Literary confinement: Part I – on restricted reading and the production of factory fiction

When I was 17 years old and deciding where to go to college I went on a visit to the University of Miami because I was considering studying at their music school. The sight of white cork-lined practice rooms that looked like jail cells made me a bit uneasy from the outset, but it was only later that day on a nearby beach that I irrevocably crossed Miami off the list.

Walking out onto the sand I saw two blondes in bikinis with a beach bag full of textbooks. They picked a spot, spread out their blanket and proceeded to make small piles of textbooks on each corner of the blanket to keep it from blowing away.

Yes, books are useful to some people – that’s clear.

Whenever one of those alarmist studies comes about how men supposedly don’t read at all, and reading among women is declining and everything literary is obviously going to hell, I wonder why people care so much. Surely no one believes that literacy leads people to be wiser and more benevolent. Germany in the ‘20s and ‘30s was an extremely well-read country. Didn’t do a lot of good, did it?

I personally love books but if someone else doesn’t that’s fine with me. It’s their loss. What bothers me far more are the people who are convinced they love books but need to find an extra-literary justification for them. They want to reassure themselves that reading made-up stories can have a tangible contribution – something outside their own imagination – because they rightly suspect that reading novels doesn’t make for a better world,  doesn’t prepare anyone for real-life situations, and that when it comes down to it, it’s effects are almost entirely invisible.

The conversation

A couple of recent articles are examples of this misguided attempt to make reading novels something more than it is.  At The Millions, Bryan Basmanowicz writes about what he considers the “powerful social bonding achieved through literature.” Well, maybe . . . but this bonding obviously only works with people who have read the same books already, which makes another essay that appeared on the same site a few days earlier by Elizabeth Minkel, Confessions of a Literary Jingoist, all the more compelling.

The New Yorker fiction editor writes about the difficulty of bringing translated fiction into “the conversation.” She mentions bringing up Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure to her friends and getting blank looks in response. She mentions the writer’s nationality, that the book is about colonialism, but the light bulbs come on only when she says how it was translated by the same person who translated The Little Prince.

I fully agree with a lot of Minkel’s conclusions about marketing translated literature, and wrote more or less the same points recently. The only way translation is truly necessary is to allow people to read the best books available. Unfortunately, the non-reaction of her friends to the mention of a book by a Senegalese writer seems to contradict her own conclusion that these books should be presented on their own merits.

Translations are approximations of an original work, but I don’t buy the argument that the inherently imperfect nature of translation is what prevents Americans from reading more international literature. For one thing, many of these translations, with all their flaws, are still much better than the vast majority of English-language writing. In a way, the filter of what is chosen to be translated shifts the balance towards higher quality books making it into English.

And it is very ironic that the writer Minkel chooses as an example of the problematic nature of translation is Haruki Murakami, who came up with an excellent response to the literary conformity implied by having to fit books into your social circle, or using them to gauge personal compatibility:

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking,” Murakami wrote.

Escaping the anthill

Usually, when Anglophone writers or critics complain about how little writing from around the world is translated into English their emphasis is on the writers who can’t gain a wider audience, or on publishers and translators who aren’t able to bring out a book they know is brilliant on a market glutted with mediocre crap. Yet the Murakami quote points out the biggest loser in this equation – readers. To me the readers who miss out on all that world literature has to offer are not all that different from those who don’t read novels at all. It’s a difference of degree and I think they’re both missing out.

When these isolationist Anglo-American readers also happen to be writers then the situation becomes even more consequential. In a recent article in The Guardian Jeanette Winterson writes about having taken up the creative writing post at Manchester University. She goes on to make a generalization that I’m sure a lot of American MFA students will reject unequivocally, but which corresponds very closely to the confessions in Minkel’s article:

“One of the problems with US courses – those ant colonies – is that students read nothing except contemporary American writers. This produces the factory fiction so typical of writing programmes. Worse, it sets up a resistance to anything that is not immediately recognisable,” Winterson writes.

This is obviously a generalization, and one factor she misses is that a large number of these students have probably read books by Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Jeanette Winterson herself. It is not about nationality as much as it is about language and familiarity.

Today, about one-third of Americans, approximately 110 million people, have passports enabling them to travel abroad. In 1989 that number was only seven million. And I’d be willing to bet that a disproportionate number of these passports were and still are used to travel to the UK and Ireland. As in books as in life.

The sentence in Minkel’s essay that struck me the most is when she writes, “The topics I’m interested in, the regions in which I’d like to see a story set — all of these fall within the confines of English-speaking lands.” Imagine if “English-speaking lands” was replaced with a smaller equivalent, a state or region, so that someone might say they only read or write books about Wisconsin or the American South.

It is only the size and diversity of the English-speaking world that mask how provincial this outlook is. In mentioning diversity – I mean of life and not writing – because the differences between American, English, Irish and Australian writers, with some exceptions, are often fairly minimal for the very reason that many of these writers are interested in very similar topics, set their stories in similar regions, all of which fall within the confines of the English-speaking world. And that is without even going into similarities of style.

Literary diversity

On May 16 European Literature Night was held in cities across Europe. While some cities took the occasion to bring a group of new, lesser-known writers to the public’s attention, others had a more specific focus. In Prague, where the Literature Night project originated, people packed into 15 different locations to hear the work of 15 different authors from 15 different countries.

In a small country no one thinks about translated literature as something out of the ordinary, and because of this Czech, Hungarian, and Dutch writers, for example, are presented with a much wider arena of influence than writers who adhere to what is familiar. Should anyone be surprised that in spite of the size of these countries they produce so many unique literary sensibilities.

Coming soon: Jeanette Winterson’s article accuses American writing students of only reading contemporary American novels, which refers to both a place (the US, or as I argued, the English-speaking world) as well as a time (now). The emphasis on reading current books, as if they’re newspapers, and so far more relevant than older books (Can anyone imagine reading newspapers from 30 or 100 years ago day after day?), is the next factor I’d like to address.

For Part II click here

For Part III click here

Photo – 1) Against the backdrop of printing presses Czech actor Karel Dobrý reads from José Saramago’s novel Cain. Photo by Vojta Brtnický 2) Does factory fiction cause pollution? And when a fiction factory shuts down does it leave behind a campus full of hard-drinking angry locals who toss away their pens (and laptops) in bitter disgust? 3) Actor Jan Kačer reads from Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Celtic’s Dream at a Prague theater (Švandovo divadlo). Photo by Vojta Brtnický

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Categories: Essays

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5 Comments on “Literary confinement: Part I – on restricted reading and the production of factory fiction”

  1. paulstoutonghi
    22/05/2012 at 2:55 am #

    This is a wonderful article — thought-provoking, interesting, ultimately wise. The points about translation are excellent, and readers who like this post might like some of the work at Three Percent (http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/) — another smart journal about writing and translation, and their intersection. There’s no doubt in my mind that most Americans are woefully under-read, in non-American literature.

    And yet, and yet — the only thing that I wonder about is the moment when a book — a contemporary novel, or story collection, for example — is dismissed as being a part of this movement. How can you tell, for sure, if any given specific title has been produced within the anthill?

  2. 22/05/2012 at 8:29 am #

    I agree that there can’t be any clear-cut border where you can easily say a book is factory fiction or not, and that’s why I said she was making a generalization. But I think it’s a useful generalization because there are some characteristics that define them. Also, you can often see influences in a writer’s work and in a lot of American fiction the influences seem to be similar.

  3. 22/05/2012 at 8:30 am #

    And speaking of Three Percent, yes it’s great, and I can second their latest review of The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning – a very good book.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Literary confinement: Part II – canon fodder and writing in the default mode | literalab - 19/06/2012

    […] For Part I click here […]

  2. Literary confinement: Part III – On rock’n writing and the three-minute song | literalab - 20/08/2012

    […] confinement: Part III – On rock’n writing and the three-minute song Part I of literary confinement dealt with the conformist aspect of needing to put translated literature into “the […]

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