I belong to Kalyan. Now, Kalyan isn’t a small town or a village. It has multiplexes, malls, colleges, etc.
Kalyan itself is a junction from where trains run to and from the rest of the country, sometimes it even feels like the world.
The reader must wonder what does my hometown has to do with literature and elitism. Fret not; this isn’t an article about Kalyan under the guise of intellectual discourse. However, it was my full intention to meander around a bit before I reached the topic.
My cultural, socio-political, and economic background has a lot to do with the nature of literature I consume, and I assume such is for everyone.
While I went to an expensive, English medium school in my town, it was under the state board’s prerogative. So, my exposure to literature wasn’t on par with my contemporaries’ kind of exposure under international boards or the central committee. I was introduced to Nancy Drew and Enid Blyton in Class 8 when I should have been reading Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes.
In the final years of my schooling, I was leafing through pages of the wimpy kid diaries while knowing nothing about Anne Frank. My favourite reads were the Tinkle comics because of their simplicity.
I am even guilty of declaring Chetan Bhagat, my favourite writer! I question now, though, what is this guilt, or do I need to be guilty?
The question of Elitism in Literature is an old chestnut. Still, its manifestation in our reading circles and habits is frequent enough to warrant a discussion now and then, through newer perspectives. The more acquainted I get with the nuances of literature, the more apparent this prejudice becomes.
I had already begun writing in 6th grade and even attempted to write a novel to become the youngest published fiction writer. I believed I was well-read until I took admission in one of the best colleges in Mumbai.
In my literature class, I realized that my classmates were learning Shakespeare when I was only developing a reading habit. Although I read a lot, I had years to catch up on, I still do.
I had one semester to bridge the gap between my literary naiveté and the complexity of our syllabus. Stories weren’t just stories now; they were questions to be asked and answered. It made several of my peers change subjects at the first opportunity that they got.
Names would fly around in these classes that I’d never heard of, and the following conversations were equally alien. Once I got so flustered that I couldn’t articulate a simple sentence in English. The entire experience was as daunting as it was thrilling.
Telling people you have never read Harry Potter because you were engrossed with Amar Chitra Katha wasn’t appreciated. It was hard to accept my literary idiosyncrasies; it still is. There’s tremendous guilt of never having read Dickens or the Bronté sisters, but I feel all of this guilt is not mine. A lot of it is the culmination of the expectations projected on to me by my academia, peers, and the Intellectual English speaking society in general.
The judgment of what pleases the reader in you is strong. It’s almost as if you are not allowed to read a book and decide whether you like it. I remember reading Twilight in 12th class and my English teacher looking down her nose at me as if condemning my soul to the fiery pits of literary hell. My argument isn’t that Twilight is a good book or bad, for that matter. I wish to be able to read and arrive at a conclusion myself.
I think collectively, we have forgotten that the concept of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is inherently subjective. What may appeal to my sensibilities may not appeal to yours, and that is the beauty of literature. It has so many genres and subgenres to cater to all readers and writers. New branches and styles of storytelling are emerging every decade. We want to make every generation repeat the same classics as if they are the holy grail without which our reading is unfulfilled.
Having spent much time ruminating on this dilemma, I have one thing to say; it’s okay if you can’t tell elegies apart from the odes. It’s okay not to read classical literature at all. It’s okay if you just read comics or graphic novels because they have pictures. It’s okay if audiobooks are your way to go, and it is entirely okay if you prefer watching a movie to reading because you can’t wait.
After studying Shakespeare in college, I didn’t give up on Wattpad, no matter how many eyebrows raise condescendingly when I express that. I have co-directed a Shakespeare play, written a research paper in literature. However, I still find myself reclining back in the comfort of Nancy Drew, TinTin’s adventures, the romances of Mills and Boons, and yes, of course, the fantasy fiction on online websites, including a healthy dose of vampires and werewolves.
It’s entirely all right to read for the pure pleasure of doing so. Choose the books you read for yourself. Humans are an intelligent species, but our intellect isn’t our only defining trait. Simplicity is not without value. While there are books that ignite revolutions and change worlds, there are other books that make us laugh, smile, or make the passage of time more manageable. Both are important.
By Riya Surekha Mishra