Saturday, February 13, 2010

Is the "New Global Novel" Dull?

Yes! answers Tim Parks in the NYRB blog:
From the moment an author perceives his ultimate audience as international rather than national, the nature of his writing is bound to change. In particular one notes a tendency to remove obstacles to international comprehension. Writing in the 1960’s, intensely engaged with his own culture and its complex politics, Hugo Claus apparently did not care that his novels would require a special effort on the reader’s and above all the translator’s part if they were to be understood outside his native Belgium. In sharp contrast, contemporary authors like the Norwegian Per Petterson, the Dutch Gerhard Baaker, or the Italian Alessandro Baricco, offer us works that require no such knowledge or effort, nor offer the rewards that such effort will bring.
Parks sees a massive culture shift underway in the world of European literature similar to the switch from Latin to vernacular; European writers are beginning to look at success in their own language and their own countries as insufficient, and their gazes are set abroad. "Certainly, in Italy where I live, an author is only thought to have arrived when he is published in New York. To appreciate how much things have changed one only need reflect how little it would have dented the reputations of Zola or Verga had they not achieved immediate publication in London."

In addition to the lack of culturally specific detail, Parks sees a likely trend toward simpler, less idiomatic language that presents fewer problems for translators, and a greater reliance on what might be called the best practices of already internationally established stars:
the deployment of highly visible tropes immediately recognizable as “literary” and “imaginative,” analogous to the wearisome lingua franca of special effects in contemporary cinema, and the foregrounding of a political sensibility that places the author among those “working for world peace.” So the overstated fantasy devices of a Rushdie or a Pamuk always go hand in hand with a certain liberal position since, as Borges once remarked, most people have so little aesthetic sense they rely on other criteria to judge the works they read.
I agree with Borges, and I agree that the fewer the Rushdie impersonators, the better, but I'm beginning to wonder which babies are being ejected with the bathwater. Even among the writers he's listed as among the vanguard of the new global novel (Petterson, Barrico, Baaker, Ishiguro) I have trouble recognizing this limp liberalism as all that pervasive, or a uniformity that is all that constrictive. There is a certain taciturnity in common between Petterson and Ishiguro (I don't know Barrico or Baaker) but I'm at a loss to attribute it solely to the desire to have international success; surely there is something very specific about both writers' sense of their characters' voices and the types of narratives they're interested in that is more personal (even idiosyncratic) than it is commercial or ambitious.

Secondly, I am left to wonder how Parks differentiates this "new global novel" from slightly older global novels: it would be very easy to read a work like Saramago's Blindness into this program of international pandering: it certainly seemed like it was written to facilitate fluid cultural translation. And aren't we told so frequently that the great modernist masterworks are among the most international of the century? Parks has written just a short blog post, so it may be unfair to expect a consideration of these larger contexts, but I wonder how much he is critiquing a specific marketing and compositional practice and how much he is complaining that he hasn't found many new novels he's liked recently. (Honestly, I'm inclined to believe that most general theories of literature derive from this quotidian problem. And when I hear "death of the novel," I think, "this guy's just fed up with his job," whether it's writing, editing, or composing 800-word reviews.)

Parks notes that his awareness of this shift comes from living in Europe, and I think it would be only fair to recognize that he's talking at most about a fraction (maybe a substantial fraction) of European writers. I suppose there are a number of Latin American and some African writers who could be read into this shift, but there are also a number of novels from these and other places which are fighting against this current, which do in fact attempt to render a sense of location or which at the very least are trying to engage a broad audience's ignorance. Junot Díaz's celebrated educational footnote to the second page of Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is only perhaps the most direct example, but there are a number of contemporary writers who at the very least begrudgingly accept the role of native informant and do their best to equip the reader with the necessary historical, political, and intellectual background for understanding the action. They are still very intent on writing novels deeply invested in local politics, history, and culture.

Lastly, I think it's hard to underestimate the extent to which genre fiction—mystery and science fiction in particular—has effected a change in the way writers around the world think about imaginatively coming to terms with local or national problems; while I don't want to write either genre off as allegory, the way that science fiction or detective novels might facilitate cultural translation because of their "highly visible tropes" is clearly one of their strengths and not a lack or a flaw. I haven't read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which I kept expecting to come up in Parks's argument), but it's my understanding that there isn't so much a suppression of detail about contemporary Swedish society as it is made available to a global audience through the plot and through the internationalized conventions of the genre. Surely Stieg Larsson's wild success is more exemplary of a "new global novel" than Per Petterson or Alessandro Barrico.

I'm very skeptical that any desire to court international (and particularly American) success will ever be quite so unremittingly distortive and destructive to the novel—even to the European novel. And I am still more skeptical that it will ever become complete; while there may be a shift away from the pursuit of national prestige and toward international honors and sales, it is unlikely that national markets will wholly collapse, and some writers, unsuccessful on an international market, will inevitably turn back (or will never abandon) the local.


jimsligh said...

It's nice to see someone articulating what was, for me, just a vague wordless feeling of discontent upon reading Parks' post.

In addition to the points you've made, it struck me as odd that on the one hand you have on the one hand a widely acknowledged dearth of translated literature available in the States, and on the other, Parks lamenting the insidious impact of international translation. Can both be true? (I know, I know, English & international are far from synonymous . . .)

While international translation perhaps creates a simpler, less idiomatic language (this is certainly true for Hollywood films that contemplate international distribution), isn't part of the appeal of international fiction also a voyeuristic sense of 'literary tourism'? (I'm borrowing the phrase from Vendela Vida's Believer article about Javier Marías.) Might international audiences equally create a literature of shallow local color & potted histories? I find this more of a danger than a bland, placeless cosmopolitanism, & I think it's avoiding the dangers of this that, say, Junot Díaz has in mind while he's trying to 'engage a broad audience's ignorance.'

LML said...

As a US reader it's hard to judge how accurate his theory is, but it does seem like the only time we get fiction that is specific to another culture is when it has a backdrop of genocide or war or some other politically resonant body count whose meaning translates easily. Otherwise, yeah, allegorical and fantastic works seem to predominate, and these modes lend themselves particularly well to a kind of culturally neutral execution. Saramago might just be one of the few writers capable of writing truly top-shelf fantastic novels, so that he's not exempt from Parks's critique so much as he manages to clear himself of the charges through simple excellence.

I find Parks's argument interesting as a counterpoint to, for example, the Aleksandar Hemon intro to that new Dalkey anthology, where he claims that it's the variety of cultures and traditions that makes for the (compared to the US) more innovative literature of Europe. Hemon sounds a little naive to me now. Not saying I buy Parks's theory wholeheartedly...

Richard said...

"I find Parks's argument interesting as a counterpoint to, for example, the Aleksandar Hemon intro to that new Dalkey anthology, where he claims that it's the variety of cultures and traditions that makes for the (compared to the US) more innovative literature of Europe. Hemon sounds a little naive to me now. Not saying I buy Parks's theory wholeheartedly..."

It seems to me that Parks and Hemon likely do not have the same groups of writers in mind.

LML said...

You might be right, Richard. So far I've only read a little of the Hemon anthology, but I was struck by his statement about the various traditions all the selected writers are drawing on. I wanted to know about these traditions, and yet, in the back of the book, where each writer answers a question (as part of his/her author's note) about influences, none--or very few of them--listed any influences that would have been unknown to a reasonably well-read American writer. The absurd and the fantastic seem to be the predominant modes in that anthology, and the forebears the authors acknowledge are the usual suspects: Dostoevsky, Beckett, Bernhard, Kafka, Borges. A lot of the authors also name-checked American writers (I seem to remember more than one nod to Updike).

The Parks blog entry just has me thinking about why so many American writers automatically tend toward detailed culture-specific realism whereas so many Europeans seem to tend toward the fantastic and the absurd. It doesn't seem that Hemon's idea about far-flung influences really holds. There are obvious economic incentives involved in the American/realism side of the picture, but Parks has identified an economic factor for the international/fantastic side where I hadn't seen one before.

Andrew Seal said...

You have me re-evaluating Parks's argument, or rather the part of it that I think I missed. He's really making two (possibly related but also potentially independent) arguments.

One is that intensely regional authors are disappearing in Europe. This may be true, although I think we'd need a better idea of whether a flourishing of such authors occurred, and if so, when, and through what means. Parks doesn't do that and it may be a little unfair to expect him to do that, but I think it's important to pose these questions. What role does nationalism play in this putative flourishing, for instance? If this dying out of localist/regionalist writing is really perhaps a dying out of nationalism, I think we might look at the issue a little differently.

The other half of his argument--which strikes the American ear perhaps a little more forcefully because it puts us at the center of the problem--is that there is a new type of novel in Europe which has these specific features that make it more accessible to Americans in particular and international audiences generally, and that these novels have done increasingly well in Europe in terms of prestige and sales.

I don't think these are necessarily the same phenomena, or that they even imply one another. It is perfectly possible for intensely regional novels to still sell well alongside the novels destined for international success; very few readers, I think, are quite so narrow that they subscribe to a new trend and read only those books which fit into it. I don't think Parks really even tries to prove that this might be the case; he just assumes that these two types of books exist in some zero-sum game, that for every Petterson sale there is one fewer Ginzburg sale or something like that.

But I think he may have a point that both trends exist--or at least, I have no reason to doubt him, as I know virtually nothing about current European writing other than what gets translated. I do know that Javier Cercas's newest book, Anatomía de un Instante, is supposed to be so minutely detailed about national history that it will probably never be translated into English, as no Anglophone will be able to follow it. I don't want to rest my case on a single instance, but I know that Anatomía was considered by many to be the novel of the year in Spain last year; clearly, such a novel can still succeed.