Writers are not usually the most beloved of creatures to those who know them. The reason, as Samaresh Majumdar once explained, has something to do with how they source material for their writings. He said he collected material from real-life events, social gatherings and personal anecdotes confided in him, and used that in his novels, sometimes to the chagrin of his sources. Creative writers need “inspiration” and even when something, say, the idea for a story, seems to come out of nowhere, it can be traced back to a flash of inspiration not too dissimilar to the kind that their counterparts in nonfiction occasionally need.
The history of modern literature is also a history of “literature in a hurry”—in this case, newspaper columns. There are clearly marked differences between the two although that line tends to get blurred sometimes. For example, how will Zafar Iqbal or Anisul Hoque be remembered 50 years from today—as fiction writers or columnists? It's not a foregone conclusion as one might think. Despite a number of bestsellers to his credit, in recent years, Zafar Iqbal has acquired a loyal fan base thanks to his columns published by different newspapers and online news portals. Away from home, you have countless examples of writers turning to occasional column-writing for the benefits that it offers: a continued by-line exposure, increased visibility leading to a strong following, a chance to intervene in critical matters.
The thing is, whatever mode of writing you are into, you follow a common pattern: you forage for material to base your work on, develop and polish your content, have it edited, and wait for feedback once it is in the public domain. But to what end?
Oscar Wilde had once famously quipped that the difference between journalism and literature is that journalism is unreadable and literature is not read. What he said over a century ago may sound prophetic if compared with the current state of affairs in the writing business. Today, readers are in awfully short supply but the same cannot be said about writers. Readers are the Holy Grails in an otherwise unholy industry plagued by mediocrity and cheap publicity. Increasingly, the urge to have readers is becoming as genuine as that for anything fundamental in our life.
A writer is no longer a private person. A writer is a public figure—a celebrity, if you will. But the industry being a free-for-all, most writers today are deeply invested in the outcome of their product rather than the product itself. You're either that or you run the risk of being irrelevant, elbowed out of the limelight by your more interactive and self-promoting counterparts. Once, before there was Internet in Bangladesh, a book's success depended on how well it had been received and how profound its impact was on society. Writers, on their part, used to rely on literary addas and book reviews to connect with their readers. Their works spoke for themselves. Now it's them who are doing the speaking, mainly because somewhere along the way both writers and readers have lost their confidence in each other.
It is this crisis of confidence that has forced publishers, editors and writers to seek recourse to the secret corridors of the hearts of their readers. What is it that a reader wants from a writer? It's like asking what women look for in the man of their dreams—the answers to both are never simple. Is it, then, surprising that the most frequently asked question about Facebook is how to boost your fan count or get people to like and share your posts? The idea is, social media will help you get people to love what you have so lovingly produced: your books or columns. True, social media has empowered the voiceless but it has also enabled those with a loud voice to speak ever more loudly, for better or for worse, notably an emerging breed of tech-savvy writers who would make it virtually impossible for you to ignore their ingeniously manufactured promotional posts.
I know some people who never fail to remind how many times their posts/columns have been shared online or how many “followers” they have. And February is like Christmas for these people. I remember my newsfeed getting bombarded with promotional posts on books during last February. A writer-friend of mine had a few unique tricks up his sleeve. He began each of his posts with a touching story from his past, which invariably culminated with a “news” update about his latest book. It's like a story within a story. The news was, of course, not as touching: his surprise at having been approached by an autograph-seeker, getting photographed shoulder-to-shoulder with a famous author, or merely an acknowledgement of his presence in the bookstall. This happened almost every day. I watched helplessly as my newsfeed got invaded by video diaries, book launch alerts and Messenger updates. All these publicity tactics at the expense of personal privacy and basic sense of decency are leading to…well, not much.
According to Bangla Academy, some 3,646 new books were released in the Ekushey Boi Mela 2018 while the total sale of books amounted to Tk 70 crore, a paltry amount given the high footfalls on the venue. Although sale is not the only indicator of the condition of this industry, the insanity that surrounds it says a thing or two about the industry as well. In the newspaper business, the desperate hunt for readers is also an indication of its inherent vulnerability. When attracting readers by any means necessary becomes the goal, quality is bound to suffer.
In his 1921 absurdist drama, Six Characters in Search of an Author, Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello talks about six members of a broken family—six “unfinished characters” who are in search of an author to “finish their story” in the way it should be. Today, that process appears to have been put into reverse. Authors are now in search of readers—benevolent readers who will grace their works with kind attention and make them feel valuable and in control of their life. The world has indeed changed a lot.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.