31 July 2010

On Being a Hack


Roshni Dutt,
A long suffering woman
With the thickest epidermis ever:
My Editor.


Being a hack is at once embarrassingly traumatic and enriching. You hate the job and you hate yourself for doing it, yet you can’t but help be fascinated by it.

Really. There’re so many things to it. As a hack – or, let’s clear the air, a content writer – one gets exposed to a well nigh bewildering range of subjects and topics, many of which one would never even have though about in all one’s life. From budgeting to dating to child care to schooling to erotica to hardware to marketing to so on and so forth, the expanse of and demand for content writing today is nearly limitless and as such covers almost every imaginable aspect of human knowledge and expertise. To the amateur in content, then, this range can well be a matter of amazement.

Though, of course, it’s one of those obvious things which we all so often tend to miss: there’s so much matter on the internet, so many products and services and as many blurbs, reviews, appraisals, descriptions and so on. They didn’t just get there on their own nor were they generated by deviously crafty machines. Real people, people like you and me, wrote them because there is an ever increasing demand by – again – real people like you and me for information, advice and help. In striving to fulfil that demand, content not only enables that audience but also provides those who create it – managers, editors and writers – an enviable opportunity to enhance and enrich their knowledge and understanding of the world.

What then is my problem with content writing? Quite simple: it’s boring and fake.

Eminently so. There can be nothing as boring as writing about the advantages of a bamboo chopping board over a plastic one or enumerating the procedure for filing an insurance claim or exalting the virtues of a particular type of wood furniture. It’s marketing most of the time and thus involves all those clichéd tricks of selling something which few would want to buy – advertising, for instance, a particular language course or a certain tattoo outfit. Sound cheery, confident and on top of the world, as if the product you’re pitching is the best of its kind. Some of them are good, no doubt about that, but then the very charade of marketing and advertising – the pretence, the pitch, the discreet, round about clinch, all repeated over and over again ad infinitum – is enough to lull one to a weary stupor down to one’s very soul.

Plus, since it’s for Americans, it has to be kept abysmally simple and obvious. So naively obvious in fact that at times you want to pull your hair in despair – or clobber the silly sod who came up with the job in the first place. Imagine, for instance, my despair on the fourth go on a five hundred word article on budgeting for the average American: the same thing, the same features, the same silly, obvious advise – plan out expenditure, it’ll help you save money; don’t indulge excessively in impulsive shopping sprees, you’ll end up wasting money; don’t invest in risky propositions, the stock market’s volatile – all over again in different language. If it’s uninspiring and boring, it’s also absurd in the most stupefyingly existential way.

And of course, it’s also fake.

Fake not just in the sense of being hollow and uninspiring, but also as being unreliable. Given the demand for content and the profusion of start-ups in this part of the English writing world, almost anybody can be a content writer today, writing skills and grammar notwithstanding. This means that those who churn out content most of the time know almost nothing about what they’re told to write and as such have to rely on what’s available as public domain on the internet – which, more often than not, is yet more content, written previously by people just as ignorant. Yes, there is some degree of truth and veracity to all of it – after all, somebody back up in the chain must’ve done up reliable research in the beginning – but as it is, the twists and turns which inevitably accompany each new article and advisory put yet another colour onto knowledge and reduce with each successive effort its reliability. Of course, there’s no way for the lay reader – even, indeed, for the befuddled writer – to know just where a particular piece stands and so all appears, as it must, new and original.

Which brings me to the next problem with content: it’s simply not ethical.

Indeed, for content is naught but matter rehashed, plagiarism just on the right side of copyright laws. No matter how much firms advertise the originality of their content, a vast majority of it is copied and rewritten, either directly from one source or, if the writer’s slightly more industrious, from a few – and since there’re absolutely no incentives for quality work, the chances of that are pretty rare.

This last, as may be guessed, is because the whole industry’s organised on a pyramidal, trickle down model with writers – those involved most centrally to the job – at the bottom most rung with no perks or benefits. We may write on them for righteous fashion and organic food portals, but fair wage ideals hardly ever appeal to content writing firms, much less if, as a considerable majority are, are start-ups entrepreneured by enterprising and ambitious college students and under thirty graduates. Further, since much of the work that comes is outsourced matter, it holds, by virtue of passing many hands till it finally comes to a writer, little monetary value, amounting many a times to as little as ten paisa per word.

Not just that, though. Part of the problem is also integral to the nature of content writing as, as it were, an industry: as a thoroughly capitalist economic setup that caters to the insatiable demands of an increasingly consumerist world culture, content writing works on principles reminiscent best of the Dickensian workhouse, minus, of course, the physical grind and torture. Writers are expendable units, openly bought on the cyberspace – an employer on a leading job portal asked interested writers to “quote their price” – and freely expected to prostitute their skills to anything that’s demanded of them. The laws of free market demand and supply deem it so: explicitly instructed to a nameless anonymity, all they’re required to do is to create content in accordance with specific guidelines dictated by clients. All of this must be accomplished with the least questioning and inspection; writers – for that matter, particularly in case of solely rewrites, the firms more often than not – are not supposed to know to what ultimate end their work will be put to and interaction between writers and editors cum managers is restricted and formal to the core sans all but the least, ritualised pretension to recognition.

Now, it’d be fine if it was really just this. I mean, of course it’s boring and it’s unethical, but given our economic setup today, there’s almost no form of employment that isn’t exploitative or underhand in some way or the other: this one, where it is, is only in sense of ownership, of IPR and other modern statues, and that too of matter as sordid and uninspiring as content. In any case, these conceptions are on the whole alien to literary traditions the world over, traditions historically prone to inspired creations and imitations, all perfectly within the ambit of acceptability and canonicity.

Ironically though, the problem is just that: literature.

Not literature of course, not literature per se: oh no, not at all, not in the least. Literary training rather, more accurately the biases concomitant on such a training. Dependant not as much, or not as necessarily, on the accident of pedagogy as much as on the historical biases engendered by criticism and, perhaps more so, popular culture and accepted as such by a pseudo-conservative mind. On its own, content writing, for all its flaws, is enriching; besides I in any case spice up whatever I do, mixing post-modern feminist theory in advisories on dating and Shakespeare in tips on budgeting.

What then acts as a deterrent, what makes content writing an embarrassment – even, at one level, downright traumatic – are these biases, biases which deem writing as a fulfilling creative force at once exalted and humble. Notions, expectations, one’s own as well, in a vague way, societal: writers as creators, commentators with and in the know; literature-wallahs as academicians involved in fruitful criticism and dialogue. As both, and as aspiring to more fully be both, the openly mercantile nature of content writing stands in direct opposition to one’s ideal for oneself: to be, in whatever small way, a critic and a commentator and then to write content; to write thus, aspire and conceive, to create and then to be a hack, overwhelmed by the machinations of domestic economy, all for money…to be a hack, at once enriched and degraded, biases of training and tradition: a hack? A hack! A hack…

27 July 2010

On Child Marriage: Or Arguments towards its Legalisation

The institution of marriage is recognised by a majority of humanity in almost all the hospitable parts of the globe as particularly conducive to the sustenance and propagation of the race in a manner as holistic as is humanly possible. Where it combines, it leaves a legacy to be carried forward; where it sunders, it creates a bridge that brings together. That matrimony has survived and that it will regardless of infidelity, prostitution, rape, violence and sundry other forms of emotional and psychosomatic attyachaar is proof enough of the vitality and vivacity of the force which keeps it so, and will in the ages to come.

To matrimony is wedded another institution, another great and abiding collection of men and their kind: the family. As a carrier of both virtù and virtue, the repository of culture, goodness and light and the bearer of the wisdom of generations, the accumulated worth of countless minds, the family is undoubtedly the single most vital instrument for the propagation of marriage and all its attendant virtues, baby diapers and paternity leave included. Marriage builds from and to family and family evolves to marriage, and so on and so forth goes the circle of life, one into the other, ying to yang and so all along.

Considering, therefore, the centrality of marriage, and family, to the current order of being and well nigh to the order of things yet to come, it may not, thus, be irrelevant to prescribe the same - the former; precursor to the latter - as vital and essential in all senses of the word to humans in all walks of life, age, sex and monthly income regardless. These conditions withstanding, it will not, then, be aimless to suggest and propose the same as particularly beneficial and, indeed, as altogether complementary to the holistic development and growth of that characteristic class of humans so loved and hated by others in all ages: adolescents.

Indeed, for though there be laws against the same in almost all major principalities of the world, it can, with good reason, be demonstrated that these same are more or less the monstrous outgrowths of certain obsolete, misguided and, at their best, eminently Puritanical notions of propriety and acceptable sexual behaviour for humans of that particular age, eleven or twelve to nineteen - the age group generally classed and classified as adolescent. There will, I know, be marked opposition to this idea and some may go as far as evoking morality and tradition against my name, but to them and the like I can only advise a more critical scrutiny into the ways of the world and the sundry manners in which they are constructed and presented, the forms of interaction which govern our kind’s interactions with each other and limit our horizon.

Any talk of law, therefore, must not preclude the factuality that laws too are societal constructs, of and by the chosen few in power over and above the rest in subservience and as such reflect, or at least attempt to, the necessities of that particular people in that age and time, these necessities in themselves being contingent upon these forces - the chosen few - which conspire to define, guide and ossify the course of history. As times change, so do these defining forces and the necessities which typify them and which they in turn seek to define: so, then, must the laws which attempt through a series of checks and regulations to consolidate and propagate these forces and necessities.

My arguments for the legalisation of child marriage are founded on precisely these premises: that matrimony as an abiding human institution aids the reproduction and sustenance of the race and that the laws which have come to govern its legality are based on outdated models of interaction, acceptability and intercourse. In opening this institution to those currently deemed not of age, society will not only put itself in greater sync with a tradition as old as civilisation and, by all means, closer to the customs of the animal world of which we humans are but more stylized and evolved members but also take yet another giant leap towards resolving so many of the concerns and debilitating humours which are supposed to stem from that fastidious and wayward sect of specialized homo sapiens, adolescents.

By allowing them to interact, mingle and freely consort with any that they choose, members of this clan will not only develop and discover affinities and respects early in the walk of life, but will also learn tolerance and temperance, those two qualities which any in the married state will readily acknowledge as its most crucial gifts and which in any case would do our temperamental adolescents a world of good. To those who are likely to question this proposal on grounds of health and body development and the adverse affects of early pregnancy on the same, may I be allowed to highlight the ready availability and widespread use of contraceptives, preventive and abortive, and of the culpability of adolescents to in any case submit to their passions - and often in a fashion altogether regrettable. Under the protective yoke of matrimony, these passions would be legalised and, under the expert and helpful guidance of guardians, given an acceptable outlet in as healthy a manner as possible.

This last is the final founding premise of the argument, that as young, hot-blooded souls most teenagers and adolescents are wont to acts of passions which in the current moral and ethical setup are looked down upon as regrettable and unfortunate. That these passions, classed commonly as love, find their way to fruition is not any more the stuff of Shakespeare and fairy tale romances: love does conquer all, though khaps, of course, are never too far behind. To guide these passions then, and to provide those victim to them an acceptable outlet, matrimony is the only true and tested answer, a solution that in the form of this modest proposal must be acceptable to all but the staunchest of the traditionalist liberals.

It must be. Indeed, for considering the significance those with a more orthodox bend of mind have steadily been gaining these past few decades within this secular, democratic and socialist republic of India, these needs must be adopted as the necessary compromise between them and the liberal. In any case, it must be readily acknowledged that given our existing setup, the so-called licentious and eminently promiscuous behaviour of our teenagers and adolescents merits no other solution that would not involve blood.

There is, of course, one that would absolve them of the guilt of sin that currently a la olde albatross hangs across their necks and clear the situation remarkably. Cutting through all those outdated norms and principles which in defense of a fabricated morality usurp the throne of tradition and uphold a restricting and well nigh ritualised mode of interaction and intercourse, society could move towards a more open and inclusive model of interaction wherein the existing biases against love and its demands would no longer be valid. The trappings of traditional restraint, upheld only as homage to a dead ideal, can all be cut through and free love - an idea not as new as it may seem - may be embraced without the hesitations and prejudices which have attended it so long. Hostility, violence and all other such jealousies contingent on convention and normatively can be slowly weeded out till they truly become what they are, relics of a order past its vitality. Love and its demands, emotional and physical, could be allowed their own course, limited by constraints purely of practicality: health and finance.

But this is only what could be. Given, yes, given our existing moral and ethical setup, we have, as this humble commentator has taken pains to expline, naught but one solution: marriage, a resolution at once traditional and modern. For the benefit of the race, then, and of futurity still to come, let this be the word to go by: marriage.