Reading Literature Today: Two Complementary Essays and a Conversation


Tabish Khair & Sébastien Doubinsky

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  • Part I: Literature and the Limits of Language: An Essay on Silences and Gaps

    Part II: ‘In the Mind of the Bourgeois Reader’: An Essay on Reading as an Uncomfortable Experience (Translated Partly from French by the Author)

    Part III: A Discussion of Realism, Magic Realism, Consumerism, Publishing, Reading and Writing

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    Preliminary Note

    These two essays and the concluding conversation, which covers the same areas and explores related ones in more general terms, grew out of various coffee breaks in the Nobelparken canteen of Aarhus University, where Sébastien Doubinsky teaches in the French Department and Tabish Khair in the English Department. The authors share a certain vision of literature, rigorous but inclusive, and a feeling of dissatisfaction with certain critical and market trends in recent decades. They propose—from the different but overlapping concerns of a ‘re-definition of literature’ and a ‘re-definition of reading’—a certain approach to literature that, it is hoped, will be of use to students and academics, but which is also formulated for and by writers and readers. The essays are driven by a degree of frustration with the division that has come into being not only between academic criticism and practising writers but even, and more disturbingly, between students of literature and its voracious non-student readers. It is a division that, being academics, students, readers and writers, both Doubinsky and Khair consider impoverishing on all sides.

    Hence, while not willing to incinerate their academic gowns, the two authors agreed to approach the overlapping issues of reading and defining literature primarily as readers and writers of literature. For, though the two differ in their cultural backgrounds and political convictions, they do share a common experience of being, firstly, readers, and then, writers, in a ‘global’ world. They also feel that the sort of major critical interventions that practising writers—as late as T. S. Eliot or Sartre—had made in the reading and criticism of literature until the middle of the twentieth century have diminished: major contemporary writers (such as Seamus Heaney, Salman Rushdie or Edward Kamau Brathwaite) still write excellent critical essays, but the scope of such essays is strictly delimited.1 They seldom address ‘literature’ or ‘reading’ in general, and academic critics seem to work on the assumption that the only writer is a dead one, literally or textually.

    There is much that Doubinsky and Khair do not share: Khair was educated mostly in India, and grew up speaking Urdu, Hindi and English; Doubinsky was educated mostly in France and USA and grew up speaking French and English. Both of them have since learned other languages but Khair writes only in English, while Doubinsky writes in French and English. As creative writers, their books are quite different; as academics, they teach in different fields and offer different courses; as citizens, they are influenced by different political traditions at times. Moreover, as critics, they write within different traditions of criticism, which is obvious from the fact that Doubinsky has translated his own essay partly from French.

    But both of them have overlapping points to make in an endeavour to return living literature to the centre of attention—of students and readers, critics and writers, and perhaps even of publishers and literary editors. Both of them have a commitment to literature as neither elitist nor populist: in the sense that while, sometimes in differing ways, they want to work out definitions of literature that are not over-determined by the past and by structures of authority (such as a ‘canon’), they are also unwilling to relinquish the field of evaluation and definition to the bullying of the mob or the market, or to a non-intellectual relativism.

    Hence, the two essays are meant to be read together, but in no particular order, while the conversation that follows expands on some of the ideas contained in the essays, explains or accents some, and throws up a few more thoughts for the reader to juggle with, before finally returning the discussion to the practice of both the writer-critics as creative writers.

    25 September 2010


    1. Especially when it comes to literature qua literature, because some of these writers do make large historical or cultural points. The post-modernist suspicion of ‘grand narratives’ and the complex of market-corporate-blogging populism (which deems any talk of literature with a capital ‘L’ elitist) appears to have led major contemporary writers (even those who eschew post-modernism) to talk about ‘poetic style’ or ‘voice in poetry’ or ‘hybridity in the novel’ or review another writer, rather than engage with ‘Literature’ in general.


    are due to Professors Christopher Prendergast, Susan Fischer and Jørn Andersen, for their time and comments.

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    About the Authors

    Tabish Khair is a poet, journalist, critic, educator and novelist. Shortlisted for the Encore Prize and the Crossword Award and winner of the All India Poetry Prize, he has been awarded academic fellowships and scholarships at various universities, including Copenhagen University, Jamia Milia Islamia University, Delhi University and the University of Cambridge.

    After about four years as a staff reporter in Delhi, Khair left for Copenhagen, Denmark, to do a PhD, which he completed in 2000. It was published as Babu Fictions and has since become one of the important secondary texts on Indian English fction. In 2000, Khair also published a collection of poems, ‘Where Parallel Lines Meet’ (Penguin), which is considered to be “one of the most signifcant collections in recent years by an Indian writing in English.” It included poems for which he had won the prestigious All India Poetry Prize.

    Khair's second novel The Bus Stopped was shortlisted for the Encore Award and his new novel, The Thing about Thugs has been shortlisted for the Hindu Best Fiction Prize. His other publications include the co-edited anthology, Other Routes: 1500 Years of African and Asian Travel Writing (2006) and the study, The Gothic, Postcolonialism and Otherness (2009).

    Sébastien Doubinsky was born in Paris in 1963. Having spent a part of his early childhood in America, he is completely bilingual and writes both in English and French. An established writer in France, Sébastien Doubinsky has published more than 12 novels, covering different genres, from classical literature to crime fction. He currently lives in Aarhus, Denmark, with his wife and his two children, where he teaches French literature at the Aarhus university. Two of his recent novels are The Babylonian Trilogy (2009) and Quién es? (2010).

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