Roving thoughts and provocations

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The Dull New Global Novel

Félix Vallotton: The Patriotic Couplet, 1893

Not all writers share the same sense of whom they are writing for. Many may not even think they are directing their work at any audience in particular. All the same, there are clearly periods of history when, across the board, authors’ perceptions of who their readers are change, something that inevitably leads to a change in the kind of text they produce. The most obvious example is the period that stretches from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century when writers all over Europe abandoned Latin for the vernacular. Instead of introducing their work, as before, into an international arena presided over by a largely clerical elite, they “descended” to local and national languages to address themselves to an emerging middle class.

In the history books this shift to the vernacular tends to be presented as a democratic inspiration that allowed a wealth of local vitality into the written text and brought new confidence to the rapidly consolidating national languages. That said, it was probably driven as much by ambition and economic interest as by idealism. There came a point when it no longer made sense to write in Latin because the arbiters of taste were now a national rather than international grouping. Today we are at the beginning of a revolution of even greater import that is taking us in a quite different direction.

As a result of rapidly accelerating globalization we are moving toward a world market for literature. There is a growing sense that for an author to be considered “great,” he or she must be an international rather than a national phenomenon. This change is not perhaps as immediately evident in the US as it is in Europe, thanks to the size and power of the US market and the fact that English is generally perceived as the language of globalization, so that many more translations go away from it than toward it. However, more and more European, African, Asian and South American authors see themselves as having “failed” if they do not reach an international audience.

In recent months authors in Germany, France and Italy—all countries with large and well-established national readerships—have expressed to me their disappointment at not having found an English language publisher for their works; interestingly, they complain that this failure reflects back on their prestige in their home country: if people don’t want you elsewhere you can’t be that good. Certainly, in Italy where I live, an author is only thought to have arrived when he is published in New York. To appreciate how much things have changed one only need reflect how little it would have dented the reputations of Zola or Verga had they not achieved immediate publication in London.

Woodcut by Félix Vallotton, 1900

This development has been hugely accelerated by electronic text transmission. Today, no sooner is a novel or even an opening chapter complete, than it can be submitted to scores of publishers all over the world. It is not unusual for foreign rights to be sold before the work has a local publisher. An astute agent can then orchestrate the simultaneous launch of a work in many different countries using promotional strategies that we normally associate with multinational corporations. Thus a reader picking up a copy of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, or the latest Harry Potter, or indeed a work by Umberto Eco, or Haruki Murakami, or Ian McEwan, does so in the knowledge that this same work is being read now, all over the world. Buying the book, a reader becomes part of an international community. This perception adds to the book’s attraction.

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.

More importantly the language is kept simple. Kazuo Ishiguro has spoken of the importance of avoiding word play and allusion to make things easy for the translator. Scandinavian writers I know tell me they avoid character names that would be difficult for an English reader.

If culture-specific clutter and linguistic virtuosity have become impediments, other strategies are seen positively: the deployment of highly visible tropes immediately recognizable as “literary” and “imaginative,” analogous to the wearisome lingua franca of special effects in contemporary cinema, and the foregrounding of a political sensibility that places the author among those “working for world peace.” So the overstated fantasy devices of a Rushdie or a Pamuk always go hand in hand with a certain liberal position since, as Borges once remarked, most people have so little aesthetic sense they rely on other criteria to judge the works they read.

What seems doomed to disappear, or at least to risk neglect, is the kind of work that revels in the subtle nuances of its own language and literary culture, the sort of writing that can savage or celebrate the way this or that linguistic group really lives. In the global literary market there will be no place for any Barbara Pyms and Natalia Ginzburgs. Shakespeare would have eased off the puns. A new Jane Austen can forget the Nobel.

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