My Apologies

I apologize in advance for not doing certain things that published authors are expected to do. Let me list them, and offer the reasoning behind my positions:

1 I do not offer or request blurbs/endorsements for ‘creative writing’ (though I make an exception for young or new writers, provided I genuinely like the work). There was a time I used to request endorsements from authors I admired (and I remain thankful to them for obliging me), and I was open to endorsing the works of other authors, established or new. Over the years, I found this difficult. It arose out of a logistic problem: I could not possibly read all the manuscripts that friends, acquaintances and total strangers offered to me. So, inevitably, I had to be selective in what I read in order to offer an endorsement. This meant, in effect, that I was likely to read the manuscripts of people I knew, or manuscripts forwarded to me by people I could not possibly refuse. This, to my mind, was too close to belonging to an old boys’ club, something I have always refused to do. The only option was to not offer endorsements to anyone and everyone – but that meant, in all fairness, that I could not request others to endorse my own books. This is the reason why my novels, with and after The Night of Happiness (2018), carry blurbs from older reviews, but no fresh endorsement. I believe the tradition of endorsements is part of the rot of privilege in literary publication today: it operates through a nexus of top agents, top editors, and top writers, and I do not wish to be part of that nexus. (However, I do peer reviews of academic studies, as this is part of my salaried job, and extracts from these reviews are sometimes used as endorsements. Similarly, I am willing to endorse a translated work from a linguistic or cultural complex that is reasonably familiar to me, which, in effect, means the Indian subcontinent and North Europe. This is partly also due to my belief that translations into English need to be supported by all authors who write in English.)

2 I no longer use agents, or introduce young writers to agents. I have had a very good experience with my agents in USA and India, and a less pleasant experience in UK, which I personally attribute to the patronage relationship that England (London, mostly) still has to Indian writing in English. However, from 2019 onwards, I decided not to go through agents, despite the good experiences. There were two reasons for it. First, I wanted to go back to writing as I had started in my small town, Gaya: reading, writing, reading again, rewriting, reading a bit more, and trying to place my own writing. In 1990, I stuck it lucky when my collection, My World (1991), essentially the poems of a young man struggling to find his register, was selected and published by Rupa and Co, Delhi, as part of a national competition. But the struggle, without agents, without literary patrons, without even literary friends, continued for years after that, after I moved to Delhi to work as a journalist, and then to Copenhagen to live with my Danish girlfriend (later, wife; even later, ex-wife) and do a PhD, while sustaining myself, for the first two years, doing odd jobs like washing dishes and sweeping floors. So, I know what I am talking about: this is a tiring, often disappointing, process, but it is the real thing. The package that even mediocre literary success turns you into is a cocoon, finally, which seldom hatches into a butterfly. I have no wish to be packaged. Second, no matter how lovely an agent or an editor is as a human being – and the ones I have known have all been lovely individuals – there is an unfortunate collaboration of agents, editors, publishers, marketing executives, society types and writers, which, I strongly believe, is detrimental to literature. It is not just the commercial aspect that worries me. The rot goes deeper, turning literature into what capital turns everything into: a secondary source for the supreme primacy of capital as the arbiter of ‘real’ value. No matter how virtuous or radical a writer or an agent might be, this set-up is essentially the same as that of global capitalism, where the top one percent rules. As I enter my last years, I have no desire to continue to be part of this set-up.

3 I like going to occasional literature festivals and conferences, but I find them, as institutions, to be essentially a distraction. Hence, I do only two or three every year – and maybe another two or three in the year when I have a new book out. This means that I have to turn down a few requests. I apologize for this: it is an indication of the fact that I have only limited time at my disposal and not at all that of personal preferences. Essentially, I accept the earliest invitations that come my way, and turn down all subsequent ones for that particular year.

4 I prefer reading writers to meeting them. This applies to all writers: famous or unknown, old or young. I also think you ought to prefer reading me to meeting me.

5 Much as an interview flatters the inky soul of an author, I feel I have done enough interviews, and prefer to avoid new ones, especially if the approach is too general. For instance, I do not want to explain what one of my books might be about: if I could have done so in a few lines, I would not have slogged for years to write an entire book. As such, again, I prefer interviews where the interviewer has a clearer idea of what s/he wants to cover, and specific bones to pick.

Finally, I fear that with the years I have become convinced that the literary world is no different from the wider world – the world of neo-liberal capitalism – that so many major and significant writers bravely protest against. Their protests are necessary and genuine. But they are finally useless, not because all such protests are useless, but because they do not apply the same principles to the literary world. I have always felt that your protests work in larger spheres only if its principles are applied to your own specific sphere of activity. If you are a major academic, you need to look at what is happening in universities, and act accordingly, to the best of your ability. If you are a major writer, you need to look at what is happening in the literary world, and act accordingly. There is no point protesting against the one-percent culture of global or national capitalism when, in your own sphere, you gain from or effectively enable a nexus and a structure that is exactly the same as that of one-percent culture. It is time to opt out (not entirely, which is not possible, but substantially enough to put a scratch in the metal), even if that means that one will have less visibility than before.

My apologies are to those who do not agree with me on such matters. I am sorry, but that is what I have chosen to do: try to write with writers and readers, maybe even with critics, but not play ball with powerful magazine and paper editors, agents, TV and radio hosts, marketing experts, publishers, ad people, society types, more society types, yes, even some top academics, who, with very few exceptions, share that one-percent nexus which is the bane of our globe.

Tabish Khair
1st December 2021


(Suggestion to younger writers who approach me):

Despite (or because) of what I write above, the best advice I can offer to aspiring writers is in the words of Charles Bukowski. Allow me to quote the poem:talking to my mailbox…
(By Charles Bukowski)
boy, don’t come around here telling me you
can’t cut it, that
they’re pitching you low and inside, that
they are conspiring against you,
that all you want is a chance but they won’t
give you a
chanceboy, the problem is that you’re not doing
what you want to do, or
if you’re doing what you want to do, you’re
just not doing it
well.boy, I agree:
there’s not much opportunity, and there are
some at the top who are
not doing much better than you
you’re wasting energy haranguing and
bitching.boy, I’m not advising, just suggesting that
instead of sending your poems to me
along with your letters of
you should enter the
arena –
send your work to the editors and
publishers, it will
buck up your backbone and your
versatility.boy, I wish to thank you for the
praise for some of my
published works
but that
has nothing to do with
anything and won’t help a
purple shit, you’ve just got to
learn to hit that low, hard
inside pitch.this is a form letter
I send to almost everybody, but
I hope you take it
(Charles Bukowski. The Pleasures of the Damned: Poems 1951 – 1993, Edinburgh: Canongate, 2010)
Download as pdf