Name-Place-Animal-Thing: Chetan Bhagat, Zadie Smith, Virtual Reality

This week's column deals with our relationships with stories. What do we expect from the fiction we read and who owns a story, the writer or the reader?

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Chetaan Bhagat. Credit: Facebook

Chetaan Bhagat. Credit: Facebook

What’s the point of fiction?

In case you somehow missed it, Chetan Bhagat’s latest book is an exploration of feminism, written in the first person from the perspective of a woman. Titled One Indian Girl, the story aims to get at the struggles of practicing feminism in a sexist society. But depending on who you ask, the book is either a true depiction of their lives or an irredeemable text that flattens the female character and her struggles into a one dimensional search for romantic love.

Bhagat is very proud of his attempt to enter the female psyche but as Nandini Nair writes in her review of the book, the “ambition and execution are not always congruent. A host of unfortunate clichés riddle the text. Such as Radhika as the ‘nerd’ girl who must find self-affirmation in men… The ‘mini-me’ (or the voice in Radhika’s head) delivers dialogues like, ‘How can a girl admit she is thinking about kissing? Isn’t that what super- sluts do?’ Such lines will compel a reader to add an exclamation mark in disbelief to the margins of the text.”

The questions Bhagat raises in his novel are not inherently bad ones but his handling of them betrays an approach that didn’t really sink beyond the surface. For instance, instead of wondering why she’s thinking about kissing and if that would make her a ‘super-slut’, Radhika could have easily wondered “Will my sexual confidence make my love interest uncomfortable? And if it does, maybe I should find another man.”

Bhagat took societal expectations of women and wrote about them without really revealing the inner negotiation that goes into practicing theory – something that I would term an ‘authentic’ female experience and he might call ‘ultra-feminist’ which is just another of his euphemisms for ‘elitist’.

Though of course, Bhagat’s career is based on privileging one kind of Indian identity over the other. Ever since he wrote his first book, his claim to fame has been that he writes for the ‘average Indian’. Nair sets up her entire piece by acknowledging this, “Today, Bhagat is more a totem than an individual. For one (much larger) section of readers, he is an emblem of authority and affinity, he speaks to them and for them; for another, he symbolises the spread and hold of mediocrity, a populist at best, a charlatan at worst. The tragedy in India is how irreconcilable these two groups are, the snobbery and haughtiness of one pitted against the ambition and sincerity of the other.”

The difference between the two groups is not an insurmountable, divinely ordained gap – it is a carefully constructed one and not just by the haughty elite, but by Bhagat himself. He too creates two different ideas of what it means to be Indian and then justifies his books by claiming that there is no bridge between the two sides.

The real tragedy (excuse my hyperbole) is that as a novelist Bhagat is standing on that very bridge. Fiction allows us to access minds and worlds we never may otherwise, yet Bhagat’s narratives seem invested in maintaining that societal distance instead of finding ways to narrow it down. He seems to deny that a reader’s inability to empathise with his characters could emerge from his failings as a writer rather than the reader’s lack of imagination.


Zadie Smith. Credit: David Shankbone/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Zadie Smith. Credit: David Shankbone/Flickr CC BY 2.0

The authoritative ‘I’

Bhagat’s affinity for writing in first person is starkly contrasted by Zadie Smith’s reluctance to adopt it. Swing Time, Smith’s forthcoming novel and first attempt at writing in first person is about to release next month and Jeffrey Eugenides’ profile of her raises the same questions that hound Bhagat.

At first, Smith acknowledged how going to therapy helped her overcome her misgivings about writing in first person, she told Eugenides, “I’ve always felt very cringe-y about myself. Fiction is a useful way of getting around it or disguising oneself one way or another. Not being able to write in the first person was very much about that, and self-disgust or anxiety about saying ‘I.’” In a way, she had to access her own emotional landscape to be able to deliver a believable first person narrative despite not actually writing about herself.

Contrast this with Bhagat’s approach to writing and it seems like Smith’s work  focuses on exploring and understanding the world through writing fiction about other people whereas Bhagat’s takes the form of an authoritative narrative about what he thinks of the world. The gendered contrast is easy and ready for the taking.

But Eugenides was surprised when Smith linked her reluctance to adopt the authorial ‘I’ to her gender: “It did seem to me, when I was a kid and also now that I’m a grown-up writer, that a lot of male writers have a certainty that I have never been able to have. I kept on thinking I would grow into it, but I’m never sure I’m doing the right thing.”

Eugenides came up with counter examples such as women who are perfectly comfortable writing authoritatively and male writers who are not – and in my opinion forgot that the existence of counterexamples doesn’t disqualify the prevalence of a trend. Though even he acknowledged that Smith isn’t really referring to some inherent difference in gender but to the effects that emerge from being brought up in a gendered societal structure.

Bhagat, Smith, Eugenides all seem aware of the current fixation on the autobiographical. Bhagat obviously has made a career of it while Smith it turns out has consciously stayed away from it. Eugenides too didn’t provide any answers, instead inquiring, “ is there no way to mine one’s own emotional and biographical terrain for ore with which to construct other lives? Would Tolstoy or Shakespeare, alive today, only write about themselves?”

To me this question goes beyond fiction and straight to the heart of identity politics. If I think that some aspects of my identity are permanently fixed regardless of context it may give me a firmer sense of self but it also detracts from my ability to recognise some of my ‘unique’ experiences as common and so, shareable. At the end of the day, I think we all search for representation in the creative works that we consume but that search is predicated on our ability to exercise empathy because how else are we going to feel anything for a person and situation that we know doesn’t exist.  But this empathy is also limited by our own criteria for what we allow ourselves. If I never pick up a book because the characters sound nothing like me and thus are of no interest to me, I’m denying myself an attempt at stretching my ability to connect with other people, other narratives.

But as Smith put it, “There is no unimpeachable identity from which you can operate in the world from a position of righteousness at all times.” Identity politics is good for diagnosing problems, such as the gendered ways of creating fiction but once you’re done recognising that problem and how it’s predicated on a particular kind of difference, the same tools don’t help you figure out how to move forward. Is it harder to empathise with other people once you’re aware of your differences or does that understanding make it easier to traverse previously unaccessible emotional terrain?

Perhaps this is where my problem with Bhagat lies – his novels create narratives that insist on diagnosing and then establishing certain differences as inherently non negotiable. Whereas my personal demand from fiction goes beyond that, I want Bhagat and Smith to give me ways to proceed forward from that difference and show me different ways of being, not further entrench me in my current identity.  

As Smith says about ‘unimpeachable identity’, “How tempting it must be to grab it with both hands and be that person, the unimpeachable moral person of rightness and rectitude. But you know it’s an illusion.” It’s an illusion that not only Bhagat but also all of us buy into to varying extents.

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Woman using a virtual reality headset. Credit: Nan Palmero/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Woman using a virtual reality headset. Credit: Nan Palmero/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The future of storytelling

If I’m going to be this demanding, I might as well write my own fiction right? Not really, because I’m not searching for ways to validate my own experiences and thoughts, I’m looking for ways to understand others’. A book is a one-way street with fixed points and at least for me, is marked by equally one-way conversations with an author I’ll never actually interact with.

But virtual reality and gaming is headed in a much more collaborative direction. In a piece titled, ‘Read It and Bleep: Is Virtual Reality the Future of Storytelling‘, Kate Gwynne explores the ways in which immersive video games are changing the way we experience stories. He is addressing more refined stuff but I just want you to know that I spent my weekend playing (and loving) 80 Days, a video game based on the book and the movie, which lets you inhabit the character of Passepartout and ‘live’ the adventure so to speak. There are others, like Elegy of the Dead, that require you to write fiction of your own to navigate given narratives.

As Gwynne notes, “We say we “enter the minds of characters” when we read books, but role-playing in immersive worlds, such as VR narratives or theatre, takes that sense of immediacy to a whole other level: the narrative feels like something you actually experience.”

The first thing that strikes me about this is the consumer’s control over a narrative, which could feel so invasive to an author whose carefully crafted storyline may succumb to the fan fiction-esque demands of a reader.  The author explains the limited agency in such ventures, “Audiences can choose their route and tempo, but there are anchor points and the finale must deliver: “There is the illusion of agency, but they are on rails.” This nuanced approach suggests we are entering a sophisticated new era in which the exchange between author and participant creates a better outcome for both, leaving questionable author-fan collaborations of the past behind.”

If this is the future of storytelling (and I so want it to be) then authors will have to create complex, deep worlds to account for the all possibilities that readers may want to explore. Authors and readers will learn to inhabit new and different subjectivities, which to me will mean moving away from the fixed and autobiographical narratives that are predominant today.

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