“The Rest is Indeed Horseshit,” Pt. 6

The subject of the essay was World Literature, both an object of academic study and a particular prestige category as imagined by New York publishing houses and critics, and whose apotheosis is the annual PEN World Voices Festival, also in New York. As we said in the first paragraph, we were not talking about all the literature published in the world. That would have been a different sort of essay.

On World Lit #BEEF

What’s beef? Beef is when you need two gats to go to sleep.
—Notorious BIG

The responses have begun to roll in for Issue 17’s “Intellectual Situation” column, “World Lite,” a polemic about the development of a global sphere of literature and literary-circulation. In the words of @PFLSPU: “LOTS OF BEEF WITH THAT NPLUSONE WORLD LIT PIECE ON THE ‘RETHINKING WORLD LIT’ FACEBOOK GROUP #BEEF.”

And not just on Facebook. At the blog “Arabic Literature (In English),” M. Lynx Qualey wonders why the piece chooses Goethe’s invocation of Weltliteratur as its starting point. “I imagine fourth-century Romans and tenth-century Iraqis also had concepts of World Literature, and am not quite sure how the line is drawn from Goethe to today—except that Goethe is ‘Western,’ and what we’re looking at is not so much ‘World Literature’ as ‘World Literature (in English).’” She goes on to suggest that, contra “World Lite,” World Literature has not often consisted of literature from other countries in translation. Using examples from Arabic-speaking countries, she points to Hisham Matar and Leila Aboulela, who write in English, as the representative “World Lit” authors in the Anglophone world, rather than writers who work in Arabic. The prevailing sentiment in Qualey’s response is that the essay’s superficially large scope is in fact aggressively narrow: “[T]hat the essay comes almost entirely from the point of view of the Anglophone world makes it, all told, a very odd sort of worldliness. There is no discussion of different literary cultures, different literary and aesthetic values, or the weight placed on forms that have been most particularly developed among Global North-ish minorities.”

Writing on the blog of the great Indian muckraking magazine Tehelka, Poorva Rajaram and Michael Griffith also take the essay to task for narrowness. In “Why World Literature Looks Different From Brooklyn,” they write that “The n+1 editors have come up with more than a hasty polemic—they have offered us a straw man called Global Lit (encompassing authors as widespread as Junot Diaz, Salman Rushdie, Teju Cole, and Kiran Desai), a woefully partial picture of world literature and a staggeringly onerous idea of what a reader should be.” By “partial,” they mean especially an understanding of world literature that fails to take into account the variety of world literary spaces: what counts as World Literature in one place may not elsewhere. By “onerous,” they mean that the essay implies that a reader should slog through works she doesn’t enjoy, out of a misguided and “pious” effort at comprehensiveness: “Perhaps the editors of n+1 should read more to their taste.”

Rajaram and Griffith also level the more serious charge that the Intellectual Situation authors would consign third-world writers to a kind of political ghetto. “Why are these anaerobic literary litmus tests (Marxist or otherwise) mysteriously over-applied to third world writers? And why refuse aesthetic considerations to these writers? . . . Michael Ondaatje crafts beautiful prose, not political pamphlets. Is Ondaatje (or any of the other writers the editors attack) required to do something that other writers are not? Must artists from outside the US and UK be doggedly political while Brooklynites enjoy the free-for-all of conceptual play? Is Brooklyn social and aesthetic and the rest of the world only political?”


These are good questions. For the record, they impute a position to us that is the exact opposite of our position.

The subject of the essay was World Literature, both an object of academic study and a particular prestige category as imagined by New York publishing houses and critics, and whose apotheosis is the annual PEN World Voices Festival, also in New York. As we said in the first paragraph, we were not talking about all the literature published in the world. That would have been a different sort of essay (even longer, for one). So the fact that Shobhaa Dé and Anuja Chauhan are “flourishing bestsellers in India” but not known in the sphere of World Literature conjured by the West means that they aren’t at all what we mean to talk about. “The editors simply do not account for work that hasn’t been translated, that speaks to local contexts (anti-caste literature, for example) or is out of tune with the tectonics of the global market.” That’s (almost) exactly right, because that’s not what “World Lit” is.[1]

It’s no use trying to junk the ideas of World Literature, Global Lit, or internationalist literature altogether, not as long as people read work from many countries, in translation or otherwise, and not as long as world literature continues to remain a live question, debated over centuries. The incompleteness of these categories doesn’t mean that they don’t broadly capture actual phenomena. Selections—intrinsic to any attempt to describe a literary field—are as inevitable as they are inevitably partial. Our essay’s stress on work available in English has something to do with n+1’s being in Brooklyn but more to do with its being in English, which happens to be the preponderant language at this moment of world history. Meanwhile it’s true that some World Lit writers promoted by London and New York publishing houses don’t afford us much of the readerly pleasure that Rajaram and Griffith emphasize. But the pleasure of hating, as Hazlitt called it—or, more mildly, of criticizing—can’t be unknown to them, or they wouldn’t have read all the way through our essay and written about it as they did.

Part of their animus has to do with what they see as a political litmus test applied exclusively to writers from the global south, and spared nothern ones. In fact, our preference, in “first world” fiction, is often for the political. Our preference in non-first-world fiction—if we’re to judge by the writers we’ve published—tends to be the opposite. Juan Villoro (n+1 issue 8, 9) is a Mexican writer who takes the problems of his country very seriously, but he expresses this in a sardonic, world-weary way that has more in common with Raymond Chandler than Diego Rivera. Kirill Medvedev (n+1 issue 6, 13) is a Russian Marxist activist, but his poems are about pornography, television, other poets (that is, “first world problems”). Both of these writers come up in the paragraph toward the end, among many other writers we admire who are in various ways outside the Global Lit circuit—not one of whom writes straightforwardly political, let alone Marxist, work.

If we can’t agree that Ondaatje is a terrible writer, we may, in fact, have to go our separate ways.

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Rajaram and Griffith similarly get us wrong on the university, and the writers’ relationship to history. “The rise of university novels, far from being the harbinger of dilute classist outlooks, points to a degree of honesty amongst Global Lit writers,” they write. “We will happily choose experience-based novels set in universities over a transnational literary elite that insists on ventriloquising the poor.” Precisely such honesty is one of the things we’re after. It’s the difficulty of writing honestly for a sociologically narrow “global” audience that’s at issue. Our essay is centrally about a change of historical situation for writers since the end of the cold war and the dawn of global capitalism: a geographical broadening, combined with a social thinning-out, of the audience for literature, along with a general depoliticization of writers. This situation encourages writers to leave intact, rather than confront, the ideas of the other so-called global citizens who mainly read them: that is, well-educated, well-traveled, fairly comfortable people. It menaces the “honesty” or truth-telling that Rajaram and Griffith prize, and the disagreeableness that often accompanies the practice. It favors what is “literary,” in the bad sense of prettification of the world, avoidance of difficult subjects, flattery of the reader.

So we agree with Tehelka on some things, though not about our essay. But we will take a stand on the subject of Michael Ondaatje, the author of sentences like “I would watch the flicker under his eyelid, the tremble within that covering skin that signaled his tiredness, as if he were being tugged in mid-river by a rope to some other place” (Divisadero). This, in our opinion, is no crafter of “beautiful prose.” If we can’t agree that Ondaatje is a terrible writer, we may, in fact, have to go our separate ways.

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