top of page

Do you know what this is?

Tuesday 2/7/23

Check out these first two paragraphs of a story. Fair warning: You're going to want to skim and skip through parts of the bolded. I'm not expecting you to read all of it.

The story of the city began in the fourteenth century of the Common Era, in the south of what we now call India or Bharat or Hindustan. The old king whose rolling head got everything going wasn’t much of a monarch, just the type of ersatz ruler who crops up between the decline of one great kingdom and the rise of another. His name was Kampila, of the tiny principality of Kampili—Kampila Raya, raya being the regional version of raja, king. This second-rate raya had just enough time on his third-rate throne to build a fourth-rate fortress on the banks of the Pampa River, to put a fifth-rate temple inside it, and to carve a few grandiose inscriptions into the side of a rocky hill, before the army of the north came south to deal with him. The battle that followed was a one-sided affair, so unimportant that nobody bothered to give it a name. After the people from the north had routed Kampila Raya’s forces and killed most of his army, they grabbed hold of the phony king and chopped off his crownless head. Then they filled it with straw and sent it north for the pleasure of the Delhi sultan. There was nothing particularly special about the battle without a name, or about the head. In those days, battles were commonplace affairs and severed heads travelled across our great land all the time for the pleasure of this prince or that one. The sultan in his northern capital had built up quite a collection.

After the insignificant battle, surprisingly, there was an event of the kind that changes history. The story goes that the women of the tiny, defeated kingdom, most of them recently widowed as a result of the battle, left the fourth-rate fortress after making their final offerings at the fifth-rate temple, crossed the river in small boats, improbably defying the turbulence of the water, walked some distance to the west along the southern bank, and then lit a great bonfire and committed mass suicide in the flames. Gravely, without making any complaint, they said farewell to one another and walked forward without flinching. There were no screams when their flesh caught fire. They burned in silence; only the crackling of the fire itself could be heard.

Here's some more:

A mutt could also be called a peetham, but to avoid confusion let us simply say that it was a monk’s dwelling. Later, as the empire grew, the Mandana mutt became a grand place extending all the way to the banks of the rushing river, an enormous complex employing thousands of priests, servitors, tradesmen, craftsmen, janitors, elephant keepers, monkey handlers, stable hands, and workers in the mutt’s extensive paddy fields, and it was revered as the sacred place where emperors came for advice, but in this early time before the beginning began it was humble, little more than an ascetic’s cave and a vegetable patch, and the resident ascetic, still a young man at that time, a twenty-five-year-old scholar with long curly locks flowing down his back all the way to his waist, went by the name of Vidyasagar, which meant that there was a knowledge-ocean, a vidya-sagara, inside his large head. When he saw the girl approaching with hunger on her tongue and madness in her eyes, he understood at once that she had witnessed terrible things, and he gave her water to drink and what little food he had.

Some more:

After they had gone to the designated place and scattered the seeds, their hearts full of great perplexity and just a little hope, the two Sangama brothers climbed to the top of a hill of large boulders and thornbushes that tore at their peasant clothes and sat down in the late afternoon to wait and watch. No more than an hour later, they saw the air begin to shimmer, as it does during the hottest hours of the hottest days, and then the miracle city started growing before their astonished eyes, the stone edifices of the central zone pushing up from the rocky ground, and the majesty of the royal palace, and the first great temple, too. All these and more arose in old-fashioned splendor, the Royal Enclosure spreading out at the far end of the long market street. The mud, wood, and cow-shit hovels of the common people also made their humble way into the air at the city’s periphery. In those first moments the city was not yet fully alive. Spreading out from the shadow of the barren bouldered hills, it looked like a shining cosmopolis whose inhabitants had all abandoned it. The villas of the rich, with stone foundations from which sprouted graceful, pillared structures of brick and wood, stood unoccupied; the canopied market stalls were empty, awaiting the arrival of florists, butchers, tailors, wine merchants, and dentists; in the red-light district there were brothels but, as yet, no whores. The river rushed along and the banks where washerwomen and washermen would do their work seemed to wait expectantly for some action, some movement that would give meaning to the place. In the Royal Enclosure, the great Elephant House with its eleven arches anticipated the coming of the tuskers and their dung.

It goes on like that for 7000 words.

Do you know what that is?

That's supposed to be some of the best writing in the world from one of the best writers in the world from one of the best venues in the world. It's a new Salman Rushdie story in The New Yorker called "A Sackful of Seeds." For which he was paid a lot of money.


I don't think you like it. Remotely. The general you. The you of anyone out there. I don't think anyone honestly enjoys reading 7000 words of that. I don't think anyone honestly believes it's any good, let alone amazing, brilliant, the work of some genius. I don't think there's anyone on the planet who honestly thinks or feels those things. I think it's what is now called "word salad." It's a guy who has no story to tell. So what he does is he lards up his prose. His puts in foreign phrases and names. There is no story here. There is nothing to involve you. This imparts no wisdom to you. It doesn't move you. It doesn't inspire you. There is nothing to care about. I don't believe it's possible to care about this work.

Go to The New Yorker and read the whole thing. What characters did you care about? What did you care about at all? What got you? What got to you at your most human place? What hit you hard? What made you laugh? What made you cry? What made you think? What made you think even when you didn't want to think? What made you feel? What made you feel when you didn't want to? What did it do to you? What was the transformative effect it had on you? Why will you read it again? Why do you need to read it again? Why will you read it many times before you die?

It is a chore to try and get through. There is no alive who honestly wants to read this because of what it is on the page. Note my language: because of what it actually is on the page. As writing and writing only. I don't believe that for a second. I don't believe it in my heart. I don't believe it in my head.

I don't need to do the "it's all subjective" thing, because it isn't. I don't think there is anyone in the world who can tell me why that's good. I don't think there is a single legitimate sentence that anyone can say that tells me why that's good. No jargon, no nonsense. Tell me why it's good. Go. No one can. Not a single concrete sentence. All anyone could counter with is airy-fairy BS.

I know why people say it is amazing. Because nothing is real when it comes to the publishing industry or so-called intellectual things. It's all posturing. Posing. Lying. Pretending--and not in the good way. It's all a truckload of naked emperors, and the people on the side of the road who lie and insist that there isn't a wizened ball sack staring them back in the face.

People say this is amazing not because they think it is. Not because they don't dread trying to get through it. It's laborious. It's painful. It's not whimsical and enchanting. It's not satirical and surprising. There is nothing here. There is no life in this prose. There is no reason to care.

Why do you care about it if you say you do? If your child's life depends on you honestly answering the questions "Do you like that story and think it's amazing?" with a double yes, is there anyone out there who would possible answer with two affirmatives?

There isn't. There is nothing here. It's people pretending to like something so they can feel smart. Because they are that shallow and broken. I have news: You are the opposite of intelligent if you feel a need to say this is amazing. You are pathetic. What's here? Tell me. What is here? What is outstanding about this? Give it to me concretely. What is remarkable about this work?

The answer is nothing. If I said this was from some random MFA student, you wouldn't be like, "No way, that's genius!" You'd accept it. The general you. You would think I was telling the truth. You wouldn't doubt me for a second. You wouldn't make some bigger claim about what this work is.

Where is the value in this? What is it doing for you? Who is it for? Professors? Frauds in academia so they can pretend to be above other people? Old people with graduate degrees and places in the Hamptons and a Greenwich Village brownstone that was passed down to them? Miserable pedants who've never honestly enjoyed anything in their lives?

It's not even a real story. This prose master is so unproductive, is so bereft of imagination, that he can't even just write a new story. It's portrayed as a story, but it's an excerpt from his upcoming novel, Victory City, which is a stupid title. Victory City? That's the best you can do? It sounds like a bad Oasis track circa 2009. Or something from Smash Mouth. Hey now. You're an All-Star.

And you know what? It will be a bestseller. It will be lauded. It will win awards. And there won't be a single person in this world who honestly believes it's any good.

This is such a piece of nothing as writing that I can say this. I can stand here and say this with zero concern of even being challenged. Let alone proven wrong. I couldn't do that with, say, Dickens' worst novel.

But this guy? There is nothing special here.

Amazing writing is supposed to do all sorts of significant things. That's why it's amazing writing. Reorder your insides. Blow your mind. Top off your soul. Get you to see the world differently. Yourself. The people you know.

It's supposed to sink into you, stay with you, churn through your veins. Lodge in you. Keep coming back to the forefront of your mind as it perpetually stirs the contents of the other parts of it. Never get forgotten. Make you care about the characters as much as you can care about anyone, and see yourself in those characters, different though they may be from you. From the you you thought you knew. The world you thought you knew.

Great writing brings you home to yourself. It reaches into you, pulls out everything that makes you you, rearranges it, and hands it back to you such that you are more yourself than ever before.

That is the whole point.

Does this do that? The hell it does. And there is no one who believes that any more than I do.

So why does it have to be this way?


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page