest his use of what I call the 'hand of the author' technique. Whenever his characters saw or discovered anything, you, the reader, are deliberately kept in the dark to prolong the suspense.

For example, in The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown tells you that Sophie saw her grandfather doing 'something' in his secret chamber. He proceeds to refer to this horrible deed over and over again, but only reveals what the hell it is 3/4 into the book.

And he does this throughout the story, as a gimmick. Even the opening of a lousy box is stretched out. He gives you a coy "What they saw made them gasp" kind of teaser - but hides the object from you until several chapters later.

It doesn't feel natural. Reading it, I didn't feel like I was experiencing the story unfold with the protagonists.

Does anyone else know what I mean? More importantly, can anyone else explain this better? :-)

Gypsy said...

I liked Da Vinci Code. Looking forward to the movie. Tom Hanks is a bad choice for Langdon :(

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Nixxin, your point has been taken. An answer may be delivered in due course. (cf: Wodehouse on 'Time' magazine ... "backward ran sentences till reeled the mind")

Jay, I entirely agree with you. Dan Brown has woven a great plot, marred by the fact that he can't write for nuts. Wonder what his native language is ..

Ganguly Babu, have we met in another lifetime?

Sarathy, rather Bongs than Bay-wash!

Gypsy, be impartial - go comment on my other blog.

J.A.P.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

NB: "pede(s?)trian"? Now what on earth might he be referring to?

*muffled peals of cackling mirth*

J.A.P.

Gypsy said...

Oooh! I'm known to be partial! I can be bribed.

Urmea said...

J, you need to brush up on your bangali gotras, Bharadwaj is obviously some form of Mukherjee / Mukhopadhyay and not Ganguly!

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

A shortcoming I must admit to, young lady. There was a time not so long ago when I was confused about my own gotra.

But of course .. Orko Mukhopadhyay?

How is it that the Sage of the Chicago School knows EVERYbody's real name?

J.A.P.

Urmea said...

Ani - Sage? The closest he gets to being sage-like is by having a virulent green living room!

the still dancer said...

In the name of the Father, and the Sun, and the scraggly beard of the holy ghost, and the fetid corpse of John Paul II, Arka. Arka, not orko, arko or any such vile orthographic abominations.

the still dancer said...

In the name of the Father, and the Sun, and the scraggly beard of the holy ghost, and the fetid corpse of John Paul II, Arka. Arka, not orko, arko or any such vile orthographic abominations.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Gypsy, name your price.

Urmi, Ani is no sage, he's just a shirker. Somebody should defenestrate him if he doesn't post.

Arka - Mukhopadhyay? Some day I shall cross swords with you about Sanskrit phonetics as distinct from Bangla. And thank your gods that I did not make you a killer whale.

J.A.P.

Anonymous said...

pedestrian writer maybe...but definitely a brilliant story teller.

Sibyl said...

I remember not being able to get through Guide. I think his skill was in capturing small-town sentiments, and he brought a certain nostalgia to his stories. They were feel-good books.

As for measuring success in terms of copies sold, what would you say of India's worst successful writer, Anurag Mathur? Hasn't "The Inscrutable Americans", that unoriginal book of cliches and stereotypes galore, been an all-time bestseller in India?

Anonymous said...

I think the criticism of R.K Narayan's English is unfair. He was writing about small town India, and I don't think he could have done a very good job if he wrote proper English. There is also nothing wrong with writing in an Indian dialect considering that there are no absolutes when it comes to language. The same criticism could be applied to Mark Twain's writings in American English.

Personally, I think he is a good writer because he captures a certain atmosphere and milieu quite successfully. This is also why there are so many Indians who like his writing. A lot of South Indians would identify with the stories of Swami and friends. I guess one of the main jobs of a writer is to create a certain landscape and he succeeds in this regard.

Urmea said...

Oh too late already, but throwing Ani out of a window sounds like fun!