I am as up for an “American literature is too parochial” screed as is anyone else. So, when I saw that Ilan Stavans had penned an article for World Literature Today called “Is American Literature Parochial?” I had high hopes for the kind of rant that would have me quoting it in Twitter before I had even finished reading it.
Alas. What I instead found was mixture of re-purposed controversies, outdated statistics, and tired arguments. Stavans starts off with Horace Engdahl’s remarks upon the awarding of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature. Honestly . . . haven’t we already talked these remarks to death? Is there anything Stavans can possibly add to what has already been said? Whatever the answer to this question may be in the abstract, in practice the answer turns out to be, “no.”
Then we are treated to some warmed-over statistics that will be familiar to anyone plugged in enough to literary culture to know what World Literature Today is: “The average American, ages fifteen to sixty-five, barely opens a single book a year”; Bowker reported 400,000 books published in 2012, MFA programs are on the rise, English majors are on the decline, blah, blah, blah, we publish more than we read.
And then finally we get to blanket generalizations about the American people;
American literature is parochial because America is solipsistic. This isn’t to say we don’t travel. Actually, travel is a national sport among the middle class. We’re in cars traversing the country, and, money permitting, our curiosity leads us to visit other societies. But travel for us is by definition a complacent endeavor. Americans only go to safe, secure places where the food and accommodations guarantee that we still feel at home. Therein lies the key to our parochialism: it is an illness of abundance. There is much to see and means to achieve it. Yet we fail to venture beyond secure confines because we are afraid of getting lost. Loss is about the lack of control, and we love to be in control. In our literature, we embrace the exact same approach: we love when our fiction shows us foreign lands but only if those lands are friendly to Americans; and when they aren’t, we want the characters to make it safely home. For home is what we’re all about: its security, its durability.
At long last, just when you thought this piece could not get any more banal, it moves on to a discussion of . . . wait for it . . . Philip Roth and John Updike. Sorry to say it, but the former is retired and the latter has been dead for a number of years. I don’t see how they figure too much any longer into the question of whether American literature is too parochial.
Improbably enough, the piece ends with an argument that, in fact, literature is no longer relevant:
I was once at a dinner party in Chile when a distinguished writer told me an invaluable truth: excitement in our time is rarely connected to literature anymore. It belongs to science. It is far more fun to have lunch with a scientist these days than with a writer. Scientists are at the cutting edge; the world belongs to them. Writers, instead, like to complain they don’t get enough attention. And literary critics—like me—make a profession of these types of complaints. She added that Americans are prone to complain even more than everyone else. When something doesn’t go their way, they let the world know about it. Since their ego is the size of their country, their complaints are louder. Her main argument was that in the twenty-first century, literature has lost its mojo, but American writers haven’t realized it. She concluded by saying—and this I remember as the apex of the evening—that to compensate for this, writers in the United States like to think of themselves as entertainers. They don’t belong to the society of world literature because that society would parry that what American writers do isn’t as entertaining as they think it is.
I guess my point here is that World Literature Today is a nice enough publication. It seems to be well-funded. It has a useful reviews section. It has nice production values, and nontrivial circulation. There’s no reason for it to have to publish a pointless feature article like this. (Or, for that matter, their cover story, “Four-Legged Fictions,” which is “a portfolio devoted to writers and their canine characters.” Lord have mercy.)
When the ostensible guardians of culture aren’t able to offer up to the few people who still care about culture a product more inherently interesting than this, then we truly do deserve to be laughed at and marginalized. Obviously there are lots of other cultural publications who are doing good work. Good for them. They’re the ones keeping cutlture aflaot in this society. Too bad they have to fight against the dead weight of things such as this.
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