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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

"The Dull New Global Novel"

Tim Parks bemoans the globalization of literature:

The Dull New Global Novel, by Tim Parks, NYRB: Not all writers share the same sense of whom they are writing for. ... All the same, there are clearly periods of history when, across the board, authors’ perceptions of who their readers are change, something that inevitably leads to a change in the kind of text they produce. The most obvious example is the period that stretches from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century when writers all over Europe abandoned Latin for the vernacular. Instead of introducing their work, as before, into an international arena presided over by a largely clerical elite, they “descended” to local and national languages to address themselves to an emerging middle class.
In the history books this shift to the vernacular tends to be presented as a democratic inspiration that allowed a wealth of local vitality into the written text and brought new confidence to the rapidly consolidating national languages. That said, it was probably driven as much by ambition and economic interest as by idealism. ... Today we are at the beginning of a revolution of even greater import that is taking us in a quite different direction.
As a result of rapidly accelerating globalization we are moving toward a world market for literature. There is a growing sense that for an author to be considered “great,” he or she must be an international rather than a national phenomenon. This change is not perhaps as immediately evident in the US as it is in Europe, thanks to the size and power of the US market and the fact that English is generally perceived as the language of globalization, so that many more translations go toward it than away from it. However, more and more European, African, Asian and South American authors see themselves as having “failed” if they do not reach an international audience. ... 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. ...
What are the consequences for literature? 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. ...
More importantly the language is kept simple. Kazuo Ishiguro has spoken of the importance of avoiding word play and allusion to make things easy for the translator. Scandinavian writers I know tell me they avoid character names that would be difficult for an English reader. ...

What seems doomed to disappear, or at least to risk neglect, is the kind of work that revels in the subtle nuances of its own language and literary culture, the sort of writing that can savage or celebrate the way this or that linguistic group really lives. In the global literary market there will be no place for any Barbara Pyms and Natalia Ginzburgs. Shakespeare would have eased off the puns. A new Jane Austen can forget the Nobel.

Long, long ago when I was on the job market, I remember Robert Clower telling me that specialization depends upon the extent of the market (when I lived in San Diego, there was a store that sold nothing but lamp shades, it was highly specialized, but in the small town whee I grew up that wouldn't happen -- it's more likely that, say, a "country" grocery store would carry more than just groceries, e.g. fishing equipment, shovels, baling wire, etc., all sorts of stuff but very little in the way of specialized products).

So why isn't this working here? Why hasn't internationalization led to access to more specialized readers than before (e.g. people who speak the language and know the culture but have moved to another country) and hence more specialization by authors rather than less? The market failure that makes us collectively worse off is not immediately clear to me.

Authors can still write the novels the way they used to, nothing is making them alter their works, and as noted above if anything globalization ought to expand the demand for specialized literature. Perhaps the disconnect comes in the definition of the product. Are the authors selling entertainment, in which case changing what they do to satisfy the widest possible audience (leaving room for specialized niches) seems to be exactly what they ought to be doing. If, however, they are selling something else, e.g. work that attempts to reveal something important about a particular culture or a particular place, work that is intended for a more specialized audience, then you would expect more, not less specialization. I'd guess there are examples of niche novels that simply wouldn't exist without globalization.

Perhaps this is a case where someone is judging externally what people ought to be reading, making the judgment that if they are reading a version of a book that has been written to maximize their enjoyment, that somehow they are worse off than if the book had been written another way. I'm not sure that's a correct conclusion (I like pushpin better than poetry myself).

I'm also not very sure I have a very good handle on this, so I'd be interested in hearing the economics of how globalization makes us worse off. Is there a market failure due to an information problem -- a lack of knowledge of language and culture -- or, if there is a problem, is it something else entirely?

    Posted by on Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 11:07 AM in Economics, International Trade | Permalink  Comments (31)


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