It is an almost compulsive habit of mine, that when in a bookstore, I will browse through nearly all the sections in the store, save for factual/biographies (which I do not read) and contemporary fiction (especially ‘realistic’ works -i.e., one’s that are not fantasy/science fiction).
‘Contemporary Fiction’ is a category of literature that I regard with extreme distrust. For me, buying a book is a serious task. If you are to buy a book, it should be one that, after a suitable length of time, you can re-read and enjoy, and grow to cherish.
Why is this not possible with the large bulk of fiction produced in the present day?
1) The ‘Trying-Too-Hard-To-Be-Deep’ Syndrome
Many present day writers are afflicted with this serious creative impairment. I suspect this has much to do with the stereotype of a writer as one who effortlessly utters words of wit and wisdom in everyday conversation all the time, and one who’s work always contains a so-called ‘deeper’ meaning.
If you are able to write something like Coelho’s ‘The Alchemist’ or ‘The Zahir’, good for you. But it is not a necessary pre-requisite to successful writing, nor is it the ONLY way to imbue your work with a sense of soulfulness.
When this writing style is applied poorly, and without a natural inclination for it, it fails miserably and the end result sounds pretentious and smarmy, or too preachy.
2) The Misery Rule
Present day writers appear believe that at the core of a true work of high literary value is an overwhelming excess of misery, unhappiness and grief. I mean, sure, Hamlet, Wuthering Heights, A Tale of Two Cities and other such works are memorable tragedies, but what of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest? Or any of P.G. Wodehouse’s novels? Great tragedy does not always make great literature. The world can be a depressing enough place on its own.
To some extent, this ‘misery rule’ is imposed on aspiring writers by others around them. If you happen to make the mistake of telling someone you enjoy creative writing ( for instance, fiction- preferably fantasy), they will confront you with something like ‘Oh that’s nice… but why don’t you write something more meaningful? Why don’t you write about the horrors of war?’ (Answer: Because, I am aware of them).
3) Assuming the Reader is an unimaginative Dud
Too much information is as bad as too little information, a fact long forgotten by modern writers. Subtlety in fiction is a sign of elegant finesse (see the works of Du Maurier, A.Christie, or Henry James). But the writers of today will write things along the lines of a classroom show-and-tell; everything needs to be described in graphic and hyperbolic detail, because obviously the reader cannot imagine anything for her/himself.
4) The Lack of Emphasis on Language
Writing is all about language, in the sense of using words to create beauty (An expert in this area: the amazing, the superb, the sublime F. Scott Fitzgerald). Writers today seem unaware of this- for most of them, it is enough to put words to paper regarding one’s idea for a story. If Wuthering Heights were to be written by a present-day individual, Heathcliff would probably claim ‘I see Cathy everywhere. I’m so sad without her. Woe is me’ rather than the now iconic words ‘…for what is not connected with her to me? and what does not recall her? I cannot look down to this floor, but her features are shaped in the flags! In every cloud, in every tree—filling the air at night, and caught by glimpses in every object by day—I am surrounded with her image! The most ordinary faces of men and women—my own features—mock me with a resemblance. The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her!‘
5) Pointless Sex Scenes
It is difficult to comprehend how and why writers assume that weak plots, and poorly constructed, utterly unsympathetic and dull characters are somehow compensated for by a preponderance of nearly pornographic sex scenes.
6) An Obsession with the Supernatural (read: Vampires)
Try browsing any Young Adult fiction shelf at ANY bookstore. You’ll find that the colour scheme for most of the book covers is black and red, with images that immediately bring to mind either the Twilight series of Vampire Diaries. The plot summary is hardly worth reading because it is ANOTHER vampire/human romance. (On a side note, the greatest disservice to real literature is Wuthering Heights being marketed as ‘Bella and Edward’s Favourite Book!’)
The next two points are problems specifically to do with modern Pakistani writings in English (although they may be generalised to other works as well).
7) The Absence of Authenticity
It (the story, the characters, all of it!) just does not ring true, it doesn’t feel real or believable. It doesn’t seem to come from the heart. Read Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi, or Altaf Fatima’s Urdu novel Dastak Na Do (English Translation Title: The One Who Did Not Ask)- these writers both have incredible authenticity. More recent examples of authentic Pakistani writing are the works of Kamila Shamsie (Kartography, Salt and Saffron) and Umera Ahmed (Pir-e-Kamil). Other Pakistani writers lose authenticity, mainly because they write for a foreign audience, setting up their work to be used as the basis of tourist brochures or cultural guides.
8) Conforming to Western Expectations or ‘Ohhh, look we’re so exotic! Ooooh, look we’re just like you’
This links back to writing for a foreign audience. A lot of present day Pakistani writing in English falls under either the categories of ‘just like you’ or ‘exotic’. For instance, Daniyal Mueenudinn’s ‘In Other Rooms, Other Wonders’ (which should actually be called ‘The Sex Lives of Feudal Landlords and Their Mistresses’), is blatantly geared at a Western audience, attempting to paint the expected picture of a ‘backward’ and exploitative society. Or on the other hand, if we look at films, ‘Slackistan’ tries to tell Western viewers ‘We’re not different at all! We’re exactly like you’ (the phrase ‘colonised minds’ never rang truer).
A few words of humble advice: Always write from the heart, write about whatever inspires you- an idea that burns within you. Write with truth, and honesty- simple words can convey great emotion much more effectively than long winded, complicated words and phrases (One of my favourite lines from Legends of the Fall (1994), is ‘I loved her. I love her still’- it delivers all the passion and depth required without sounding false or silly).