Editorial: The Raw And The Cooked
by Anil Menon
In the months of June and July this year, I found myself at IIT-Kanpur in the completely unexpected role of a workshop instructor in speculative fiction. It was a first for me, and I discovered what all gurus discover: you can learn a lot teaching. The sixteen students were a fascinating mix of places, histories, motivations and ambitions. I read a lot of their stories. Some were brilliant, beautifully written. Others failed in the way first attempts sometimes fail. But a couple of the stories were unclassifiable and evoked an odd pleasure. They were neither well written nor poorly written. The best way I can describe the writing is that the stories were not written at all. These stories had come straight out of the Raw.
The stories had their rhetoric. They had jokes, similes, ironies, POV shifts and unreliable narrators. But they didn’t seem to have been put together using these strategies. There was a lack of artifice. It was like eating sashimi for the first time. Or reading Kerouac, especially the parts where he doesn’t try so hard to be spontaneous. If I may channel:
Kerouac: If possible write “without consciousness” in semi-trance (as Yeats’ later “trance writing”) allowing subconscious to admit in own uninhibited interesting necessary and so “modern” language what conscious art would censor, and write excitedly, swiftly, with writing-or-typing-cramps, in accordance (as from center to periphery) with laws of orgasm, Reich’s “beclouding of consciousness.” Come from within, out-to relaxed and said.
Me: I guess. Sounds trippy though. You high, Kerouac?
Kerouac: On life, punk. I invented the Raw.
Maybe he did. For him, it was “spontaneous writing.” For Whitman, it was a song in which “one’s self I sing.” For Lévi-Strauss, “the Raw” was a stand-in for “natural,” and “the Cooked” was a stand-in for “culture” or “artifice.” I think of the Raw as a combination of authenticity and naturalness. Sushi is my basic model. Of course, my “authentic” might well be your phony, and my “naturalness,” your kinky weekend. In any case, at IIT-K, I became sensitized to the taste. I’ve even developed a hankering for it. These primal categories– the Raw and the Cooked– are fundamental to the structure and content of so many myths, but they are even more influential in the telling of stories.
Say an editor is faced with two manuscripts. In one, the writing is raw, straight from the street, in living language, uncooked, and it provokes all sorts of doubts within her. The writing is unclassifiable, different, unfamiliar and perhaps a little pathetic. There’s a good example of such writing in Jane Addams’s memoir, The Long Road of Women’s Memory. She describes how a rumor had spread that a “devil baby”, complete with forked tail and horns, had been born at Chicago’s Hull House, a settlement house run by Addams. She received hundreds of letters from people wanting to know if the rumor was true. Letters such as this anonymous one, presumably from a young woman:
“me and my friends we work in talor shop and when we are going home on the roby street car where we get off that car at blue island ave. we will meet some fellows sitting at that street where they drink some beer from pail. they keep look in cars all time and they will wait and see if we will come sometimes we will have to work, but they will wait so long they are tired and they dont care they get rest so long but a girl what works in twine mill saw them talk with us we know her good and she say what youse talk with old drunk man for we shall come to thier dance when it will be they will tell us and we should know all about where to see them that girl she say oh if you will go with them you will get devils baby like some other girls did who we knows. she say Jane Addams she will show one like that in Hull House if you will go down there we shall come sometime and we will see if that is trouth we do not believe her for she is friendly with them old men herself when she go out from her work they will wink to her and say something else to. We will go down and see you and make a lie from what she say.”
Let us suppose that the editor now picks up the second manuscript. This one is correctly formatted, grips the reader from the get go, builds suspense, works in interesting conflict. The story ritually stimulates the right emotions, hits the right notes, and if it provokes, it has the decency to do so with irony and without sentimentality. It might still get rejected, but if it does, it’s not because the editor has any doubt about the culinary skills.
Who can blame the editor for not publishing the first story? Every editor has had the experience of seeing a powerful story with a lot of passion, written in a moving unaffected manner, but also a story that cannot possibly be accepted because it’s clearly from somebody who doesn’t really write or think in educated English. If the mistakes were deliberate, a stylistic experiment, then the piece would have been of literary interest. But to make mistakes unconsciously– ignorantly, naturally– that is simply barbaric.
I use the word in the old Greek sense, from bárbaros: roughly, people whose speech sound ber-ber-ber. Incomprehensible people. Throughout history, Literature has deliberately or inadvertently barbarized entire peoples. For example, we know next to nothing about how the “lower” castes lived in ancient India because they couldn’t tell their tales in Sanskrit. When their stories emerge in Pali, a “lower” language popular and powerful during the brief four-hundred to six-hundred year sunrise of Indian Buddhism, the un-stylized stories display an unparalleled depth of feeling and honesty. But we only see that now. The experts didn’t see it then. It’s not unique to India. Medieval Europe. Early United States. Arab Africa. Every civilization evolves its Sanskrit.
I don’t believe there’s a conspiracy. And it would be simplistic to blame the Brahmins or the Church or Islamization or the slave-holding gentry. Literature doesn’t create barbarians by turning them mute. It does so by turning us– writers, editors, instructors, gatekeepers– deaf. They may speak, but we can’t hear. When writers are able to hear, they often become, as some ancient Sanskrit scholars did, eloquent champions for the unheard.
In fact, the cry for Raw is not particularly new. The Hindus made it a centrepiece of their belief system, defining salvation as the liberation from Maya, the freedom from illusory order, the freedom to see things as they are, uncooked. In Greek mythology, the Maenads, followers of Dionysius, the epitome of the Raw, tear Orpheus, the epitome of Art, into pieces. Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Idea speaks of the transcendent moment when humankind, secure in Maya’s boat, is forced to confront four raw impossibilities– the man returned from the dead, the past brought forward, the future dragged to the present and the distant brought instantaneously near. Aren’t these the four basic speculations of SF as well? Isn’t the claim of SF that it subverts our cooked reality? Nietzsche, de Sade, Walt Whitman, Dos Passos, Hunter Thompson, Kerouac, the charismatics, New Journalism, the Bhakti movement… the Raw has always had its champions.
But it hasn’t had many practitioners. Storytellers face a dilemma. They are trained to effect illusion, not dispel it. They are trained to be aware of what words can do. And this awareness is fatal, because the moment we become aware of a reality we start to cook it. Becoming aware of the Raw turns it into another style, sometimes a lifestyle. It’s now easy to write like Kerouac because mimicry only requires an example; what remains hard is to push out into the unheard frontier the way he did. And novels like James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or Adiga’s White Tiger are all brilliant works, but they are just as cooked as if they’d come straight from Henry James’ kitchen. These stories get their energy from the Raw, but they are as related to it as Mickey Mouse is to mice.
The truth is that our literary magazines have no place for the kind of stories barbarians tell. Or rather, we are interested in their stories, but we are not interested in the way they tell it. The poet Cavafy said that in a decadent age, we sit around waiting for the barbarians. Not true. We wait for their interpreters. Jhumpa Lahiri’s parents won’t get to tell their stories in the New Yorker. Or rather, they can, as long as Jhumpa tells it for them. It’s not very different in genre lit. In SF, it is easier to have aliens warbling in faux languages than it is to have characters speak in their authentic, native tongues. For all its claims of estrangement, the “literature of the imagination” has as hard a time with the Raw as does the literature of the unimaginative. Kerouac’s one SF story, cityCityCITY, could only find a home in Nugget, an S&M rag, not in any of the SF magazines of the time.
That’s cool. The story did get published after all. There’ll probably never be a huge market for the Raw. That’s cool too. There’s no market for the horizon either, but we’re glad it’s around, someplace. Perhaps what matters is this: when the barbarian approaches our formidable gates and begins to speak, even if the speech is strange and the story incomprehensible, it should suffice if we recognize that it is speech and that it is a story, for then who knows, we may look again and see not a barbarian, but a brother.