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Can Literary Fiction Save The Tik-Tok Culture From “Dumbing Down”?

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On The Pleasure Of Reading

One of the best reasons why we read, in my opinion, is that we want to understand ourselves.

There are, of course, more facile reasons such as entertainment, the need to escape the present world, and in some cases, a morbid need to excel at something, like reading; something that is apparent in the ongoing ‘book reading challenges’ and the weird need to count the number of books we have read.

But, the most important and, perhaps, the only one of essence is that reading helps us make sense of who we are. We read because in a book full of words we can imagine a whole world for ourselves.

Imagine sitting in a coffee shop with a book, or in your bedroom, or in an aeroplane; it does not matter where you are. Imagine you are reading a book and the author has taken time to create a world for you that can either be made of scenes or ideas — doesn’t matter.

When you go through a short story by Ruskin Bond, you get transported to the mountains where a little girl is running after a blue umbrella. When you read Salman Rushdie or Arundhati Roy, you get lost in the intricacies of words and images, a dense filmy cornucopia of images keeps bombarding your mind as your eyes run over the pages.

When you read Kafka, you become aware of the absurdity of everything around you as you find yourself running through halls and corridors of law offices that are found at the most unexpected of places, like fate. When you read Dostoevsky, you start discussing with yourself your deep-rooted beliefs about religion and the nature of existence. When you read Woolf, you become acutely aware of your own thoughts as you dip into the minds of the characters that continue to tick for pages.

The list is not endless.

book shelf

In simplistic terms, literature creates a new world for you — interestingly, a world that’s full of mirrors. A fictional text is like a mirror, but with a unique characteristic, which makes you “more aware” of your reality by giving you a distorted picture of what reality is for you.

On New Modes Of Entertainment

In all this, it’s interesting to compare ‘what is read’ with ‘what is seen/heard on the television’. This is an age-old, and yet, historically speaking, a recent point of concern, mostly for the writers who seem to have lost their place to movie actors — YouTubers. And yet, if you really think about it, the written word will always be more fruitful when it comes to making sense of the world. In other words, deal with its absurdness. Because of various reasons, and a few of them are quite apparent.

The best example is the latest phenomenon of Tik-Tok. I would have called it a “fad”, but every new fad is the next culture’s norm, so it’s always better not to judge a new phenomenon simply because you are used to the old ways. Thus, I am making it clear right now, I am not making judgments on Tik-Tok. I am making a comment on the epistemic shift from ‘literary fiction’ to the world of ‘Tik-Tok’ and how it’s regressive for the metaphysical character of the Polis the world today is.

‘Literary Fiction’ and ‘Tik-Tok’ are both representative terms of a cultural change of textual reading that’s quite apparent to us.

Tik-Tok is a representative of a series of ‘passive’ modes of entertainment that have flooded the world. And it’s fairly easy to see how it’s passive. In Tik-Tok, you do not have to do anything. You open the app and you don’t even need to swipe. The little 15 second videos that have been crafted by one of your own continue to go down and you are left with nothing but your eyes that keep on staring into the screen of your phone, and you consume something continuously.

That’s all you do. You keep on consuming. You become a koala bear in a zoo who can’t do anything about its position and has to hold the bars of the cage with its tiny paws and stare at the world outside. Except, in your case, you can always do something. You can switch off the phone and move onto new things which might involve more of your brain. But do you?

The above described a rather morbid picture should be able to relay what my point is, which can be summarised in one sentence: “Every new mode of entertainment is creating a dumber version of us.” And don’t you think, every mode of entertainment is also a mode of instruction, a mode via which ideas are passed on from one rhizome to another? And don’t you think it is troublesome if not handled well?

On ‘Greatness’ Of Great Literature?

We need to talk more about what makes a great literary text great.

When you read a great piece of literature like War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov, you involve yourself in the words by undergoing a self-reflective dialogue with the author; you are a part of the experience. You interact with yourself. You are not a koala bear standing in its zoo-cell looking out at the world passively. You are also a God of the world that the author is trying to create for you, thereby uprooting the Author as the sole God.

You create the world alongside her. You walk on leaves that are supple green that tingle your feet; when a character sits on a wet boulder, you experience that it’s moist on your bottom, you can hear the wind rustling through your hair and look at that exquisite brown upholstery that the author specified had been lacquered only three days ago.


You are not a passive koala viewing the world then, like you do in the currently more ‘modern’ modes of entertainment. You are actively involved in the creation of the world and you become one with the character. You live her life, her thoughts become your thoughts for a while.

In a scene in one of the books, when Harry Potter was in the astronomy tower and Snape was conversing with Dumbledore, about to strike him dead, I could not stop shedding a few tears, even though one of my dear friends had already told me what was going to happen soon. I was there on the astronomy tower, the wind shuffling, the dementors all gone because the death eaters had invaded Hogwarts, a spring around.

And when I saw the movie version of the same, not just because it was a bad enactment of the scene, but also because I was not as involved in the act of watching the movie as I was in reading the book, the astronomy tower had almost no effect on me. And I was involved because I had to make ‘efforts’ to create the scenario in my head using words.

That’s an important feature of great literature. It does not impose. It lets you make your choices, regarding scenes, your response to those scenes, and the ideas you take from them. It is democratic in spirit, truly democratic because it seeks your active participation in its creation. 

But what new media like TikTok is doing is it is choosing for you the content you want to use for entertainment, and even your response to it. And most importantly, it is taking your freedom away, and you are not even aware of it. This is problematic and needs to be understood.

The ‘Shift’ That Is Taking Place In The Reading/Writing/Publishing World

When you look at the plethora of Tik-Tok videos, or even those on YouTube, you do nothing. They are at best, copies of copies. They don’t engross you. They don’t make you aware of yourself. They are made for consumption and when something is made for consumption, it caters to the “public fetishes”.

A new trend is going on, which can be paraphrased as: People want to know more about it. So make a video about it. Read and research and make a video about it. And make sure that no one gets offended because let us be practical, if people get offended, they won’t watch you.

So what is created is something that augments the current culture, which is a culture of consumption. Everyone wants an audience and does not want to offend them. So, in the process, the content-creator becomes affected by its audience. An extreme leftist will never be able to pinpoint a good thing about a right-wing government even if it’s good because she does not want to offend her audience. The right-wingers are already contentious. They have already been indoctrinated into the TikTok culture, they have already been converted into koala bears.

This trend has affected the way we read, write and publish books. Nowadays, we’re consuming even books, rather than living through them, which we used to do in the pre-internet era. We lived through great works such as The God of Small Things. But today, we don’t wait for the book to properly settle down on us. We take whatever we already believe, we never read the subtexts. We don’t discuss it with others at length, we switch onto the next with a gulp of TikTok videos dumbing the experience of the works down.

tik tok phone

For many of us, a book is a mere hurdle to get over, and whatever arguments we may put forth, deep inside, we know that we’re handling a book like a cup of coffee, like a table in the drawing-room, like another mug of juice. We highlight it to others; we make videos and blogs about our reading shelves.

But these are facile reasons to call our culture of book reading “consumerist”. I think the best and most dreadful reason why we’re “consumers of books” is this: nowadays, books that are meant to be re-read are usually discarded. American pragmatism has killed something beautiful about literature. Every writer is encouraged to write something simple to follow and every reader is encouraged to only choose those books that are simple to follow, whereas the fact remains that our thoughts are complex, and hence, the words representing them should also be so.

Books are meant to be re-read. They have the quality of the written word, a unique medium that provides us with a unique chance of going back to the words and relishing the moments again, to think about the ideas again, of making a better sense of them. But in the current culture of mass production of books as well as their mass consumption, we throw away the so-called “esoteric” pieces of literature.

We don’t publish works that need to be re-read. We talk about sentence structures and the shared amnesia of the contemporary culture, in which we can’t retain much, as if pushing our hassles away. But there is more to it.

The fact is we do not want to flip back to a few pages to read and really understand what the writer is trying to say. What is hidden in his words that he was hiding from himself, because if we do that, we would be “losing time”, and ‘the next book is waiting’. And we talk about bestsellers, which come and go. We consume them like mangoes in summer, and every one of them cements our already concretised ideas. Books are bestsellers when they are digestible by everyone. They are digestible by everyone when they contain simplistic, eroded (in other words beneficial to the ghost of consumerism) versions of ideas.

Think about it. Each bestseller is a copy of the previous bestseller. In them, everyone talks about one of the familiar topics — Kashmir, migration, Dalits, women, white/black, each containing elements of violence orchestrated on a community of the suppressed class, and ranting about the same with an emotional American Idols way, to cater to the public fetish, thus contorting the opinion of the Polis even more, by keeping it the same.

What is even funnier is that most of them are written by the upper-class echelons who have access to resources. In truth, writing is an occupation of the rich. Can you give me an example of a contemporary writer who is from a lower-class background, who is like, for example, Bukowski? Every submission demands a fee. Every great writer has a “creative writing” degree worth millions of bucks, which provides people with a neat, beautifully wrapped access to publishing houses. Like laundering?

And a book of Ambedkar is sold for four hundred rupees. It is not even read by the suffering lower-caste poor. What’s the use? Why can’t publishers take the risk of a low-cost Ambedkar book that will be read in huge numbers by many and hence making up for its profit? Because — American Pragmatism. Good books on Ambedkar fear that they won’t be read. Many examples can be supplied. But I am meandering.

We Are A Generation Of No Brainers

If a book challenges our ideas, we discard it. We claim that the book was slow and unappetising. This statement may appear silly to you, but when we think about numbers, this is really the case, which is summed in one neat sentence as “people don’t read nowadays.”

We don’t want to sit with a book and ruffle through its pages. We hold contests for speed reading as if that’s something to be proud of. Summer reading lists, winter reading lists, writing marathons and contests that demand you to “write on a particular theme” are fair testimonies.

My argument being, we’re passive consumers even in the case of books. We’re seldom involved in the reading of books, as much as good literature demands. A book is not worth it if it does not demand re-reading — it may be a personal opinion. And there is no ‘reading’ that has not been re-read.

We are also passive producers of words. There are too many words in this world right now, all copies of each other, all written for elusive fame that everyone is after because somehow fame has been so democratised that I can predict with a calm certainty that one-day “fame” would lose its meaning, and then the world might stop being so neurotic, then. We are living in the times of neuroses.

Tiktok is the current extreme of the ongoing shift/decline in the culture of textual-reading, which in time, will be one of the norms. 

tiktok app on phone

There is no give and take in the case of Tik-Tok videos. If you don’t like something, you switch to something new. Even with YouTube videos, the case is the same, although it’s to a lesser extent because YouTubers rarely interact with their viewers. And yet, if you carefully notice, you will realise that the interaction is always facile. There is no human touch. A YouTuber likes that their video is being commented upon. A commenter likes that he is being replied to and his comment is being liked by others.

Whereas, if you just finished reading a book, e.g. One Hundred Years Of Solitude, you have actually lived through a period of four centuries. You don’t look at one particular point of concern as a separate issue. You don’t think of them as issues. You are not a consumer in that case. Because when you are lost in the world of Macondo, you are in a private Macondo of yourself, in which the Macondo of Marquez gets mixed with your own memories of the past, your little town where you were born and raised, you make a new Macondo, and that’s the power of the written word.

The tendency to oversimplify things is the hallmark of the age we live in. We want to say table. That’s all. We don’t want to describe its colour, the wood it’s made of; we’re living in a homogenous world that talks too much about colours when all we have is nothing but copies.

I am not being critical; I am just stating a fact. Everything is hyperreal. Everything is beyond real. Nothing is real. Visual media is getting more and more detail-oriented, to the extent that it’s going beyond what’s real. And yet, that’s not the point. Going beyond the real is the best thing to do, but what visual media does is, it tries too hard to explain. It tries too hard to “not let” consumers use their brains; because “it” is the consumer.

It caters to the current trends in fashion. We live in a culture that the future generations might call the “generation of no brainers.”

In my opinion, it’s important to know the material the wood is made of, and the feeling you go through when you touch it, the kind of memories that go through your mind. A table is not just a table. Look at how the camera moves in a Tarantino movie. Observe how closely it looks at a gun placed on a table. That’s literature, and that’s literary art. That’s what we need more of. Because even though there are countless images of places and objects and things, there are no shareable images of memories. And when you conjure objects in your mind with the help of words, their difference from what is explained is all that matters.

I am sitting in my room going through the pages of The Stranger by Camus and Nausea by Sartre. I am sitting with him by his window. I am looking at the small town at work. The way the mood of the weather changes. The way an old couple passes by. That is what we need more of, so that we counteract the effect of TikTok-like inventions.

On A Political Angle

Because the current trend is really dangerous, a quick glance of the political is also necessary.

Representational image.

New media like TikTok is making sheep out of us, which autocrats can easily rule upon. This is an important point, but I have not made it the point of my concern, even though it is quite apparent after everything we have discussed.

When you are dumb, you are a follower. You are addicted to the fleeting 15-second videos. You can easily be manipulated then. You stop caring about the outside world. Your ability to understanding diminishes. A generation of no brainers chooses autocrats for its rulers because it is so used to letting others choose its fate. 

The above point cannot be emphasised enough, and yet it’s so apparent that it is almost mockingly funny. We can, in fact, claim that we are living through an age of the TikTok colonisation.

TikTok is thoroughly undemocratic, even though it may appear to be democratic to you because it gives everyone a chance ‘to be famous.’ But the fact is, it does not even let you participate. The rule of the creator’s superiority applies here, which allows everyone to be famous everywhere and at the same time; the one who can squeeze in more fun in those 15 seconds becomes famous. The rest are busy with their smartphones like monkeys busy with their bananas in the zoo. But it’s something that never challenges you.

Literary fiction keeps you on your toes. It lets you see the world with a so-called critical eye. It is an active article of consumption if we really want to consider it as something to be consumed. TikTok is beneficial to a government like that of China because it creates puppets out of its citizens. But the less said on it, the better. India is no different from China. And America is their elder brother when it comes to dumbing its citizens down.

A Sort of Conclusion

In all this, I am not comparing the greatest pieces of literature with Tik-Tok — that would be facile and unproductive. I am trying to highlight a certain shift that’s occurring and the way this shift is making more people “leave” great works of literature.

My concern is how, slowly but steadily, we’re being forced from reading great pieces of literature to Tik-Tok videos. How children at the age of 10-12 years begin to make Tik-Tok videos and become famous and start affecting the episteme of the world through their half-boiled opinions and fame-crazed fetishes.

We’re living in a world where everyone can be famous, and hence, everyone wants to be famous. Only a few want to create something of value, something transformational. Mediums such as Tik-Tok are an easy means to that. They uproot us from reality, but they do not take us to an imaginary land. We just look and laugh (yes, sometimes we do), and the next moment, there is another video to laugh at. We’re nowhere.

We’re like monkeys being given electric jolts to various parts of our brains and we react accordingly. We don’t involve ourselves, we don’t reflect back. And even if we reflect back, that is also subject to fashion. We never reflect. We just react to a new tragedy and feel good that we are doing something, whereas everyone around us is doing the same, and someone who does not participate in this collective dance, is looked down upon.

We’re worse than monkeys because monkeys are forced into those experiments. That’s why we need so-called literary fiction, to save from a dystopia in which a few would rule over all others. A world akin to 1984, but very different because in this dystopia, the suppressed would love being suppressed. They would feel ‘unhappy’ if they are not suppressed.

They won’t even be robots, because of a lack of intelligence. They would be dumbed down zombies without imagination. We need such drab pictures of a TikTok-made future so that we can be aware.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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