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Living Obituaries

Just when I thought I knew about every significant Indian writer writing in English (see my hibernating Asiafirst weblog ), Mark Sarvas of Elegant Variations reminds me of another, Kamala Markandaya, author of 10 books. According to Francis C. Assisi’s lovely profile,

in The Nowhere Man Markandaya is more concerned with unfolding the sense of alienation of Srinivas, or the modern man. In this novel political considerations occupy a secondary place, the primary purpose being to highlight the isolation of the individual soul and expose the pathos of the human condition. Markandaya succeeds in achieving the delicate balance between unfolding the individual’s psychological and social predicaments and portraying a wider cultural and political setting which create these crises. This balance is the hallmark of her success as a novelist and it highlights her distinctive art in the choice of her themes and her skilful craftsmanship.

As a side note, although writers alive and dead both need all the attention and publicity they can get, older writers who have fallen from the public eye and whose books are out of print (but whose copyright is vigorously enforced) are special cases for support. It’s unlikely that their works will revert to public domain or creative commons licenses for a significant period of time, and the overwhelming majority of out of print titles don’t make any money for their copyright holders 10 years after their first publication. The only publicity a writer at that stage can hope for is a flurry of obituaries when they kick the bucket (and then people wonder why suicide rates for artists are so high). When you’re out of print, you might as well be dead anyway.

Fortunately blogging makes it easy to learn about writers and artists who have dropped out of view. If Moorishgirl hadn’t linked to coverage on a symposium about Ameen Rihani, I would have never known about this writer. Now knowledge–at least partial knowledge–is only a click away.

Use my writing instructors as examples. Ok, I’ve had writing workshops with several luminaries: a Nobel Prize winner and two National Book Award winners. But two other writing teachers of mine have written with equal distinction (although in a substantially less prominent way) and dedicated their lives to their craft and have won accolades. For one of them (Robert Flynn), I have even written two or three book reviews, (although a lot of those books are out of print and with nary a review on Amazon) and one of his better books still sells for less than $2). The efficiencies of online selling of used books, I suppose is a good thing for authors, and we should be thankful. But sometimes it seems that literary people too easily allow themselves be led by PR departments of New York publishers eager to convince us that the next novel by Michael Chabon or David Eggers is the next big thing.

One reason for the forgetfulness of the market is simply that novels take a long time to plow through, and no one has time to read even a tenth of the books they want to. The point of novels is after all, to consume our time and attention for hours, even days or weeks; that runs counter to our way of living in the 21st century (although it is true that videogames are beginning to have that all-consuming quality also).

I am reminded of Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 where people are assigned to memorize forgotten books and serve as living repositories of novels that have been destroyed. Perhaps we as bloggers (and writers) should feel a similar sense of obligation to our predecessors (because it is only a matter of time before we become predecessors to future generations). We can’t do anything to bring out-of-print works online or to a creative commons environment; on the other hand, we can do online interviews with writers (something along the lines of Kevin Smokler’s Virtual Book Tour), not because they have a book coming out or we were able to snag a review copy, but because the interview would be interesting enough in itself. If each literary blogger could “adopt” three out-of-print writers, that at least would bring three new interviews to cyberspace which any dufus with a web browser would be able to find.

With regard to the writer Robert Flynn, although he’s published several books and written a lot of articles and essays, the only piece on the Net which I could find is the distinguished Vietnam Notes from the journal Examined Life :

And then I noticed how small some of the caskets were. They were too small for a real person. Why was that? Oh! They weren’t too small! They were for the children! I remember feeling rather clever that I’d figured it out. So very clever, until my mind couldn’t bullshit me any more. Until the whole reality hit me. Then, even though I hadn’t done anything, the knowledge of what I’d seen, and of how close I’d come to being a monster out of my nightmares kicked me into a place I wouldn’t be able to leave for a long, long time. Although not the only reason for the self destruction to follow, when the walls finally did begin to crumble so many years later, the process came close to killing me as it has so many others with the self medication of alcohol and drugs. When I see scenes on television of people in pain from war or anything else, it’s not just pictures for me.

The people in that village were not saints. Some that died may have even been the enemy. But all of them had been living human beings. And now they were dead and gone forever. Just like the thousands of young, bright, hopeful Americans and others who made the one way trip to their doom. All I know is that from that night on my life was never the same. One of the lessons I learned then is that we may feel that life is precious, but we are all capable of terrible evil if the time is right. And that until (God forbid) the time it happens, most of us are ignorant of it, and would deny it to the grave. Which is probably just as well. Knowledge like that can be a very heavy burden. Too heavy for the many who give mute testimony by their choice to be absent from this world.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Ray 6/3/2004, 6:42 am

    I’m not sure your excellent suggestion will influence anyone who hasn’t already come to the same conclusion themselves, but here’s hoping. One difficulty in trying to draw attention to neglected work is that it’s likely to make one’s own work more neglected as well: editors are less likely to buy it; researchers are less likely to look for it; tenure committees may be less impressed…. Of course, web self-publishing is a wonderful way around some of these problems, and the weblog format injects a certain amount of random encounter into planned searches. But it still makes the hit-count go down.

    While we’re wishing for people to take on more unpaid responsibilities, I’d add a desire for critics and scholars to do anything they could to bring about republication of primary source material when they publish secondary work. As you mention, our current outrageous copyright laws supress all but the most profitable material. But it is sometimes possible to track down the original author, and it is possible (if risky) to reprint the work after a good faith attempt. Of course, should that work ever be deemed lucrative, you’ll be notified rather rudely. But again, web self-publishing is of some help here: it’s not incredibly expensive, it’s not at all profitable, and it increases the chance that the authors themselves will contact you and give you official permission (as happened for me with a 1960 short story).

  • Robert Flynn 1/9/2005, 3:46 pm

    Dear Mr. Nagle,
    I noticed an article you wrote about the journalist Robert Flynn at:

    http://www.imaginaryplanet.net/weblogs/idiotprogrammer/index.php?p=83397893
    I am aware of the wonderful work of Mr. Flynn the journalist, but the story referred to named “Vietnam Notes” on the Examined Life website was written by me. I found it quite a coincidence that we have the same name and have both written about our experiences in Vietnam. I am just an amateur writer with a desire to share the difficult lessons I learned there. The Internet has proven to be a blessing in that respect. If you are interested, I have a Vietnam photo site at:

    http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/drifteasy2/my_photos

    Wishing you a wonderful 2005!
    Yours, Robert Flynn

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