Stavans makes an implicit personal commitment to one side of the equation by including an essay he wrote on Julia Álvarez in the "South Reading North" section (Stavans was born in Mexico). Stavans has reason to ally himself with this cohort; as he acknowledges, "Americans [he means U.S. writers], almost by definition, have an imperfect, partial knowledge of reality south of the border. Their understanding of it is ruled by fashion, not by consistency." The "South Reading North" section is, correspondingly, a great deal "more substantial" than the gringo section, if not so much by page count (about a 40pp. edge for Latin America), then certainly by complexity of readings. As Stavans says in comparing the two pieces which act as prologues to their respective sections:
Pedro Henríquez Ureña, a startling essayist and among the first south of the Rio Grande to study the literature of the United States in a consistent fashion (he delievered the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University in 1940-41), wrote his panoramic piece in La Plata, Argentina in 1927. It is a scintillating display of erudition (in spite of its many blind spots and contradiction [sic]), a sideboard of the kind of curiosity that literature in [from?] the United States generates throughout the Southern Hemisphere. Henríquez Ureña's objective is to explain the artistic transformation that swept American writers during the two decades from 1907 to 1927, a time of extraordinary renewal in fiction and poetry. I frankly cannot imagine a similar piece on Latin American letters—at once panoramic and extraordinarily detailed, well-informed, inclusive, and incisive—written in a belletristic style by a U.S. intellectual.I can't either, at least at the moment, and especially when we come to realize how difficult it may be just to replace a bland, genial generalist like John Updike. The obituaries for and tributes to Updike frequently made panegyric reference to his willingness—almost considered courage—to review books by Eastern Europeans and English-speaking Africans, among others. It's a sad judgment on American culture that we feel such attention to be both risky and irreplaceable.
It's especially sad when you actually read one of these risk-taking essays by Updike; Stavans chose his review of Augusto Roa Bastos, a Paraguayan novelist most famous for Yo el supremo (I, the Supreme), a novel about the Paraguayan dictator José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, and the subject of Updike's review. Updike gives one of those "it's not worth reading, just worth mentioning at a cocktail party to look really smart" performances: he says, and this is the most complementary he gets, "if a masterpiece, it is the sort one should read for academic credit." He compares it unfavorably to Ulysses, although only in the most general way possible (he was able to follow what was happening in Ulysses, he says, but got kind of lost in Bastos). One wonders why the review was even written. The piece is so slight I can't even build from it much of an argument for whether or why this kind of condescending notice of "foreign fiction" does more harm than good.
Scott Esposito has posted an interesting notice about a prospective renaissance of Mexican fiction (and two posts about upcoming translations of two of Mexican authors) which has me quite excited, but I also instinctively draw back into a familiar posture of self-questioning: what drives me, what drives anyone to read fiction from another language, or even just from another (obviously non-American) nation? Is it what I guess could be called the "obligation of ignorance," the simple idea that knowing little or nothing about another country is a deficiency which one must correct? If so, I think this is very tenuous ground on which to promote the reading of literature in translation, or "foreign" fiction—the obligation of ignorance is much more easily satisfied by reading a review like Updike's than it is by reading Yo el supremo or even just its (surprisingly ample) Wikipedia page (linked above). It's a sort of white man's burden of the mind, and it is, at heart, imperial.1
But what other than imperialism can ground a project that is, by nature, about (intellectual) expansion? The control-focused growth of empires is the strongest model Anglo-European culture has for any form of expansion, and the literary world is really no different. I guess if I had to sum up in a single question what drives (subtly, I think, up to now, but in the future, I hope, more explicitly) what I'm trying to do on this blog, it is, how can I develop ways of reading and learning that escapes the desire for simple acquisition and accumulation? Some of my more self-reflective posts have been about that, more or less—can consciously choosing to read (only) books by minority authors make a difference in the way I view a literary-historical period, and if so, what kind of a difference? Can the lit-blog do more than just record the aggregation of one's reading choices—the books or essays or reviews read, with a response or an evaluation not so much of the thing read, but of the choice one made to read it? And what does the choice to read new books really entail? Is it really about self-determination (i.e., "forming one's own opinion"), or is it about trying to speculate on what books to read based on anticipated future value? How can one change one's reasons for reading? How can one find better reasons?
The element necessary for avoiding the type of reading that I think is, basically, imperialist—the equation of reading with accumulation, aggregation, or conquest—is what Stavans points to when he describes the case of North Reading South: our knowledge, our understanding, even our acknowledgment of the South's existence (as just one example) is "ruled by fashion, not by consistency." How can critical consistency be achieved in a reading environment that is often, to put it mildly, distracting? How can fashion be written out of our reading habits without retreating from immediate concerns which touch large numbers of people, without being merely purposely unfashionable, contrarian? How can reading, and writing about reading, live a different life than a career of acquisition—shelves filled, bylines accumulated, another writer checked off another list of must-reads?
I'll post more on Mutual Impressions: I think there are a couple of essays which present some compelling alternative models for non-acquisitive reading, and I'd like to deal with those ideas in posts of their own.
1(For the record, I think writers like Scott and M.A. Orthofer and Chad Post are all basing their advocacy for literature in translation on much, much better ground than this burdened sense of obligation, and I don't intend in the least to suggest that this obligation drives them in any way.)