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30 April 2012

Eat my shorts, Sweden...but you've got a point

(To retain a litle patriotism, all of the art here is by the AMERICAN artists William Joyce, Jim Lamarche, Loren Long, David Weisner, Peter McCarty, and Chris Van Allsburg, illustrators all.)

Here’s a modest idea:  In the world of literature, perhaps there is a formula to create the North American version of the Latin American ‘boom’ generation. I’m not going to sound the alarm and state that literature by Americans is dead on the world stage.  That alarm went off a few years ago.  

As an American, I was initially angered by Nobel secretary Horace Engdahl’s pronouncement in 2008 that my countrymen “don’t participate in the big dialogue of literature” and that “that ignorance is restraining.”  Well, bite me, you Scandanavian IKEA trash.  Are we really “too isolated...too insular?”  Do we really not read enough in translation?  Michael Dirda came to the rescue of American letters, admitting that we don’t read as much as we could, or perhaps should, from the rest of the world, but then reposted that the snob from the land of ABBA was showing his own “insular attitude towards a very diverse country.”  Damn straight.  David Remnick provided a wondrous, and accurate, jab when he accused the Nobel committee of being inept at noticing titanic and important writers when they come along, citing Proust and Nabokov as examples of great world authors the committee decided to take a pass on.  But...Engdahl could, scratch that, does have a point.  As Alexander Nazaryan so aptly put it in the pages of ‘Salon’:

“America needs an Obama des letters, a writer for the 21st century, not the 20th — or even the 19th. One who is not stuck in the Cold War or the gun-slinging West or the bygone Jewish precincts of Newark — or mired in the claustrophobia of familial dramas. What relevance does our solipsism have to a reader in Bombay? For that matter, what relevance does it have in Brooklyn, N.Y.?”

That’s seems a pretty fair question to me, and one that seems to offer up only a resounding “none!”  And even if you strongly disagree, I do hope we can all agree that, given the diverse talents of our fellow countrymen and women, our pluralism, our existence in the information age, and the dynamism of our youth, we can do better than we have of late.  Our prominent writers are reaching or passing the sunset.  Cormac McCarthy will be 80 this July, Thomas Pynchon will turn 74 next week (and hasn’t had a book like ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ since I was do the math), and our best writer of the last 20 years or so, David Foster Wallace, is no longer with us (sadly, our best before him, John Kennedy Toole, met the same end, before any recognition).  Toni Morrison has written the same book repeatedly for two decades now.  Don Delillo is probably too engrossed in baseball and tech to know the cold war has ended, given that those seem to be his overarching concerns.   

Now we have...Jonathan Franzen?  His strip mall literature plays well in the suburbs of mediocrity, but nowhere else.  There is a new generation rising, but let’s leave that for a bit and head south.

At the dawn of the 20th century, South and Central American letters, while regionally vibrant and interesting, were insular and stagnant in the context of the ‘great conversation.’.  In Argentina, a whole genre had arisen around the romantic figure of the gaucho, the cowboy of the pampas.  It sold well in Buenos Aires, but barely trickled into Paris or Beijing.  Modernismo was growing, influencing literature beyond the western hemisphere, but none could have predicted the explosion that was to come.  Then, in 1900, ‘Ariel’ came along.  Written by José Enrique Rodó, the essay is a Latino ‘Tempest,’ pitting North America as a Caliban against South America’s Ariel.  By exhorting the youth to focus on the native heritages of indigenous populations and the heritage of European literature brought over by colonizers, the essay can now be seen as a blueprint for the rise of the particular flavor of modern and ‘Boom’ Latin American lit.  With it, the key concepts of modernismo – focus on artistic style and flare, classical notions of beauty, a rejection of utilitarianism and specialization, and fidelity to regional roots – came into sharp focus, and were laid for the greatest pioneer of the region, the man without whom the Boom, and much else besides, would be inconceivable:  Jorge Luis Borges.

Borges was one of the most widely read human beings on the planet in the last century (see where this is going?) and began his literary career as all writers do, by being a voracious reader (see where this is going?).  He was bilingual, translating Shakespeare and Wilde as a kid (see where this is going?).  He traveled the world as a youth and formed lasting literary friendships with other young people who shared his interests (see where this is going?).  As he began his poetic career, he used his cosmopolitanism to combine with surrealism and native influences.   After the death of his father and an accident requiring prolonged recovery, he combined the former elements with inter-textual allusions and philosophical musings (see where this is going?) to forge his own distinct style.  In doing so, he opened the door for the Boom, invented the philosophical short story as it now exists, and remained engaged with the reading of literature from across the globe (see where this is going?).

The Boom came in the 1960s, culminating for many with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “100 years of Solitude” and magical realism, a new type of writing forged from inherited ingredients (see where this is going?).  Modern literature in Latin America can be seen as an embrace or a rejection of this style, depending on author and region.

And what can we learn from all of this?  A lot.  There are certain things that we can cultivate as American letters attempts to revive.  Here is where this is going:

1.)   We need to start reading the world again.  There is amazing fiction across the globe right now, a true literary great conversation, and many people are missing out.  We will not begin to produce world authors if we cannot get out of new jersey bedrooms and the plight of the modern American family.  Publishing houses like New Directions are releasing wondrous works in translation, and someone needs to get the word out that translated literature can be both fun and enriching.  Book groups need to go beyond the best-seller lists.  The armies of movie snobs currently entrenched in urban culture need to carry their high regard and unbounded willingness to try foreign films into the book world.  We are so ready to attend that Dutch film fest, so why not pick up that Dutch novel compared to the works of Steig Larsson?  Which brings me to my next idea.

2.)   Genre fiction must die.  Now, I don’t mean my usual snobby refrain that mysteries or science fiction are not “real” literature.  Just the opposite.  The future of fiction, especially of a global American literature, might now be languishing in a genre, because we have put it there.  Why is it so important to know if what we are reading is ‘mystery,’ ‘horror,’ ‘romance,’ ‘fantasy,’ or even ‘children’s lit?’  Aren’t we intelligent enough to form our own categories of literature?  Shouldn’t quality and suitability be more important than target audience.  I’d go so far as to postulate that if a book is written only for a select audience, it is not participating in the great conversation.  The one example of this hindering through categorizing that comes to mind is the work of J. K. Rowling.  If I were on the Nobel committee, her name would be floated out on my list of candidates.  The objective of the Nobel Prize is to award an author for contributions that are “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.”  And so as to dispel any notion that it is the Nobel Prize, or any other award, that confers greatness (Pearl Buck, anyone?), let me say that it is the criteria that interest me, not the award itself.  I can think of very few other universal works, read across the globe, that have moved literature in an ideal direction.  The refrain that it is “just kiddie lit” is crap.  Had they published today, Dickens, Stevenson, Wells, and Hugo would all be considered as ‘kiddie lit,’ and that would be a true crime.  The same goes for science fiction.  We are now living what for me, at least as a child, was then considered science fiction.  Our age is one of constant flux, unseen ethical dilemmas, and technological victory and defeat.  Science fiction embraces that in a way much of literature cannot.  I don’t remember much of Franzen’s work, but there are entire passages of Frank Herbert’s ‘The White Plague’ that still haunt me, and are still relevant.

3.)   We need to create a climate for our artists to thrive.  This may seem counter-intuitive in the age of austerity and belt-tightening, but both civically and privately, we need to invest in our culture.

4.)   Last, and most important, we need to take a close look in the mirror.  We need to see what America is, where it is going politically and socially, and how we look to the rest of the world. It won’t be the pretty picture, but something grotesque we have attempted to cover up or ignore with the banality of reality shows, celebrity culture, culture wars, Twitter, 24 hour news cycles, manufactured crises, and other sideshows.  The view might crush us, but we’ll be better for it, both as a nation and as a force on the literary stage.

More to come...


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