Thursday, March 5, 2009

Pankaj Mishra and Tomorrow's American Fiction Today!

I'm now also contributing as a Guest Author to The Valve, and here is my first post:

In The Guardian, Pankaj Mishra considers the future of US influence on other literatures, and produces a subtly scattered essay which deftly avoids making any statement too strong, but introduces a number of quasi-assertions. Far be it from me to castigate subtlety, but in this case I think Mishra just doesn't want to commit himself to a prediction or a diagnosis, in which case I'm not sure what purpose the article serves, with its grandiose titular pretentions and obvious aspirations toward starting a conversation. Mishra does go some ways toward offering an idea of what probably won't continue to work in the future, but ultimately he uses some rhetorical finesse to evade anything concrete enough to build on.

Among others, the quasi-assertions on offer are:
  • American literature might see its stature dissipate as American economic hegemony is permanently broken. (The first part of this statement is proffered a little gingerly, the second as a certainty.)
  • No truly important writer of the global periphery (Mishra lists "Naipaul, García Márquez, Mishima, or Mahfouz") has been extensively influenced by the US, but Brits eat our exports right up. (So does a decline in our "influence" mean anything to the "periphery?")
  • Italians are absolutely but inexplicably mad about Brat Pack writers from the 80s. (And they also still like red leather jackets à la "Beat It"?)
  • Western Europe has been "Coca-colonised" (nice neologism, don't let Thomas Friedman see it) more than anywhere else in the world, yet our "brand" has not displaced local entertainment industries or the residual cultural influence of other former empires in postcolonial countries. (Once again, is this discussion about future status then relevant to anything beyond Western Europe?)
  • The horniness of White American Male fiction has not translated as well to these postcolonial nations and may be part of the hegemony blockage problem.
  • These White American Male novels may be lost to the world once America's heyday is over because no one outside of Martin Amis will bother to read about Moses Herzog's sexual/intellectual conundrums. (And inside of Martin Amis, it'll be too dark to read.)
  • "American energy and self-absorption seem to be reaching the end of a long historical cycle. The assumptions of national self-sufficiency, stability and continuity that underlay the most tumultuous and tragic of contemporary fictional narratives may not be available while America suffers, after an uninterrupted spell of good fortune, the humiliations and defeats that other nations have known."
  • "However, the outlook for American literature seems brighter than at any time in recent decades. Just as the tragedy of the civil war expedited the maturing of American literature, and the Depression seared its lessons on a generation of writers, so the present crisis will likely incite a fresh re-evaluation of values, styles and genres. Out of widespread turmoil and confusion may come America's greatest novels yet; and we will cherish them not because they evoke America's glamorously singular modernity but because they describe a more universal human condition of public and unremitting conflict."
Wait, so we're in for a golden age? Great! but will anyone read our authors? Mishra uses one question—what's the aesthetic future of American literature—to suppress the question which the essay is supposed to be addressing—what will the status of American literature be in the future? It's not whether American novels will be better, but whether they will influence other literature which was our initial question.

'Will it be read?' and 'by whom?' are excellent questions. Of course, they are also answerable only foolishly—our predictions can only be folded into our feelings about the current state of American literature. Being a ready fool, I'd like to lay out a few conditions which will determine what may become of us.

First, as Mishra points out, the notion of national cultural self-sufficiency is, in all responsible quarters, at a petrified end. So I think a very large factor in determining our future will be what we end up reading—the success of our exports will increasingly depend on the quality and quantity of our imports. Will we continue with our Discovery-a-Decade paradigm (1970s, Gabo García Márquez; 1980s, Milan Kundera; the long 1990s, W.G. Sebald; 2000s, Roberto Bolaño), or will we increase our pace?

Second, we should consider the success of a growing number of writers whose books are less "immigrant narratives" proper (focusing on processes of assimilation and permanent relocation) than the products of dual or multiple citizenship, or persistent and frequently refreshed ties back to one's former country. Junot Díaz, Aleksandar Hemon ("I am a reasonably loyal citizen of a couple of countries"), Mohsin Hamid, Chimamanda Adichie, Joseph O'Neill, Gary Shteyngart, Daniel Alarcón, Kiran Desai, Uzodinma Iweala, Sana Krasikov, Edwidge Danticat, Yiyun Li seem less separated from their countries of origin than parted (unlike, say Lahiri, who seems truly separated), and I think this lesser distance/nearer presence is bound to have some effect on their reception in other nations, particularly those they are merely parted from.

Third, when was the last time we had a significant American expatriate writer? Writers spend what amounts to terms abroad for research or other career-advancing opportunities (though William Vollman pushes that generalization a fair bit), but where the hell is our Lost Generation? We don't even have any Americans who pretend to be British any more!

Fourth, litterateurs should recognize that parallel questions can be, will be and need to be asked and partially answered regarding painting and poetry. The American novel is certainly not shipped out by itself; it's packaged with at least these other two products, and if no one buys the package deal, they probably aren't going to break it up for parts and keep the novel.

Finally, whither the Left? Engaged leftist writers are, as Michael Denning among others has shown, considerably more transnational and transnationalizable. The special harmony of pursuing similar projects under vastly different conditions encourages comparative reading and vigorous response. If America produces a vibrant artistic Left in the coming years, I don't think we'll have to worry about being read all around the world.

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