Why World Literature looks different from Brooklyn


Poorva Rajaram and Michael Griffith over at Tehelka's blog (via Amitava Kumar):

After a first read, the n+1 article decrying Global Literature strikes a hard blow with its sheer myopia. We then let a response simmer – yes, the article is right to attack the global literary elite, feel-good literary festivals and an ossified market for identity-centric watery works from the Third World. But having (some) common enemies hardly counts when a piece makes us exclaim at every second sentence. The n+1 editors have come up with more than a hasty polemic – they have offered us a straw man called Global Lit (encompassing authors as widespread as Junot Diaz, Salman Rushdie, Teju Cole and Kiran Desai), a woefully partial picture of world literature and a staggeringly onerous idea of what a reader should be.

Throughout the article, we are presented with a dizzyingly megalomaniacal idea of world literature: writers from outside America and Britain irrespective of time or place (writers whose post facto association exists in western literature programmes and the minds of their graduates). This definition of World Literature is then parsed into Global Lit = Bad, International Lit = Good. A basic premise of this piece is that the right kind of literary universalism is missing from today’s world – not that any category of world literature is too cumbersome and unenlightening to use.

If “global capitalism” (a term used often by the authors and clarified with potted Eurocentric histories) is responsible for eliding the local, then so is any cultural criticism that sees the whole world and all its writers as a valuable unit of analysis. This makes comparison all too easy and the many quick thumbs-ups or thumbs-downs give the piece a rancid rather than a reflective core. We get the sense that Junot Díaz should not reference comic books and science fiction—why? “Princeton” should not be the first word of Chimamanda Adichie’s novel Americanah—why? Ngugi wa Thiong’o is not supposed to enjoy a “crucial friendship” with Gayatri Spivak—why not? This slippage in tone inevitably leads to ambiguity: what is being described, what is being criticised and what is being resented for its mere existence?

The editors simply do not account for work that hasn’t been translated, that speaks to local contexts (anti-caste literature, for example) or is out of tune with the tectonics of the global market. Instead, we get a disclaimer: “A list drawn up by a few Americans incapable, unlike the offspring imagined by Leopold in Ulysses, of ‘speaking five modern languages fluently’ can only be drastically incomplete and tentative. Still it’s worth naming a few names.”

Is it really? How can the editors of n+1 find out about writers they haven’t found out about? If they can’t, how can a slate of generalisations substitute?