21st century writing | 21st century approaches

The Author Returns

Arya Aryan

Since the 1980s the concept of the author has shifted from the age of the death of the author, as proclaimed in Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’ (1967), to the post-theory era which re-establishes the importance of the author as a result of an increasingly globalised literary landscape. The concept is now situated in a global inasmuch as in a national landscape, which poses new challenges and raises questions about the ethical responsibility of authors. Fiction in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, which carries the label meta-modernist, is suggestive of the return of the serious, ethically- and politically-committed author. Salman Rushdie was amongst the first writers to notice the change to the role of the author, and to take the first steps towards experimenting with new means of expression in fiction: “Our identity is at once plural and partial” (Rushdie, “Imaginary” 15). A desire and commitment to change for the better is consciously manifested in both his essay entitled “Imaginary Homelands” (1991), and the novel Midnight’s Children (1981), which stresses the need felt amongst writers to express the world differently. As Rushdie states, modern writers are  “talking earnestly of such matters as the need for new ways of describing the world” (ibid. 13). Since to describe the world is itself a political act, Rushdie argues, a revolution in the means of description is therefore “the necessary first step towards changing it” (ibid. 14). This essay will argue that Rushdie posits the author, as embodied in his protagonist Saleem, as a politically committed social reformist, who aims to bring about positive change and fluctuates between mediumship and romantic expressionism.

Why is the act of writing a novel political, one might ask? Rushdie would reply that “it is particularly at times when the state takes reality into its own hands, and sets about distorting it, altering the past to fit its present needs, that the making of the alternative realities of art, including the novel of memory, becomes politicized” (ibid. 14). It is political because writers and politicians are in constant competition with each other; they “are natural rivals”, since both would impose their own image of the world upon us in pursuit of their own ends: “the novel is one way of denying the official, politicians’ version of truth” (ibid.). Within this paradigm, fiction can debunk political, official “facts”, since these “facts” are, of course, distorted versions of what really happened (ibid.). Rushdie is expressing and anticipating what later comes to be known as a meta-modernist and New Sincerity tenet: fighting against the postmodern dominant irony, apathy and cynicism prevailing our life and a sincere quest for truth and sincerity to bring about positive social and political change (as called upon by Turner, Wallace and Pinter). Bradley Warshauer stipulates that the New Sincerity is “both irony-driven destruction and earnest attempts at rebuilding” (n.p.).

Image by Martin Fisch “Transmitter” used under a CC BY 2.0 license.

For Rushdie, the means of giving lie to the politicians’ version of the truth, and the best way in which to describe the world differently, is by pushing the boundaries of the novel, as a genre, to its very limits. And that is exactly what the contemporary “world” writers (such as Rushdie) are doing. In Midnight’s Children (MC), Saleem comes to realise the exceptional telepathic power which his ability to hear voices accords him, allowing him to function as a conduit for differing cultural centres. Yet, the power which he possesses serves no purpose if he is not able to use his talents (energy) for social betterment. Saleem’s unease with using his powers seems to curiously attune with our contemporary preoccupation with energy conservation and the need to turn to alternative energy resources in response to the current global environmental crisis. The present Bombay is described as a large multicultural and transnational business centre; it is a city that has changed from the time of Saleem’s childhood. He notes that their Bombay used to be very different but is now decorated with night clubs, factories, hotels, cinemas and cathedrals (MC 86). Now it is a metropolis with Indian shops, Persian restaurants, cheap houses and skyscrapers (MC87–8). This change is also clear in the change of the name from Bombay to Mumbai. Rushdie too, not unlike Saleem, is from “a metropolis in which the multiplicity of commingled faiths and cultures creates a remarkably secular ambience” (“Imaginary” 16). In this light, Saleem is Rushdie’s alter ego, expressing his preoccupations with the current political and environmental changes and his commitment to echoing multiple voices as our world today is increasingly plural and global, encompassing a multiplicity of cultures.

Although the novel has been criticised for its despairing tone, we might perhaps agree with Rushdie that he has still departed from postmodernist cynicism via the tension between Saleem’s personal view and what the novel offers as differing possibilities. In this respect, Midnight’s Children functions as a meta-modernist text. “The form”, Rushdie suggests, is “multitudinous, hinting at the infinite possibilities of the country–is the optimistic counterweight to Saleem’s personal tragedy” (“Imaginary” 16). The purpose of this tension and discrepancy (irony) is to provide an alternative vision of political change for the reader. Rushdie’s literary practice here very well expresses the ethos of meta-modernism and the New Sincerity. Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll assert that “irony without a purpose enables cynicism” as it only aims at destruction without offering any hopeful alternative (n.p.). [1]

Rushdie’s use of irony, however, does not stop at the level of destruction or deconstruction. Rather, the infinite possibilities that the novel provides are a gateway away from the present cynicism (expressed by Saleem) to rebuild the world order. Our contemporary world (which is flooded with different reality TV shows, talk shows and other pure entertainment programmes) is defined by a sense of apathy, stupor and lack of action. Jeffrey T. Nealon points to the same prevailing apathy as characteristic of the contemporary era: “we post-postmodern [meta-modern] capitalists are trained by our media masters to watch rather than act, consume rather than do” (88). [2]  Since the 1980s, postmodern culture, which had then already been saturated with media and pop culture, has given way to an even more poisonous, media-driven culture, dominated by almost pure entertainment. The technique which Rushdie uses to wake his readers from this stupor and delusion is an amalgamation of fantasy and realism. Rushdie has argued:

Fantasy, or the mingling of fantasy and naturalism, is one way of dealing with these problems. It offers a way of echoing in the form of our work the issues faced by all of us: how to build a new, “modern” world out of an old, legend-haunted civilization, an old culture which we have brought into the heart of a newer one. (“Imaginary” 19)

This manifests in Midnight’s Children through Saleem’s voice hearing experiences as he conjures up all the children born on the night of the partition of India, thanks to his telepathic powers. This might be said to move beyond the simple, mimetic mechanisms of realism, whilst still ensuring that the realism of the novel’s historical intertexts–the partition of India–remains at its centre.

Rushdie offers both the postmodern secular apocalyptic end of history (of British India in 1947) and an optimistic view of the future. The apocalyptic image of sterility is dominant: from Saleem’s physiological sterility, over the bombardment and destruction of the city where his family live and Sanjay’s forced sterilisation programme to control the growth of population, to attempts to make Saleem’s magical powers shut down (by shutting up the voices he hears). Saleem contemplates his own name and acknowledges an apocalypse: “it is the name of the desert-of barrenness, infertility, dust; the name of the end” (MC 303). Similarly, we are told that Karachi “obscured the desert; but either the cords, or the infertility of the soil, made it grow into something grotesque” (MC 307). Yet, the novel takes a meta-modernist view of history: progress towards a final goal which does not exist even as the novel pretends that it does. In other words, the meta-modernist artist must pretend that they are making progress towards an ultimate telos, a better goal, though it remains one which they will never reach. Vermeulen and Akker liken this meta-modern tenet to the metaphor of the donkey-and-carrot double-bind, where the carrot is a reward held from a stick above the donkey to urge it forward so that the it chases the carrot, the goals forever beyond reach (MC 5).

The notion that history has no purpose and is purely a matter of chance is best exemplified in Shiva’s words (the voice Saleem conjures up) who mocks Saleem for believing in a higher purpose (MC 220). The cynical apocalyptic view is channelled via Shiva here whilst the naiveté of a possibility of continuation and progress is proposed in the narrative by Saleem’s attempt to silence Shiva’s voice or what he himself self-consciously calls “my alter ego” (MC 229). The violent splitting of India represented in the novel marks the end of an old system and the dawn of a new order. The end of this old system in the novel is represented by an apocalyptic depiction of India while the idea of (re)birth (of Pakistan, a new India, the midnight’s children and of Parvati’s newly born child towards the end of the novel) promises the reconstruction of a new world/order. As Teresa Heffernan observes, “Saleem Sinai also draws on the revolutionary legacy of apocalyptic nationalism as an obvious frame for account of India’s struggle of liberation” (101). History ends, but Saleem feels a responsibility to re-unite the scattered individuals and rebuild a new order. This new order should contain a multiplicity of voices in order to breach geographical, political and religious gaps and fissures and thereby bring people together by emphasising their connections rather than differences. “To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world”, simply because our destinies are closely linked together in this new global world despite being geographically, politically and religiously dispersed and fragmented (MC 108). 

Nonetheless, the optimism regarding the establishment of a new world order (as epitomised in Saleem’s birthday and marriage) which is channelled through multitudes (infinite possibilities, to use Rushdie’s terms) in the novel, is simultaneously presented as informed naiveté. The world (India) described in the novel is an apocalyptic one, characterised by dictatorship, suppression, violence and explosion. Being endowed with an exceptional gift, Saleem feels a historical responsibility to use his powers to bring all the world together into a unified whole: “Consumed multitudes are jostling and shoving inside” him (MC 3). Rushdie realises that too much scepticism and detachment would cause apathy and lack of fellow-feeling, yet too much attachment with no irony and scepticism would lead to sentimentalism. Therefore, both positions are offered to the readers of the novel. On the one hand, we see Saleem’s attempts to get connected to and receive others (to put himself in their shoes), and, on the other, we recognise that the postmodernist scepticism, deconstruction of metanarratives and self-reflexivity as well as self-consciousness of the narration brings about ironic distanciation. Thus, the novel oscillates between the two poles (irony and fellow-feeling), reaching one pole at a time.     

Image by hams Nocete “under a 50m Transmission Tower” used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Midnight’s Children (1981) was one of the first and most influential novels to reflect on and fictionally pivot around the sense that a radically new concept of authorship is called for. [3] Saleem, the story-teller, splitting and peeling as voices speak through him, is an image of the new novelist containing multitudes, who must somehow allow the singularity of each voice to speak through him. His head has become a transistor radio:

I was a radio receiver, and could turn the volume down or up; I could select individual voices; I could even, by an effort of will; switch off my newly-discovered inner ear. […] [B]y morning, I was thinking, ‘Man, this is better than All-India Radio, man; better than Radio Ceylon!’ (MC 162)

Radio, the new medium for the newly globalised postcolonial world that was coming into being in 1947, makes its intrusive appearance throughout the novel. The radio becomes the symbol of Nero’s modernised new globalised nation just as it becomes the symbol of the New Tower of Babel that is post-partition. The radio as global transmitter also represents the disseminated author figure of Saleem and of Rushdie himself as new world novelist in English. This author no longer has a clear sense of their intended readership or of who might “tune into” their words. Rushdie, like Saleem, is a person who is a channel to different centres of culture across the world. This is a definition of the contemporary author or what, for Rushdie, the function of the author must become in our contemporary world.

Turning the inside of Saleem’s head into a world radio transmitter is Rushdie’s vision of a new transnational novel and authorship under the new world dispensation. Saleem recounts the experiences of fragmentation connected to his role as the author: “Shiva and the Angel are closing closing, I hear lies being spoken in the night, anything you want to be you kin be, the greatest lie of all, cracking now, fission of Saleem, I am the bomb in Bombay, watch me explode, bones splitting breaking beneath the awful pressure of the crowd” (MC 459). “I have been a swallower of lives” (MC 3), Saleem says at the very beginning of the novel. That enthusiastic committed purpose of bringing about a positive change on a large scale inevitably results in the disintegration of his own authorial self as he lets others speak through him. 

For the novelistic imagination, art is somatic, as Rushdie seems to suggest. Its origins lie in the grotesque of Rabelais, Cervantes and Sterne: they are grounded in the body and the embodied mind. So, too, could the nation be conceived as a body. [4] In Rushdie’s novel, this view is reflected in Dr Aziz’s examination of the body of his future wife, a kind of future Mother India, throughout which “the soft secret body [of his future wife] began to shake and quiver” (MC 19). Rushdie, himself an expatriate, expresses his concern with physical alienation of the exiled from India which would lead to failure in “reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost” (“Imaginary” 10). Similarly, Dr Aziz, who has just come back to India after living abroad, is being acquainted with the “secret body”, i.e. the now unfamiliar India, to reclaim it. His examination of fragments of the body is similar to Saleem’s fragmented memory and Rushdie’s own about India as expressed in the essay, which are all echoed in the fragmented narrative style of the novel. It further comes up in the description of Saleem’s runny nose, his peeling skin and exploding body, echoing the literal explosion of India. Moreover, Saleem oscillates between deconstructive activity–the splitting and disintegration of his body and self and simultaneously of the nation itself–and a re-construction of the world, the body and self. This oscillation is negotiated by inviting the voices from different geographies and cultures on a large global scale into his head, receiving them, listening to them, speaking to them and finally re-uniting them. Somatisation is defined as “a process whereby the body translates mental stress into physical expressions that have symbolic value, […] [it] also represents primitive defense mechanisms, like denial and repression, against undesirable wishes or urges” (Iezzi, Duckworth and Adams 216). Hence, Saleem’s body becomes a physical conduit for all the afflictions and traumas of the entire Risk World[5] as his nose functions like an antenna, receiving different signals from around the world: “mysteriously, my nose recognized, once again, the scent of personal danger” (MC 423). At this point, Saleem also tells us that he was prophesied by soothsayers in the fashion of prophets who are prophesied before they come to the world. He realises that he is endowed with an exceptional power, like a chosen prophet, and therefore that it is incumbent upon him to use this gift in the best way, that is to by creating a new world order based on connections rather than divisions.

Saleem’s cracking up, peeling off and exploding (that is his sense of being split apart, the division of his self into different voices as discussed earlier) are an indication of the function of the author in this newly created world, a means to go beyond the containment of the limits the body as geographical confinement to widen one’s subjective horizon and take up a global stance. As the body is bound (and arguably equal) to a certain place and geography, the contemporary author uses telepathic power of imagination to circumvent this limit and connect to the world. As a result, s/he might feel being physically torn apart, as Saleem does, by the attempt to include multiple voices and embody and express traumas of the globe. If Saleem’s body is the narrowly defined frontier of the nation, his magic power enables him to connect to the world entire. Thus, the writer’s perspective should be international, that is, it should be committed to bring about change for the better on an international scale, to open the universe of our subjective horizon and move beyond the limited bubble into which we have retracted. 

Image by darwin Bell “The Thinker” used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

The form of the novel can be regarded as a regulator of mood and emotion, shaper of sentiment and sympathy: like the athlete with mental training, the imaginary world of fiction trains its readers in the mental muscle required for survival in and ethical response to a new world culture (Clarck et al.). In Midnight’s Children, Rushdie employs the motif of the traumatised and somatising body of the new Risk World, which has become an effect of the materially medicalised therapy culture noted by Frank Furedi, in order to navigate through the shift in the role of the author. Rushdie’s is therefore preoccupied with the question of how to re-write (re-build) our world. Through the figure of Saleem, Rushdie ascribes to the writer a central role in the project of establishing of a new world order and highlights the difficulties which authors experience as well as the ethical obligations connected to the need to respond to an increasingly globalised world. Hence, Saleem, as Rushdie’s alter ego, is both the romantic/expressionist author figure and a conduit for the traumas of the globalised world. In an increasingly global, risky world, the author is a medium, a transformer of the illnesses/traumas of the world into meaningful characters and stories. Rushdie cherishes the power of imagination as a vehicle to bring about changes in the world because of its effects on body, mind and memory; imagination shapes perception, changes how we see and hear our worlds. In short, the contemporary author creates positive alternative realities from despair in order to engender positive change on the global scale.

Arya Aryan, “The Author Returns: The Author as a Politically Committed Social Reformist” Alluvium, 7.2 (2019): n. pag. Web. 30 April 2019. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v7.2.03

About the Author:

Arya Aryan has recently completed his PhD in Postmodernist, Feminist and Contemporary literature under the supervision of Professor Patricia Waugh and is currently a teaching assistant in the Department of English Studies. His dissertation entitled “The Authorship Question and the Rise of Postmodernist Fiction: From Madness to Agency” examines conceptions of authorship before, during and after the historical moment of the emergence of the concept of the death of the author. He is currently preparing his first monograph on the topic of authorship since the 1950s to the present. He was also a co-editor of Postgraduate English: A Journal and Forum for Postgraduates in English and is a reviewer of the Durham English Review: An Undergraduate Journal.

Website: https://uk.linkedin.com/in/arya-aryan-39a71265

Works Cited:

Ashby, Matt, and Brendan Carroll. “David Foster Wallace Was Right: Irony Is Ruining Our Culture.” Salon, 13 April 2014,  https://www.salon.com/2014/04/13/david_foster_wallace_was_right_irony_is_ruining_our_culture/. Accessed 4 April 2019.

Beck, Ulrich. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Sage, 1992.

Clarck, Brian C., Niladri K. Mahato, Masato Nakazawa, Timothy D. Law and James S. Thomas. “The Power of the Mind: the Cortex as a Critical Determinant of Muscle Strength/Weakness.” Journal of Neurophysiology, vol. 112, no. 12, 2014, pp. 3219–3226.

Furedi, Frank. Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age. London; New York: Routledge, 2004.

Heffernan, Teresa. Post-Apocalyptic Culture: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Twentieth-Century Novel. University of Toronto Press, 2008.

Iezzi, Tony, Melanie P. Duckworth, and Henry E.  Adams. “Comprehensive Handbook of Psychopathology.” Comprehensive Handbook of Psychopathology, edited by Patricia B. Sutker and Henry E. Adams. 3rd ed., Kluwer, 2002.

Nealon, Jeffrey T. “Post-Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism.” Supplanting the Postmodern: An Anthology of Writings on the Arts and Culture of the Early 21st Century, edited by David Rudrum and Nicholas Stavris, Bloomsbury, 2015, pp. 78–97.

Pinter, Harold. Art, Truth and Politics: The Nobel Lecture. Faber, 2006.

Rushdie, Salman. “Imaginary Homelands.” Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981–1991. Granta, 1992, pp. 9–21.

—. Midnight’s Children. Cape, 1981.

Turner, Luke. “Metamodernism: A Brief Introduction.” Notes on Metamodernism,12 January 2015, http://www.metamodernism.com/2015/01/12/metamodernism-a-brief-introduction/. Accessed 4 April 2019.

—. “Metamodernist Manifesto.” Notes on Metamodernism, November 2011, http://www.metamodernism.org/. Accessed 4 April 2019.

Vermeulen, Timotheus, and Robin van den Akker. “Notes on Metamodernism.” Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, vol.2, no. 1, 2017, pp. 1–14.

Wallace, David Foster. “E Unibus Pluram Television and U.S. Fiction.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction, vol. 13, no. 2, 1993, pp. 151–94.

Warshauer, Bradley. “On Irony, David Foster Wallace Wasn’t Wrong–But He Is Obsolete.” Black and Gold Review, 5 May 2014, http://www.blackandgoldreview.com/2014/05/05/irony-david-foster-wallace-obsolete. Accessed 4 April 2019.


[1] Eric Fischl’s “The Old Man’s Boat and the Old Man’s Dog” (1981), oil on canvas. An emblem of postmodern apathy and dystopic cynicism. Similarly, The Onion’s Applebee’s self-deprecating ad is exemplary of our cynical, irony-driven society.

[2] There are many terms used to refer to the contemporary. Nealon uses ‘Post-postmodernism’ by which he means meta-modernism. Other terms include Digi-modernism, Romantic Conceptualism, Alter-modernism, Re-modernism, Performatism, Hyper-modernism, Auto-modernism and Re-newalism. All are different and yet exchangeable terms to define the contemporary (21st century).

[3] David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello (2003) and Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black (2005), to name a few, are other examples for the preoccupation with this new concept of authorship.

[4] For the relation between body and nation, please see Emily Rosenberg and Shanon Fitzpatrick‘s Body and Nation (2014) as well as Emily Martin‘s article “Toward an Anthropology of Immunology: The Body as Nation State” in the Medical Anthropology Quarterly (December 1990).

[5] Ulrich Beck argues that our contemporary world is defined in terms of ecological disaster, precarity and fragility, hence, we are living in a risk society.

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