Wednesday 12 October 2016

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

Judging by the title, Arundhati Roy’s second novel must be a joyfest. Named The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, this will be the author’s sophomore effort after a 20-year wait. Compared to famous procrastinators such as Harper Lee and Leon Tolstoy, two decades might not seem much, but what hides behind the wait?

I, for one, am really looking forward to reading The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. If it is anything like The God of Small Things, Arundhati’s only novel so far, I expect free-jazz-like sentences jumping off the page. A language as rich as the twins Rahel and Estha’s imagination. And a million-story plot. I want to be surprised and shaken, but also entertained.

Therein, then, lies the dilemma of the “tardy” author.

I have often wondered what led the likes of Joyce and Kundera to wait several years before continuing to do what was apparently natural to them: writing a novel. The former let seventeen years slip by between Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. The latter took thirteen to complete The Festival of Insignificance after the publication of Ignorance. Was it fear of not rising up to the challenge posed by the devoted reader? Or perhaps dea(r)th of creativity?

I have a theory. Authors whose oeuvre transcends the confines of literature and become bywords for cultural phenomena (think Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and its social and political connotations) have much more to lose if their next book does not stand up to scrutiny as their previous one. That is quite a lot of pressure already. On top of that, there is the commercial one. They have to make money. After all, this is their craft. So, making money whilst remaining authentic. Fancy giving it a try, reader?

A second reason for any dilly-dallying about bringing another book out could be linked to fear of disappointing followers. For me, Kundera’s philosophical musings are central to his narratives. Without them, I would not have enjoyed The Joke or The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Hence my feelings of frustration when I read his three “French” novellas(they were written in French rather than Czech, the language he had used until then). They lacked his usual insightful, eagle-eye examinations, even if any trace of philosophy in them felt as if it had been thrown in at the last minute. Understandably, Milan went away and came back with what many thought was a return to the golden years of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, his 2015 effort The Festival of Insignificance.

Self-consciousness could be another factor. Harper Lee famously miscalculated the impact of To Kill a Mockingbird on both the public and the critics. The fact that the novel was so well received and that there was such open encouragement for her to keep on writing might have been one of the reasons why she became a recluse.

Some of you are probably thinking “Yes, but writing and publishing are two different things. The former can take two days or two years or two decades. The latter is decided by a group of people, including the writer’s agent, a publisher and editor and it is done within a reasonable time frame.

You are right. Not only that, but also, not writing a second or third or fourth novel for fifteen, twenty or thirty years does not mean that the writer does not write at all. Arundhati Roy has been very, very busy writing non-fiction for the last two decades. Some of it I have read and it is just as good as the make-believe world she created in The God of Small Things.

What, then, makes a writer procrastinate? I have no idea. What I do know is that sometimes, just like now, it is worth the wait. I have not read The Ministry of Utmost Happiness yet, but I am sure that by the end of the book I will have surely partaken in Roy’s literary joyfest.

© 2016

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 15th October at 6pm (GMT)


  1. I'm so looking forward to this - and, given the efforts she has made to fight for the underclasses in India over the years, I can forgive the long wait.

  2. I know life can get in the way, but not for 20 years, hopefully lol Another thing too is such authors don't have to. Wham, got a slamdunk and are now rich. They can enjoy life and take their time. Plus maybe they just had something that needed to be told and wanted to wait until they had something as good. Different strokes for different folks.

  3. I really, really hope that it is as good as her earlier work.

  4. I have only read To Kill A Mockingbird (of course) and God of Small Things. But now you have give me treasure chest of things to explore. Thank you for that.

  5. I would suggest that in some instances, CiL, writers are more interested in living life than in writing about it.

    I am not acquainted with Arundhati Roy and my only encounter with Milan Kundera (perhaps unfortunately) has been in seeing the film adaptation of, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." I feel I really should read him.

    In the instance of our buddy, James Joyce, there are those who think he would have been wiser to have stopped after publishing his magnum opus, "Ulysses." (Some think he did stop !!) Neither his mind nor his body was equipped to match it -- living life had worn them out. As for the others you mention .... no thoughts, no comment.

    It has been fun to witness your enthusiasm about Ms. Roy. I cannot remember the last time I felt any real passion about either a writer or a book.

  6. I read The God of Small Things and I am really looking forward to reading this one. I agree with you one hundred percent that it is well worth the wait. On why writers take forever...I am not sure. Awesome post!

  7. I'm afraid these days my reading is as limited as my writing. I don't worry though since no avid reader will miss me. However, I do enjoy reading your intelligent views on this and other subjects.

  8. Hi ACIL - thanks for directing us to Arundhati Roy ... she is one talented lady ... and by the sound of it always busy. I look forward to reading her books now ... and the others you mention - I am poorly educated from a literary point of view - so the more input I get the better ... brilliant thoughts here ... we just do what we do - I guess ... cheers Hilary

  9. Todo lo que cuesta elaborar sale bueno, así que espero que la obra sea de tu agrado.
    Un saludo.

  10. I should check her out. Marylinee Robinson is another author whose novels are decades apart even though she has published a couple of books of non-fiction essays.

  11. I really must get round to reading her! I do hope the second book is a joyfest. (You didn't mention Donna Tartt's long absence between her first and second novels....)

    1. You're quite right. An oversight on my part, perhaps because of the fact I have yet to read her. She's certainly in the same club and in the "doorstoppers" club as well. :-)

      Greetings from London.

  12. I think you're right. When a writer produces something that is exquisite, and that's lauded and loved by most who read it, that writer has to get filled with fear and self-doubts about his ability to ever produce anything that wonderful again.

  13. I'm a fan of hers and I think Hemingway summed up a writer's reluctance best: "writing is easy, you only have to open up you veins and bleed."

  14. I'm a fan of hers and I think Hemingway summed up a writer's reluctance best: "writing is easy, you only have to open up you veins and bleed."



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