‘Are You the Tim Parks Who…?’
What the poets of the ancient world feared most was exile, alienation from their community. This was the punishment of Seneca, Ovid, Catullus, and many others. It wasn’t that they were incapable of learning another language and addressing another community; just that it made little sense to do so. Their work had meaning in relation to the community to which they belonged.
To what community does a writer belong today? The whole world, might seem to be the obvious answer in an era of globalization. Alas, it’s not that simple. I rarely talk about myself in these blogs, but take my own case. I am known in England mainly for light, though hopefully thoughtful non-fiction; in Italy for polemical newspaper articles and a controversial book about soccer; in Germany, Holland, and France, for what I consider my “serious” novels Europa, Destiny, Cleaver; in the USA for literary criticism; and in a smattering of other countries, but also in various academic communities, for my translations and writing on translation. Occasionally I receive emails that ask, “But are you also the Tim Parks who…?,” Frequently readers get my nationality wrong. They don’t seem to know where I’m coming from or headed to.
How can something like this happen in a world where information is supposed to flow so freely? The key, I suppose, is never to enjoy huge success in any of the fields you work in. Chance, modern communications, and an urgent need to earn money can do the rest. Thus in 1980, aged twenty-five, already writing novels that were regularly rejected, I married an Italian and moved to Italy. Unable to publish, I translated, first commercially, then, with a lucky break, novels. At last in 1985 a novel of my own was published in London and I began to build up a small reputation as a novelist. However, my living in Italy prompted publishers to ask me to write about the place, luring me with offers of “a great deal more money than you will ever earn with the kind of novels you write.” After ten years I gave in, writing first about the street I lived in and some years later about Italian children, schools, and families. It was great fun and all at once I was Mr. Italy.
But if this reputation made sense to the English—one of their ilk decoding another country–-it didn’t attract the Germans, Dutch, and French who seemed to feel that serious novel writing was not compatible with this kind of ironic anthropology. In Germany, where my novels were outselling English editions by many times, the critics invited me to intensely earnest debates on Europe and fiction, and in general everybody felt it would be unwise to insist too much on this other material. I was now quite different people in England, Germany, and Italy, where I had begun to write newspaper articles in Italian on Italian issues for Italians, without the framing and contextualizing needed when talking about such matters to those who don’t know the country. Then while all this was going on and for reasons I have never fathomed, The New York Review of Books invited me to write about Italian authors and books on Italy; a long collaboration began, I convinced the Review that I could also write about matters non-Italian, and my image in the USA, if one can speak so grandly, became radically different than that elsewhere. I was an essayist.
Why do I feel this state of affairs is interesting? We think of globalization as drawing more and more people into a single community where readers all over the world read the same authors. The process is hardly new, more like an acceleration with greatly empowered means of an old propensity toward connection, communication, acquisition, appropriation, aggregation. Since earliest times communities expanded, swallowed each other up, or were swallowed, became more aware of and curious about those neighboring communities too big to beat. The writer whose community was destroyed was finished. Who would listen, even if he could speak their tongue? He was irrelevant. Others more fortunate found themselves with a larger and larger community to address; the court, the burghers, a growing group of cultured men, eventually the middle classes, and finally the people. Now there was also the possibility that somebody in another country, seeing your local fame, might grow interested, might translate your work.
Huge numbers of languages, great riches and diversity were lost in this process, which allowed larger societies to form so that eventually a single writer was in a position speak to thousands, then millions, now tens of millions. Writers were now competing to be one of the chosen few who would enjoy the privilege of selling their work to much larger, though necessarily looser and more fragmented communities. Some began to see this as a form of freedom; not to be fatally attached to one homogeneous group, not to risk extinction as a writer if your community, your peers, rejected you. The day came when writers actually sought out exile, left voluntarily, and were proud of it. Byron, Shelley, Lawrence, Joyce—they stood outside the societies that had made them and became in their own lifetimes international figures. Yet they continued to write back toward and mostly against the nations that bred them, and their international success depended on their notoriety in their home countries.
We still feel this is the normal model today for literature. At the Nobel level it is very unusual to give the prize to a writer who has not already won the laurels in his own country. For popular fiction, Stephen King, Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, and Stieg Larsson all follow a similar pattern: A book is phenomenally successful at home, other countries buy into it (which can happen very rapidly now), as the sales mount up a promotions machine gears up to support them, projecting the same image of the author worldwide as was projected at home. The effect is to sever the umbilical chord, if not the relationship, with the home community. Writers like Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling cannot be exiled. They have readers everywhere.
But globalization is not uniform, and not always so kind. It can happen that a writer remains absolutely trapped in his local community, perhaps well known for a restricted group, but unable to project him or herself outside it. I think of the fine South Tyrolese novelist Joseph Zoderer, who yearns to be an international novelist and has had his work translated in some countries, but never in English, and who finds himself constantly labelled as the Tyrolese writer. To publish successfully he has to write towards this community; when he seeks to write about matters outside it, neither his own community nor the outer world are interested. Likewise there are many writers from ex-colonies or simply the developing world who find they have to address the western world about their now distant home; publishers are immediately less interested if they seek to address other issues (I have heard this from a successful young Chinese novelist in London, and from a Surinamese in Holland). I say “have to” with the implied condition, if they want to be well and traditionally published. It is our desire for money and celebrity that binds us.
But my own case is, I think, more curious, and I would be eager to hear of other writers in the same position, or rather many positions. Inevitably, as one addresses different communities of readers in different countries one tends to write differently for them, not necessarily to please, but just to be in meaningful relation to them. In fact if I want to displease them I have to be very aware of their likes and dislikes. I don’t do this with cynical calculation. It simply happens, like an adjustment to the weather, or the language you are speaking, or your new girlfriend’s parents; and you discover you are a different writer, a different person almost, when engaging in different projects. This can be quite liberating and certainly more fun than the writer who feels trapped in a small world. You realize you are many writers, potentially very many, and the way your talents develop will depend on the way different communities in different countries respond to you.
This reality is in sharp contrast with the rhetoric that surrounds creative writing today. If asked, most writers will say they they write only for themselves and are not aware of, let alone swayed by an audience. An ideal notion of globalization, then, posits this sovereign individual, who enjoys a consistent and absolute identity, above any contamination from those who buy his work, selling the product of his or her genius to a world that is able to receive it and enjoy it in the same way everywhere. So individualism and globalization go hand in glove. The idea that we are absolutely free of any community permits us to engage with all people everywhere. This is why so much international literature is about freedom and favors rebellions against institutions.
But the experience of the writer addressing a multiplicity of separate audiences—or perhaps using pseudonyms for certain kinds of writing in contrast with the work published under his or her own name—belies this myth. Indeed, as the years go by I begin to suspect that it is precisely in positing themselves as outside community, uninfluenced by the collective, that writers are in fact accepting to fill a part that the modern community has dreamt up for them: the one who allows us all to believe that freedom and absolute identity outside the community are possible.
August 30, 2012, 4:45 p.m.