Is a Booker Prize winner necessarily a good writer?

Arundhati Roy is in the news again, thanks to the right-wing reaction to her (not new) statement that Kashmir is not an integral part of India. My colleague Rahul Basu savages her style while still criticising the threat of using sedition laws against her. Some days earlier, Harini praised Ms Roy for uniting the left and the right against her (and argued, also, that she makes a habit of piggybacking on other causes). Today, Nilanjana acknowledges the criticisms that Ms Roy is naive or simplistic, but says “you cannot doubt the intensity of her engagement.” She adds: “To ask, as we are now doing in India, for writers to stick to their writing is a little like asking investigative journalists to stick to their knitting.”

I don’t doubt her intensity, but I have a basic question: is Ms Roy, in fact, a good writer? It seems to be widely assumed that she is (the Booker Prize helped), and in fact, that she uses her enviable command of the English language to bamboozle her audience.

In my view, it’s exactly the opposite.

A good writer illuminates. Ms Roy is capable of writing thousands of words without adding any illumination to the topic (her trek through the Dantewada forests is a good example).

A good writer persuades skeptics. Lesser writers preach to the choir. Ms Roy, in fact, repels the choir. Some of the strongest criticisms of her writings have come from those who should, logically, be agreeing with her.

A good, provocative writer makes you question your own assumptions and beliefs. Ms Roy seems to make people want to tear their own hair out. That is not being provocative. That is being annoying.

Perhaps she is a prophet misunderstood in her own time. But I suspect not. I can’t think of a single thing she has said that hasn’t been said, earlier and better, by others. Her special knack seems to be saying it in a manner that would annoy and turn off the largest number of people. She is the very opposite of an articulate and persuasive spokesperson of a movement, which a good writer would be.

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24 Comments

  1. pvgopalarao

     /  November 3, 2010

    I don’t know about her actions about social and national issues… but, I definitely agree with you regarding her writing!

    Reply
  2. jyotsana

     /  November 3, 2010

    Arundhati Roy is in the news again, thanks to the right-wing reaction to her…
    Aah! Wow! Right wing again to the rescue! Check my rejoinder on Rahul Basu’s post. I don’t care that she is a bad writer (Varavara Rao is worse and he is terrorist sympathizing thug…). I don’t care even that she holds up corrupt, jihadophiles like Geelani as paragons of virtue, the entire thuggish gang of the Kashmir Valley – ranging from Shabbir Shah to Yasin Malik reeks sanctimony. Or even that she insults the intelligence of millions of people in our country who vote to change governments. I care that intellectuals such as yourself who should know better hold a brief for her. There are three issues here,
    A.Freedom of speech
    B.Dishonesty (putting a gloss on thugs and their thuggish and offering them as alternatives)
    C.The effectiveness of principled sections of society (whom I call civil society) for whom Gandhi’s “…means are everything,” is not negotiable

    The right spectrum (which for guys who think they are leftist encompasses most people who disagree with them) ranges from scholars like Swapan Dasgupta and Arun Shourie, Chandan Mitra, urbane voices like Ashok Malik and Sunanda Dutta-Ray to rabble rousers who are too numerous to list. The ones you should be listening to from this right spectrum, talk A, B and C. Roy screams about A, squirms out of any talk of B and rubbishes C. How many trains did Medha Patkar’s fans blow up? How many police officers did Vidyakar’s wards (of the Udavum Karangal) kill?

    Reply
  3. That is not being provocative. That is being annoying.

    Tom-ay-toes, tom-ah-toes.

    I can’t think of a single thing she has said that hasn’t been said, earlier and better, by others.

    Any examples, Rahul? (I’m not a fan of her prose styling but I think every society needs a figure like her…)

    Reply
  4. Rahul Siddharthan

     /  November 3, 2010

    Jyotsana – do you always draw your gun at the first sentence? (But then some of A. Roy’s attackers drew their guns at the headline — that she was not in fact responsible for.)

    km –
    Tom-ay-toes, tom-ah-toes.

    You mean Americans are provocative, Brits are annoying?

    Any examples, Rahul?

    I expected that for several statements I made (I was lazy on links) — but not for that one! If you think she has had an original insight, or an unoriginal one that she expressed better than anyone previously, perhaps the onus is on you to give an example. My example would be: everything by her that I’ve read yet.

    My disillusionment started, actually, with something she wrote perhaps 10 years ago on the privatisation of water supply in urban areas, which was basically “OMG how can they think of privatising a basic human necessity?” (I tried googling for the article and find she has repeated variations of that many times.) There was not even an attempt at an argument on why it is a bad idea. But since then it has seemed to me that this is her approach to all her arguments — appeal to emotion, not to reason. And even with her fellow-leftists, it fails, for obvious reasons.

    Reply
  5. Anonymous

     /  November 4, 2010

    Jyotsana – do you always draw your gun at the first sentence? (But then some of A. Roy’s attackers drew their guns at the headline — that she was not in fact responsible for.)

    No. Intellectuals such as yourself who should know better hold a brief for her.

    Reply
  6. jyotsana

     /  November 4, 2010

    Jyotsana – do you always draw your gun at the first sentence? (But then some of A. Roy’s attackers drew their guns at the headline — that she was not in fact responsible for.)

    No. Intellectuals such as yourself who should know better hold a brief for her.

    Reply
  7. sacredfig

     /  November 7, 2010

    While all you erudite critics accuse her of being everything from “annoying” to inarticulate to “infantile” (as if using these descriptions is a valid substitute for an actual argument), can I just please say that her prose writing is fantastic. Whether or not I agree with her, undeniably its always a pleasure to read her prose.

    Its also surprising that so much attention is being devoted to a person, merely to emphasize how poor her writing is. Seems to me, she must be doing something right. A lot of it I think comes from sheer envy – most people couldn’t dream of writing with such vigor, passion and inventiveness, even if they could recite emmm… Orwell’s entire oeuvre backwards.

    Reply
  8. gaddeswarup

     /  November 7, 2010

    I read only a few pieces by arundhati roy; did not read her Booker Prize winning novel. I find that she writes well but there is tendency to mix up various issues and try to find the root cause of all problems in Amercan imperialism or some such. So, I think she is an easy target to take on. But some of the problems she has been writing are there for a long time, I have been browsing through Sunil Sen’s ‘Peasant movements in India: Mid-ninteenth to Twentieth Centuries’ (1982) reviewed by S. Amin in EPW. He describes tribal and peasant uprisings all over India starting with Santal rebellion of 1855-56. The usual pattern is land dispossion, money-lenders, subsistence labour, then rebellion, murders, distribution of land and property followed by repression by the state. Right from the beginning the Congress Party (but for a few exceptions like Nehru during certain periods) went along with the rich peasants and shahukars and this continued after independence. There have been more recnt writings on these issues by Ramachandra Guha and the ‘honest leftist’ K. Balagopal in EPW and other places. I wonder why their analyses are not discussed and Roy is targeted. Perhaps her logic is not all that great but she is at least bringing attention to some of these issues.

    Reply
  9. Rahul

     /  November 8, 2010

    Rahul: As I tried to indicate in my post, and you have also suggested, there are people who are not convincing because they are preaching to the converted. Such people are ineffectual but not harmful. However, if you preach to the converted and your style makes the converted ‘convert back’, then you are indeed harmful. In that sense she might do more harm to the causes she espouses, even if she is trying to draw attention to genuine issues. The other point (which also you mention) is that she makes no attempt at analysis, her style makes for good sensationalism but poor journalism, which eventually gives diminishing returns.

    Reply
  10. Rahul Siddharthan

     /  November 8, 2010

    Gaddeswarup – indeed nobody “targets” Guha, or Sainath, or Basharat Peer, or many others who write about poverty, Naxalism or separatism. But certainly their analyses are discussed: they write and are quoted widely. I take that to mean that the hostility is not to the topic, but to Roy’s approach to it — whatever the topic.

    I think it is safe to say that, today at least, very few find “pleasure” in reading Roy’s prose.

    Rahul – in fact, today her style makes also for poor sensationalism! But I doubt any serious person will “convert back” on reading Roy.

    Reply
  11. gaddeswarup

     /  November 9, 2010

    My impression is that Sainath and Pankaj Mishra are also sometimes like A. Roy. From the little I have read, I find Ramachandra Guha and K. Balagopal more ‘balanced’. If there are any discussions of their writings, I would like to follow some of them.

    Reply
  12. Rahul

     /  November 9, 2010

    Gaddeswarup: I couldn’t agree with you more. However I have much respect for Sainath — he is a ‘fields’ person who does all his reporting first hand and has single handedly tried to keep the issue of farmer suicides alive. He spends most of his time in rural India (mainly Orissa) and while he is overly harsh and overcritical (and really never quite provides a solution) his commitment is not in doubt.

    Pankaj Mishra in my opinion is worse that Arundhati Roy – she at least appears to write from her heart, however misguided. Mishraji in my opinion writes what his ‘white masters” to use a colonial cliche, would like to hear. His attacks are based on innuendo and rumour with little or no evidence. He has accused the Indian Army (much guilty of human rights abuses though it may be) of the Chittisinghpura massacre of Sikhs, without an iota of evidence (you can check the net for his article in the New York Review of Books and elsewhere) and most of his writing (I have been reading him for some time and have now given up) is along those lines. I think people like this are objectionable characters trying to be in the limelight by any means fair or foul. And as for his ‘books’, to quote Rushdie — ‘reassuringly mediocre’.

    Reply
  13. Jai_C

     /  November 9, 2010

    Good links. Just went thru the comments at Rahul B’s post and came here.

    As some others have pointed out above, I think she makes for a good anti- spokesperson for whatever cause she tries to “help”. There are those who outdo her in specific areas at specific instances but for consistency and reach nobody outdoes AR.

    But writing in itself? I have found some of her writing quite impressive and moving. Here is a sample from an anon’s comment on Dilip’s blog:

    “To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget.”

    You seem to use a headcount approach to evaluate her writing. “How many new converts today?” Her essential attitude seems to be quite the opposite: she doesnt really care for your (or anybody else’s) support, she is not looking for your buy-in except on her terms. She isnt looking to win an election at least not in middle-class India. Can be disconcerting especially if you feel that you share political or ideological affinity.

    As somebody who wasnt “part of the choir” earlier I acknowledge that some of her writing made me question my beliefs and assumptions. I am over the last few yrs “exiting the choir” but this is not something to be regretted. The questions remain.

    Writing by itself is something that you can view with great detachment (from its driving ideology). You can admire how someone uses their wordcraft, how they construct their narratives, how deftly they weave stuff in (and even leave stuff out). By these measures that I use, AR is indeed a gifted writer.

    thanks,
    Jai

    Reply
    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  November 9, 2010

      Jai – well, I’m not a fan of verb-free writing(*). But to each their own. Actually, the passage you quoted reminds me of Rushdie’s review of Benazir Bhutto’s (ghostwritten) “Daughters of the East” (reproduced in Imaginary Homelands):

      It is a staccato ghost voice that hates verbs. Here it is, describing what the Pakistan Army did in Bangladesh in 1971: “Looting. Rape. Kidnappings. Murder.” Here it tells us of Benazir’s solitary confinement: “Time, relentless, monotonous… Flaking cement. Iron bars. And silence. Utter silence.” And here is the funeral of her brother Shah Nawaz: “Black. Black armbands. Black shalwar kameez and dupattas… Black. More black.” And what were the people doing, “in the fever of their grief?” “Crying. Wailing.”

      But my chief complaint with Ms Roy is not her Joan Collins prose (as Rushdie calls Bhutto’s ghostwriter’s efforts), but the consistently tiny ratio of useful information to total length of whatever she writes.

      (*) and yes, I’m a pedant — each sentence you quote contains an infinitive or two, but no verbs.

      Reply
  14. gaddeswarup

     /  November 10, 2010

    I looked up the meaning of ‘infinitive’ (I often failed in both Telugu and English when in school). AR seems to be using some split infinitives too.

    Reply
    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  November 10, 2010

      Well, I’m not so pedantic as to say split infinitives are bad — even hers.

      Reply
  15. Rahul

     /  November 10, 2010

    We seem to have moved to the English language here so let me just say that split infinitives are nowadays accepted syntax — even the newer versions of Strunk and White as I remember, and various style books of the NYT and Guardian no longer frown on these. In fact consciously not splitting an infinitive is considered pedantic! “To eventually succeed” is as good as “to succeed eventually” . The famous Churchillian phrase is considered the worst form of this pedantry “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put”.

    Abut verb free writing, yes, there one needs to draw the line…

    Reply
  16. gaddeswarup

     /  November 10, 2010

    Sorry about the diversion. I vaguely remembered some disapproval about split infinitives without really knowing what infinitives were and googled. If only google were available during my school days, I could have been a contender.

    Reply
  17. Rahul Siddharthan

     /  November 10, 2010

    For split infinitives (and for many other things) I like how Fowler puts it.

    The ‘split’ infinitive has taken such hold upon the consciences of journalists that, instead of warning the novice against splitting his infinitives, we must warn him against the curious superstition that the splitting or not splitting makes the difference between a good and a bad writer. The split infinitive is an ugly thing, as will be seen from our examples below; but it is one among several hundred ugly things, and the novice should not allow it to occupy his mind exclusively.

    Getting back somewhat on topic, Fowler is the sort of writer whom one can read for pleasure even when he sounds like a curmudgeonly fossil (and probably sounded that way back in 1911).

    Rahul B – your Churchill quote is about another grammatical solecism, ending a sentence with a preposition — which would be achieved by the natural-sounding “put up with”. I can’t find Fowler’s comments on it in “The King’s English”, but apparently he did pontificate on that elsewhere: quotes are here.

    It was once a cherished superstition that prepositions must be kept true to their name and placed before the word they govern in spite of the incurable English instinct for putting them late. . . . Those who lay down the universal principle that final prepositions are ‘inelegant’ are unconsciously trying to deprive the English language of a valuable idiomatic resource, which has been used freely by all our greatest writers except those whose instinct for English idiom has been overpowered by notions of correctness derived from Latin standards. The legitimacy of the prepositional ending in literary English must be uncompromisingly maintained. . . .

    Reply
  18. Rahul

     /  November 10, 2010

    Rahul: Yes, you are right. And since we have now well and truly deviated from the Roy, I just came across an example where splitting the infinitive is infinitely better than not doing so — the famous lines with which every Star Trek begin – To boldly go …. sounds far more dramatic than the trite ‘To go boldly, boldly to go…’

    Fowler is indeed entertaining and his curmudgeon air makes the book fun to read just for entertainment.

    BTW I should confess that I only now realised that even though infinitives are verbs with a ‘to’ attached (most of the time), they are not to be used as verbs, just as nouns, adjectives and adverbs. I suppose one does that unconsciously anyway without thinking of grammatical rules.

    Reply
  19. Arun

     /  November 12, 2010

    Rahul,

    Who cares for perfection in prose :) It’s perhaps good if your basic aim is to write literature, but clearly Roy’s is not (and I am sure, if she wants to, she can.). To be frank, the “To love..” quote in the discussion above is enough to move several lay people, despite the lack of verbs. Sainath uses similar technique too, with great, great success.

    About her articles having very little information compared to their length; I feel that the problems she normally addresses are quite simple and can be told in a few words. The Army is killing innocent people in Kashmir and India has done several bad things in Kashmir, and it never had a democratic mandate to rule there, or that Big dams displace millions of people and make their livelihood so difficult, Gujarat riots were wrong, etc. About suggestions of solutions, several of the “right” solutions are very very simple, but takes a lot of political will and courage to implement. That is not her problem. She is outraged and wants to outrage others.

    She is not writing scholarly journal articles, or columns in Sunday supplements for people to skim through while looking for entertainment. She feels anger, and she expresses it. And she invokes anger in several of her readers (like me, for example and also the people on the other side, if there is a single other side), and somehow she is in the news. I think that alone is a good reason to respect her, because she brings unspeakable topics into the public sphere like no one else does in India (just check any newspaper editorial about Obama visit, or how any media channel covered it,…).

    We need people like her, because there are so many issues in India about which people should feel outraged about.

    If you have not already read it: please find her response to similar accusations by Guha: http://www.hinduonnet.com/fline/fl1801/18010040.htm

    Arun

    Reply
    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  November 12, 2010

      Arun – I have read that interview, long ago, and forgotten. Thank you for reminding me.

      It is classic Roy: for example, says

      Guha tries to ridicule me for comparing big dams to nuclear bombs. But I’ve never done that – my essay says … here’s exactly what it says – [reads]:

      “Big Dams are to a nation’s ‘development’ what nuclear bombs are to its military arsenal. They are both weapons of mass destruction, both weapons governments use to control their own people, both twentieth century emblems that mark a point in time when human intelligence has outstripped its own instinct for survival…”

      Surely Guha ought to know that this, in the English language, is what’s called a relative analogy… I’m not saying that dams are radioactive when they explode or that nuclear bombs irrigate agricultural land.

      So, she said “they are both weapons of mass destruction”, but did not say that dams are radioactive — therefore she did not compare them.

      Again, she refers to (but does not quote verbatim) Guha’s criticism of her statement: “When the history of India’s miraculous leap to the forefront of the Information Revolution is written, let it be said that 56 million Indians (and their children and their children and their children’s children) paid for it with everything they ever had. Their homes, their lands, their languages, their histories.” She claims that Guha scores “one of the more tragic ‘own goals’ since Escobar – you know what happened to Escobar!” and “It’s not the horror of 56 million displaced people that bothers him. It’s my reference to the Information Revolution, which was used to compare the meteoric development of one sector of the Indian economy with the horrific dispossession of another.” But she was not comparing. She was quite explicitly blaming the IT companies for the fate of the tribals — what else is “paid for it” supposed to mean? As Guha points out, of all India’s industries, the IT companies are likely the least to blame for this particular problem.

      As Rahul said on his blog, these links are serving only to reinforce to me what an obnoxious creature Arundhati Roy really is.

      Reply
      • Jai_C

         /  November 15, 2010

        Good points Rahul. One of the (many) things that bothers me about AR is how defensive and almost personally nasty she gets when somebody criticizes her; as self-elected conscience keeper and ms.Angst she can dish it out quite well but cant take it. From that same interview, about Guha:

        “..He’s become like a stalker who shows up at my doorstep every other Sunday. Some days he comes alone. Some days he brings his friends and family, they all chant and stamp… It’s an angry little cottag e industry that seems to have sprung up around me. Like a bunch of keening god-squadders, they link hands to keep their courage up and egg each other on…

        … I don’t know what it is with me and these academics-cum-cricket statisticians – Guha’s the third one that I seem to have sent into an incensed orbit. Could it be my bad bowling action?…[laughs] ….”

        that sets the tone and pretty much half the interview is reserved to bash Guha.

        thx,
        Jai
        PS: thanks to Arun for splitting from the infinitives and getting this back onto (main) topic :-)

        Reply
    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  November 12, 2010

      ps – and the interview also reminds me why N Ram is such a pathetic creature. I have never seen such a genuflecting interview in my life — not one serious or probing question, only teenage fanboy stuff like “How do you deal with [celebrity-hood]?” and “It must be a lonely place you work from.” Rush Limbaugh would probably ask more challenging questions to Sarah Palin.

      Reply

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