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March 11, 2014 8:25 AM   Subscribe

World Lite is a polemic against 'world literature' published last year in the magazine N+1. It is the latest salvo in a long-running debate about the term. M. Lynx Qualey of Arabic Literature (in English) gave a response to N+1, and so did Poorva Rajaram and Michael Griffith in Tehelka, N+1 responded to both, and the article was discussed at the Hay Festival in Dhaka. The N+1 article references Franco Moretti, who framed the contemporary version of the debate when he published Conjectures on World Literature and More Conjectures in 2000 and 2003 respectively.

In January dhruva made a post about a review by Caroline Levine in Public Books of three books that have recently appeared on world literature, Against World Literature by Emily Apter, On Literary Worlds by Eric Hayot, and Distant Reading by Franco Moretti.
posted by Kattullus (9 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
The "World Lite" piece reads like most critiques of the Oscars or the Grammys and shares the basic incoherence of those critiques: "why aren't the awards given to difficult, unpopular works that I like?" Well, because they're difficult and unpopular, dummy. Of course the works that float to the top in "World Literature" ("top" in the sense of "widest sales, most name-recognition" etc.) are going to be in some sense "middlebrow" works--or at least, they will be works that have qualities of some kind that can be appreciated by a middlebrow audience. Pointing to a list of much more obscure, oppositional, experimental, regionally-engaged writers and asking "why aren't they the megastars of the international book trade?" is asking a question that answers itself.

And, of course, if any of those authors that they prefer eventually "catches on" and educates a wider audience in their new aesthetics such that they do gain a wider global audience I'm sure the authors of that piece will suddenly discover that they're no longer as cool as they thought they were. Once everyone's reading your "oppositional" writer and--strangely--the global economic and political order isn't being upended, well, what can you do but discover that their "oppositionality" was always somehow unreal, pre-co-opted by the order it was only rhetorically opposed to.
posted by yoink at 9:29 AM on March 11 [2 favorites]


I don't agree at all.

The argument, as far as I can tell, is "what we now call world literature is a very recent phenomenon, itself a product of the end of the Cold War and neoliberalism; there are other things which have been different kinds of "world" literature, contoured by different historical and political forces, and I will outline some thoughts about them".

Once you get past the first couple of paragraphs, it seems to me like an interesting but fairly non-controversial outline of various "world" literatures, from what medieval and renaissance elites would have read through the "classics" of early colonialism through the political and economic forces that bind together writers as apparently non-political and non-"world" as Henry James (who apparently wrote a novel about anarchists; I like James, but I did not know this), also discursing on both high and late modernism and the way in which it's different to be writing a "world" novel if you're a white Parisian or if you're a Bengali in Dhaka - your audience, your relationship to the publisher, the degree to which you address the metropole versus the periphery.

He makes the interesting point that once the cold war ended, "free speech" replaced "anti-totalitarianism" as the slogan to mobilize people against the enemies of the US. (Rather than out of, like, any genuine concern over free speech - just as 'totalitarianism' was bad when it was the Soviets, but perfectly good when it was our guys in Chili or Indonesia)

He also uses the term "blank allegory", which is quite useful. He makes an interesting connection between Borges, Kafka and Beckett as "blank allegorists" (that is, their work doesn't have that much place in it - the Castle, for instance, could be anywhere) - that all three are from [different] very unusual circumstances which lead them to place less importance on place, but that this gets read not as a quirk of circumstance but as a superior way to produce literature.

It's true that he (sort of pointlessly, IYAM) insults Franco Moretti, and he has some rather sharp things to say about certain kinds of upper-middlebrow contemporary novels...but those things are broadly true - that there is a genre of upper-middlebrow novel which is all about the agonies of a well-off, educated, deracinated cosmopolitan who spends his time contemplating How Awful It All Is. (Granted, these novels we have had with us since the fifties.)

I thought it was pretty good, but also that it would have sunk without a trace absent the invective - if it were just "here are my arguments about different ways to look at "world" literature, accompanied by some examples", few people would have gotten het up, even if they disagreed with his narrative.
posted by Frowner at 10:30 AM on March 11 [1 favorite]


The argument, as far as I can tell, is "what we now call world literature is a very recent phenomenon, itself a product of the end of the Cold War and neoliberalism"

Not really: the argument is that we now call "World Literature" is a product of post-Cold-War globalism--but that's neither here nor there in respect to my criticism. The point is that what the authors are calling "World Literature" is simply "what gets widespread attention as World Literature"--it's not a comment on "what is actually being produced around the world at the moment" so much as a comment on "what gets lionized, translated, feted at Frankfurt etc." And that's where I'm making the comparison to griping about what movies win the Oscars and what music wins Grammys. You'll notice they end with a list of authors from all over the "world" who are producing "literature" that they think is really great. So they're not saying that the current political/economic conjunction makes it impossible to produce great "World Literature" (or, as they would prefer: "International Literature"). But they're complaining about the fact that the stuff they prefer isn't the stuff that's getting feted at Frankfurt (i.e., winning the Oscars). Well, again I say, duh. And if it was getting feted at Frankfurt, they'd discover pretty quickly that it's not as great as they thought it was.

I don't mean that (at least entirely) as a snarky "you only like it because you think you're hip and cool to like things that aren't mainstream"--I mean that when you have a critical framework that praises some work's "oppositional" or "subversive" nature, widespread popularity eventually becomes a theoretical problem. You have to be able to answer the question "if this is so oppositional/subversive, why isn't it being opposed and why isn't anyone being subverted?" And it's always possible to find good reasons why the apparently oppositional/subversive is actually pandering to the prejudices of the elites.
posted by yoink at 10:42 AM on March 11 [1 favorite]


Maybe Against Homogenization Of Global Literary Styles Based On Western Signifiers Of Upper Class Status would have been a better title?
posted by grumpybear69 at 12:07 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]


when you have a critical framework that praises some work's "oppositional" or "subversive" nature, widespread popularity eventually becomes a theoretical problem.

It would be a problem if the n+1 writers were saying that good literature must always stand in opposition to dominant tastes and politics, whatever those happen to be at a given historical moment. But what they are calling for is literature that opposes the specific tastes and politics of present-day World Lit (especially its narrowness and homogeneity), and by extension those of the culture behind it.
posted by twirlip at 12:25 PM on March 11


But what they are calling for is literature that opposes the specific tastes and politics of present-day World Lit (especially its narrowness and homogeneity), and by extension those of the culture behind it.

Sure. But it's not as if the stuff that's getting feted at Frankfurt is all "yay, Global capital is the greatest!!!" The Koch brothers don't snuggle down with whatever the latest "World Literature" best seller happens to be and think "at last, someone who truly gets us." Much of that literature is opposed to the current economic/cultural systems. The critique is that it is so in ways that are essentially toothless and pre-co-opted. But the evidence for that is largely the fact that the work is widely popular and--look!--the world's not changing. So if the works they point to as getting-critiquing-the-current-international-order right were to become widely celebrated and imitated (as they seem to wish), I am claiming that the literature that would then be produced would steadily come to seem toothless and safe too.
posted by yoink at 12:49 PM on March 11


The critique is that it is so in ways that are essentially toothless and pre-co-opted. But the evidence for that is largely the fact that the work is widely popular and--look!--the world's not changing.

No, popularity doesn't really enter into the argument. They're saying World Lit is anodyne because it is depoliticized (it "displace[s] the contemporary world, locating politics always elsewhere, in some distant geography and irrecoverable past. Present day confusions and controversies are neglected or sentimentalized"), and because of the migration of so many authors into academia, which "always threatens to insulate World Lit from the world it wants to describe and address."

I am claiming that the literature that would then be produced would steadily come to seem toothless and safe too.

Maybe. Personally, I don't see literature-animated-by-a-political-project being celebrated unless that project is thriving in the political realm; I think the success of one would in general correspond to the success of the other. But either way, n+1's argument doesn't falter on this point, because it doesn't rely on the popular-vs-oppositional dynamic you're talking about.
posted by twirlip at 1:37 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]


Past horrors, unlike contemporary ones, also tend to be events liberal readers agree about. But they displace the contemporary world, locating politics always elsewhere, in some distant geography and irrecoverable past.

I was fascinated by this claim, since literary history suggests that writing about the past is frequently just as loaded as writing about the present (which past do you choose? why is everybody suddenly focused on this event and not others? what pasts are we fighting about now?). An interest in the past, whether in the form of historical fiction or of fiction in which the past functions as a kind of ghost, can be a way of saying "no politics now," but it's just as likely to be present politics by other means. (And as one of the linked responses points out, Amitav Ghosh's terrific historical novels are way political.)
posted by thomas j wise at 3:38 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]


yoink: The "World Lite" piece reads like most critiques of the Oscars or the Grammys and shares the basic incoherence of those critiques: "why aren't the awards given to difficult, unpopular works that I like?"

I think that's in some sense true, but I would make the rather sizable qualifier that when someone is critiquing the Oscars or the Grammys, there is a different tradition to fall back on. Yes, The Act of Killing wasn't nominated for an Oscar, but there's a tradition of harrowing documentaries that it can be placed within. 'World literature' doesn't have any kind of other tradition. There's lots of language-specific literatures, and writers who are central to those literatures, but with 'world literature' there's only one tradition. If you think in terms of pop music, it's like everyone around the world would know about The Beatles, but no one would know about The Velvet Underground except people from New York.


Frowner: He makes an interesting connection between Borges, Kafka and Beckett as "blank allegorists" (that is, their work doesn't have that much place in it - the Castle, for instance, could be anywhere) - that all three are from [different] very unusual circumstances which lead them to place less importance on place, but that this gets read not as a quirk of circumstance but as a superior way to produce literature.

That's actually the weakest part of the argument for me. It seems crazy to me to read Borges as anything but a very specifically Argentine writer. Not only of Buenos Aires, but also of rural Argentina. Yes, "The Library of Babel" takes place in a no-place, but most of his other stories are very squarely rooted in a certain time and place. "Funes the Memorious" is very local to the Argentine-Uruguayan border, the town it's in is even named, if I remember correctly. Sames goes for at least half his stories. "The South," "The Aleph," even a story like "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" is very much a Buenos Aires story. Even something like "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" is about a certain kind of French writer. Yes, "The Circular Ruins" could have been written by a writer from anywhere but the bulk of Borges's work is very specific to its location.

Beckett I'll grant them, but it's hard to imagine Kafka emerging from anywhere but a secondary city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That said, Kafka's been read very much as a writer from no-place, so I'll grant them that too.


thomas j wise: literary history suggests that writing about the past is frequently just as loaded as writing about the present

It can be, but it can also be a form of escapism. Even writing about something so awful as the holocaust can be an escape into a world where things are simple. I think that's their overall thesis, that 'world literature' as a genre is very simplistic. It takes an infinitely complex world and flattens it to something very easy to understand. Now, I think that fiction is basically an engine for simplifying the world (that's not a criticism, it's the basis of the artform). Globalization is also an engine for simplifying the world, and the danger when fiction becomes a globalized product it becomes two-dimensional.
posted by Kattullus at 4:10 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]


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