SEPTEMBER 9, 2020
“The way it ought to be I leave to the sociologists.”
WE ARE LIVING in the age of public guilt. Just as the vague and clumsy phrase “carbon footprint” exists to cause us guilt about our travel and holidays, so the literature we consume bears its own “privilege footprint.” We now approach literature with the expectation that we will feel guilty, will be reminded of our privilege. It is a new manner and method of reading — literary criticism as self-criticism.
Just as Aristotle demands catharsis from tragic drama, so the reader demands guilt from books coded with the privilege footprint. But there is an important difference between the two: catharsis is agnostic about issues of class, race, gender, caste, and nationality, whereas the privilege footprint is all about hierarchy and power, about our social and political position and relationships.
The cutting awareness of privilege — a word that is used more than it is understood or experienced — has produced a new breed of readers who are sensitive to the power networks of the world, whose emotional and intellectual education prompts demands for social justice. Such readers, because of their conditioning in the power of the written word, are driven to seek justice through literature. Reading a privilege-footprinted text becomes both their activism and their philanthropy, satisfying their urge to do good. There is an element of addiction in this process; it is unconscious, almost hormonal.
Literature, in such an understanding, is a kind of antibiotic that will cure us of our privilege. Texts that remind us of our privilege footprint promise to make us “better persons,” showing us how we have been the unjust beneficiaries of class, race, caste, gender, and other hierarchies. A glance at the books that have won important prizes in the Anglophone world over the last few years reveals the emergence of this new Guilt Lit. It is no coincidence that the juries for these awards are comprised of people whose privilege quotient is highly bullish. This monochromatic understanding of literature as a privilege cleanser — a 21st-century version of the medieval use of religious texts to rid readers of the Deadly Sins — has turned fiction into a kind of sociology for dummies.
Guilt Lit is produced by the “marginalized” for the consumption of the “privileged.” Cultivating a “literature of the powerless” is the invisible brief we’ve given ourselves. When I say “we,” I mean an Anglophone population whose “activism” extends only to reading and writing — anything more demanding, such as taking part in a protest march or two, happens only occasionally. Hence the stress on literature as a courier from the underprivileged world to ours, leading to this passive activism — the activation of guilt.
Just as eating vegan food makes us feel more responsible towards the environment, so reading privilege-footprinted texts makes us feel like stakeholders in the creation of a more egalitarian world. Readers, by consuming these critiques of power — and, by extension, of themselves — feel healthier, as if they have burned off a few calories of privilege. It’s like a trip to the ethical-political gym.
Guilt Lit typecasts the “marginalized” as victims of power, a role they play for our own moral cleansing. They are joyless creatures, angry or sorrowful, waiting for the moment when they can breast the tape of equality. We, of course, do nothing — or very little — to actualize such a possibility, except watching it happen on the page. Apart from the dangers of tokenism, this arrangement typecasts the writer as a representative of social grievances and aspirations. Hence the self-congratulatory air of editors who publish such writer-representatives, and the giving of prizes to these “marginalized” authors, as if it were a redistribution of wealth.
I have heard, firsthand, one such writer’s disappointment with this condescension, with the inability to see him as an individual. Last year in Chennai, Manoranjan Byapari asked me: “When will they recognize my writing for its own sake, and not as writing by a Dalit writer?” Not far away from where we stood, enthusiastic readers were buying copies of his book There’s Gunpowder in the Air as if it were an instruction manual — not to make gunpowder but to make their guilt reading-soluble, so that their privilege disappeared, first with the buying of a copy, and then with its consumption, from cover to cover, like a medicinal dosage.
In this mass proliferation of Guilt Lit, the casualty has, of course, been literature. Volunteering to go through the hardship of ridding oneself of sin by reading texts creates a puritanical understanding of literature. It derives from a suspicion of pleasure, both in literature and in life. In this notion of literature as a factory where guilt is industrially produced, the Anglophone world rejects joy as a necessary part of the reading experience. The rejection of such joy is allied to the inoculation against humor in academic writing, in favor of a discourse of arid solemnity and seriousness.
In his essay “The Contemplative Spectator,” Navtej Singh Johar identifies Gautama Buddha’s trajectory of understanding as the “replacement of self-denying practices of pain-infliction, deprivation, and physical arrest with the self-enhancing experiences of deep comfort and pleasurable repose” — a “momentous turning point in the history of spirituality and mindfulness” that is “nothing short of a revolution.”
This arc of understanding is analogically instructive to the reader of Guilt Lit. The self-torturing regime of guilt will not heal the world. What needs immediate rehabilitation, rather, is our experience of joy in literature. As Rabindranath Tagore wrote in 1909, a few years after the death of his young son, wife, and father: “I have been invited to the festival of ananda, of joy.” That is the true privilege that belongs to the reader of literature.
Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree (2017), Missing: A Novel (2018), Out of Syllabus: Poems (2019), and My Mother’s Lover and Other Stories (2019). She teaches at Ashoka University in Haryana, India.