Saturday, September 11, 2010

Is Globalization Making Literature Dull?

Digging through the crates at the New York Review of Books, I came across this article by Tim Parks on how globalization is affecting literature by creating work conscious of its international audience, which may mean that "the kind of work that revels in the subtle nuances of its own language and literary culture" is bound to -- in his words -- disappear.

The proliferation of international literary prizes has guaranteed that the phenomenon is not restricted to the more popular sector of the market. Despite its questionable selection procedures and often bizarre choices, the Nobel is seen as more important than any national prize. The Impac in Ireland, Mondello in Italy, International Literature Award in Germany are rapidly growing in prestige. Thus the arbiters of taste are no longer one’s own compatriots—they are less easily knowable, not a group the author himself is part of.

What are the consequences for literature? From the moment an author perceives his ultimate audience as international rather than national, the nature of his writing is bound to change. In particular one notes a tendency to remove obstacles to international comprehension. Writing in the 1960’s, intensely engaged with his own culture and its complex politics, Hugo Claus apparently did not care that his novels would require a special effort on the reader’s and above all the translator’s part if they were to be understood outside his native Belgium. In sharp contrast, contemporary authors like the Norwegian Per Petterson, the Dutch Gerbrand Bakker, or the Italian Alessandro Baricco, offer us works that require no such knowledge or effort, nor offer the rewards that such effort will bring.

The form-fitting of one's work to appeal to a large audience has always seemed to me to be a bit of an insult to the reader. Still, it's a writer's decision. There are stories from African writers one can think of who obviously try to make the surroundings and names accessible, but I can surely think of quite a few who do not. It doesn't seem to me that Ngugi Wa' Thiongo'o cares either way what you think. I had to google "sadza" when I read Tsitsi Dangaremgba's Nervous Conditions. Sefi Atta and Brian Chikwava are equally unapologetic. Still, I'm not sure that it will be true to say foregoing cultural exclusivity necessarily takes away from the writer's ability to produce "the sort of writing that can savage or celebrate the way this or that linguistic group really live". This line of thinking to me gives too much of an alibi for bad writing.

Part of my reaction is my resignation to thinking that the question of how much to "explain your country/region/culture" versus simply telling your story has always been and always will be an issue for the non-Western European/non-English speaking world. Globalization as it concerns literature is the embrace of the Western European and American literary canon, while globalization in general is the spinning of the world towards an "end of history" type conclusion where we've all agreed that these Western norms are the best way for the world to be, in terms of economics (capitalism) and social mores, and the metric against which we will measure our respective civilizations. While you may see these Western styles "remixed" with local flavor and form-fitted for its new surroundings, I don't see this careful consideration ever going away for the West. The way things have been set up from our collective history, non-Western peoples have to play catch up and seek validation "there". That's not new. And it will only have an effect on our stories if we let it.

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