The unwritten rules

To say that this is an intro-spection would be a blatant lie; writers as a rule rarely indulge in that exercise, for if they did many would not be writing. All their fingers only point outward; self-scrutiny is a sin against … self! One can therefore consider this a confession conveyed in one of those weaker moments when one’s thought is constipated by the absence of ideas as well as agent provocateurs. There cannot be a worse nightmare for a columnist than an uneventful spell: the K’s and J’s and all of their ilk seem to have gone on a virtual vacation with a vengeance, leaving the likes of us low and dry. Not that there was nothing on offer on the political front, only that it wasn’t enough to satisfy the hunger for scandal and slander.

But if politicians are dicey targets who keep journos going, the latter rarely feel grateful to them for giving the grist. In reality a writer’s ego is larger than even the politician’s. Most writings are ego trips concealed in verbal sophistry or camouglaged by plain piffle. The very act of writing about others pre-supposes a superiority, that is often assumed than conferred. But as, the self-appointed guardians of public propriety, writers will brook no dissent. Armed with the supposedly mighty pen … or the keyboard … the writer is an autocrat, an unabashed dictator, obsessed with himself and his make-believe world of words.

So where does the reader figure in the scheme of things? Indeed, if writing is an itch, the reader offers the excuse to scratch! The reality is that writers write for their own consumption. And if wise forefathers of the writing fraternity are to be believed, that’s how it should be. The audience is an apparition, transient and constantly changing. At least the first pat on the back or the knuckle on the head should come from self. To quote William Zinsser, an American columnist: ‘ …you are writing for yourself. Don’t try to visualise a mass audience – every reader is a different person …never worry what the reader might think or look over the shoulder to see if the reader is clucking his tongue…’. Unflattering? Well, the idea is to stress the attitude to be adopted by a writer while writing so that his expression is uninhibited. ‘Readers’ need not feel piqued. They count most.

Not just some gullible readers, but many writers themselves hold on to some myths about writing. The most untenable expectation is objectivity or worse, neutrality. News reports, by their very nature, have to be based on facts, but again even they can only be as ‘seen through the reporter’s eyes’. An element of subjectivity is therefore inherent. But opinion columns can never lay claim to being objective or neutral. I would go as far as to say that such a virtue is taboo; a column in neutral gear can get nowhere. The bias must not be subtly apparent but boldly stated. There can be a thousand arguments on any issue but only one decision. The writer has to declare his. It is a lot better to be judgmental than to be juggling pros and cons. A writer who wants to keep his options open and play safe might as well shelve the pen and host a talk show instead. And writers be warned, the reader has a view too; he is, at the least, entitled to know where the writer stands. It is a professional obligation owed to the reader for bothering to read.

There is then the endless debate over style and substance. The reader of a column is not exactly looking for factual enlightenment. In any case, the discerning ones of today can always glean out facts and figures from the dime a dozen sources that abound at his fingertips without the aid of an academic discourse from a snooty columnust. These are times whence with multiple media barraging the reader from many sides, his attention span is perennially up for grabs. Indeed, the challenge before most writers is to hold on to the reader beyond the first or second para. Most lose them midway. It is therefore inevitable that style and sugarcoats gain precedence over substance, at the risk of sometimes even overwhelming it. But then, when even the mundane budget speeches of FMs come with punches packed, should a columnist shackle himself with sanitised, no-frills prose?

But the holiest of virtues demanded of a columnist is ‘blanket’ social responsibility. And worse is the belief of many writers that they can oblige. A columnist in his unpretentious state of mind can display responsibility only by default and never as a planned project. On the contrary, ‘Target is trouble’ is often a writer’s leit motif. At best, obscenity and outrageous lies can be reasonable restrictions. Even ‘thou shall not provoke’ is a difficult act to follow: With temperatures running high in politics and society, not necessarily due to global warming, and with inflammable characters all around, is it possible to guess who will be provoked by what? In fact, sometimes even silence is deemed a provocation. Again, in a highly polarised milieu, it also happens often that a columnist has to perforce overreach, even go overboard, if only to bring the pendulum, which is stuck at the other end of the opinion spectrum, to the middle. The ‘dictatorial’ columnist, therefore, will have to draw his own LoC of responsibility and be ready to pay the price or reap the fruit of stepping beyond. Reason why ‘publish and be damned’ remains an eternal motto.

And then comes the duty to expose wrongdoings. Though this is a very natural expectation, it assumes that the media can rectify society’s ills. Now that is a mighty tall order. The reality is that the fourth pillar is only a whistling post. The primary burden rests on the other pillars. But they having been corroded and become blase even to blatant exposes, stings and scoops have ceased to serve succour. And then there is the fourth pillar’s own erosion to contend with. A columnist’s righteous indignation or abject cynicism, is actually spurred more by a sense of impotence or helplessness and less by conviction that the written word can change things for the better. That said, the whistle must never be cast away.

Writing is a passion for some, profession for many and a passing fad for the multitudes. It is a personal path to bliss. Any collateral benefit to society is wholly coincidental or accidental. Now, have I confessed a bit too much for comfort?

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Jawahar T R