Q & A

Is there a global literature?

American pop music blaring from speakers in North Africa. Indian novels being read on the subway in New York City. Has cultural production become as widely dispersed as the supply chain?

Q: What does globalization mean in terms of literature?
This is such a recent conversation. I was an undergraduate in the mid ’90s and you barely heard people talking about globalization and literature. To a large extent, people are trained to think about literature in terms of the nation. Almost from the outset of the modern novel, it’s been associated with a sense of nationhood. When was the last time you heard someone talk about the great New Haven novel or the great European Union novel? This differentiates the novel from other cultural forms. It’s almost uniquely seen as capable of capturing “nationhood.” To even think about literature and globalization is to push against deeply held traditions.

Through literature today, we can watch writers confront all the strange and different communities that we come into contact with each day. Not to say that literature hasn’t always done this, but there’s something particularly dramatic and pressing now. Think back to earlier periods in literature. Back in the 19th century, when we saw an earlier wave of “globalized” writing, European writers traveled to foreign places and are now seen to have done a kind of violence to the people and the places they were writing about. Things were generally seen through the eyes of the home nation. There was a sense that literature was really an impulse towards empire, towards controlling these subjects. Not always, but often enough.

We are in a very different moment now, where much larger segments of the population are critical of the idea of empire. I don’t think there’s exactly a linear progression, but in the 1960s and 1970s, with the rise of anti-imperial movements, with the rise of feminism, with the rise of all sorts of identity politics, you have the emergence in different places around the globe of a sudden awareness of empire as a problem, of racism as a problem, sexism as a problem, in ways that were different from before. Not to say that didn’t happen before then, but the scale really changes with the wave of decoloni­za­tion. That seismic shift has a profound effect on writing. You see similar themes coming from writers all across the globe.

We have more access to more literature than we’ve ever had before. But I’m also struck by how many limitations there still are on the circulation of liter­a­ture. There is lots more written in English and translated into other languages than the reverse. A lot of people who read in English don’t get to see those other types of literature. A lot of writers working in India feel that to get major distribution, to get noticed, to basically make your way as a writer, you have to write for the export market. And, particularly in the 1990s, there was this flood of South Asian writers working in English who became the face of a very sophisticated, hip global literature. While it looked like a great breakthrough, many writers who did not have one residence in New York and one in Mumbai, but were indeed based in India, found it really hindered their ability to make a living.

Q: You always hear about the impact of globalization on culture. Usually it refers to music, TV, and movies. Is literature different?
Literary writers would love it if a fraction as many people noticed them as notice pop culture. But literature and pop culture are so different that it makes it difficult to compare their spread around the globe. Years ago I lived in China, and I traveled around a lot on the trains. They’d pipe contemporary pop music into the trains. It didn’t matter if you didn’t want to listen to it. I had no idea what people were reading in their homes, but I knew what music was popular. This is an extreme case, but I think in general with pop culture, it’s much easier for it to be absorbed by huge numbers of people. You turn on the radio or the TV, you go to the movies. Books are different — they’re created and consumed alone. Their distribution is so different. If anything, the internet, with the proliferation of literary blogs and sites such as Amazon, could have an even more profound impact on literature than other types of popular culture. Writers are beginning to find an audience in ways that might not have been available in a bookstore. Not too long ago, your only choice was to go to your local bookstore and buy whatever they had there. Literature can really thrive in the subcultures on the internet.

But it’s not just about technology. Simple economics has played a great role in the globalization of literature. It used to be that the vast majority of Western books that you could get in China were from the 19th century. You could get Jane Eyre or some Dickens, but good luck finding the latest literary hit. I think the reason for that was that those older books were out of copyright, anybody could translate them, and it wasn’t that expensive. But as China has risen economically, people have more purchasing power, and now when you go to the book stalls in the subways, you can find the same things that are bestsellers in the U.S. You can get Harry Potter. I think this is having a profound effect not just on what people are reading, but what they’re writing. Writers are promiscuous readers, and I have no doubt that when new texts are suddenly available — whether it’s through technology, economics, or even changing political situations — their effect snowballs. Not only can you buy Harry Potter in China, you can buy the dozens and dozens of titles that are essentially Harry Potter rip-offs. And Chinese literary fiction starts to incorporate some of the same themes and elements we have come to expect from the books we pick up in the local bookstore in the United States.

Q: Often, when it comes to culture, “globalization” means “Westernized.” Is this the case with literature?
That’s a very difficult question to answer. One thing I’ve noticed is that the rise of the globalized novel coincided with a feeling that the Western novel had run out of momentum. There’s been a real narrowing, in some sense, of what novels are for. It’s when people started to think much more capaciously about migration, about movement, about the collisions of different kinds of individuals who have historically never been in contact with each other, that all of a sudden novels found a kind of epic purpose again.

One of the reasons literature from new places took off was because of a sense of possibility and something new. A lot of the most innovative exper­iments that we have seen the past several decades with style, with form, with what you can do with the novel, have come out of postcolonial spaces. Take Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which is easily one of the most influential novels of the last 30 years. No one had ever seen writing like that before. It was a perfect hybrid of English and Indian traditions, both linguistically and thematically. It’s easy to forget how revolutionary this approach was at the time.

More broadly, you can see how American writers have drawn, sometimes very derivatively, from these global novels. For example, magical realism, which began as a recognizable signature from Asian and Latin cultures, over time has come to seem almost normal as it’s been embraced by Western writers. Another pattern that people point to is what one scholar calls “weird English,” which brings in non-native patterns, things that we would con­sider mistakes, but that are reclaimed within literature as sources of great aesthetic power. Seeing the mistake as something that’s a strength.

Q: Rushdie seems to me the perfect example of the globalized writer. He grew up in India before going to school in England. He has continued to live in the West and his writing seems to incorporate much of what has come to be seen as globalized literature. How is he viewed back home?
Rushdie is an interesting example for a number of reasons. While he was hailed in the West as the coming of the global author, he’s been far more con­troversial back in India. As a handful of Indian writers have become worldwide celebrities, there has been a backlash in India. Rushdie is dubbed insufficiently Indian and, in many cases, barred from college curriculums. Look at Orhan Pamuk. He’s been writing these wonderful novels of Istanbul, but because he’s been perceived as very pro-Western, and has written things that are critical of Turkish Islamic fundamentalism, and has achieved such incredible success in the Western world, he’s practically an outcast in some segments of his own country. It makes you wonder if the novel will ever be able to successfully decouple itself from questions of national identity.

One of my students is writing a fascinating senior essay where she looks at book prizes given by one of the great bookstores in Mumbai over the last several years. One thing I found really striking was that I hadn’t heard of many of the winners — and I’ve read a lot of Indian literature. What does this mean? I take it to mean that while there is a globalized literature, it’s not all-encompassing. Each country retains a homegrown sense of the novel that, while it communicates with the outside world, remains distinct.

Q: How does the business of selling literary fiction impact the globalization of literature?
As India and other countries gained independence, we saw the rise of im­­prints to promote local literature. They became very important in the growth of literary markets, but they’re ceasing to publish. The Heinemann African Writers imprint, a very powerful way of bringing African writing to an English-speaking audience, is gone now. I don’t know what will take the place of such publishers. A few years ago I was in India and I went to lots of different bookstores in a number of cities. I was very curious to know who the publishers were. If you were a young Indian writer, who could you pub­­lish with? And I noticed that the vast majority of books were published by Oxford India, by HarperCollins India, by Penguin India — subsidiaries of the big Western publishing houses. Though many of these subsidiaries exercise independent editorial control, there may well be a difference between the kind of books sold by a local publisher and a subsidiary. It’s here, intentional or not, that we can see the impact of a globalized literature.

Q: With the novel tied so firmly to the idea of the nation, can it ever truly become global?
I think a lot of countries feel the burden of having to assert national identity through the arts, particularly when these countries are encouraging capital investment from abroad. They’re trying to get rich through connections to the outside world, but want to have a sense of themselves as a coherent and individual place. Pop culture is allowed to be driven by the market. If the people like Britney Spears, so be it. But the novel has to do more work. It probably dates back to the birth of what’s often called the modern novel, at a time of intense national consciousness.

I prefer to look for the origins of the globalized novel much earlier in time, back in the classical ancient periods. Ancient writers weren’t so concerned with creating a singular civic identity. There was a greater focus on the strangeness of human behavior and all sorts of different cultures. I think in some ways the novels we associate with globalization have a lot more in common with them than with the great novels of the nation that we began to see in the 18th century and that came to define the form’s highest achieve­ment. In a sense, writers were global before we even knew there was a globe.

Assistant Professor of English, Yale University