The Globalization of Literature


Review of The Global Novel, by Adam Kirsch

Columbia: Columbia Global Imports, 2017

The story, according to Genesis 11, goes that mankind once shared a single common language, but instead of obeying God and spreading ourselves across the world, we decided to remain where we were and “make a name for ourselves” by creating a structure so tall that it would reach the heavens. The Tower of Babel, as this edifice came to be known, never came close to touching those celestial heights. God, presumably irked by mankind’s presumptuousness, scuttled our outsized plans by coming down to foist a new language upon every tongue, thus causing confusion and forcing us to flee from the project and one another.

The Babel story – aside from being a cautionary tale on the folly of human pride and re-enactment of The Fall – is often invoked to explain, in etiological terms, how the world came to have so many nations and languages. It’s tempting to see in it an allegory of our modern world, in which the interchange of people, ideas and goods occur rapidly along increasingly borderless lines. Taken this way, the Biblical passage gives a glimpse of a certain Utopian social order wherein a disparate, diverse group of people can still come together to coexist, to speak, as it were, one language. In short, the Tower of Babel turns out to be a pretty decent picture of globalization in the 21st century.

Indeed, the merits of today’s internationalism seem to be above all suspicion. From new Silicon Valley-funded startups in the thicket of Calcutta slums to ramen shops in Kansas City, globalism as both concept and fact of everyday life is embraced by today’s well-minded liberal body. So if that’s the case, if the argument for globalism is so water-tight and damn-near irreproachable, why in the area of literature does one find so many supposedly progressive voices constantly bashing the very books that come out of the cauldron of heterogeneity? Why, in other words, are those from the intellectual class so quick to assume the mantle of the God of Genesis, impugning works that should be celebrated for either depicting or inhabiting the qualities of our modern world? Okay, Stieg Larsson and George R. R. Martin may not be the exact arbiters of cultural refinement that one has in mind, but Karl Ove Knausgard? Zadie Smith? Surely, the thinking goes, there’s only a bounty of good that stands to be gained from works of truly international spirit.

These are just some of the needling questions that Adam Kirsch takes to task in his informative, if ultimately wanting, pamphlet-length study, The Global Novel: Writing the World in the 21st Century. It is a direct response to the loosely gathered, but hefty, coalition of world literature dissenters, including, to name a few, Pascale Casanova, Tim Parks, Emily Apter, Minae Mizumura, and the pugnacious editors at n+1. Their argument runs something like this: that the global novel is often nothing more than a commercial product, vulnerable to the worst dumbing-down effects of market capitalism; that it is a streamlined, mediocre work stripped of intricate language and local references made to fit a standardized, “one-size-fits-all” rubric — a style guide that aims at maximizing readability across wildly different cultures. Parks gets at the heart of the latter point in an essay for The New York Review of Books in 2010 titled “The Dull New Global Novel,” writing that, “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.” Such concessions are similar, Parks laments, to the “wearisome lingua franca of special effects in contemporary cinema.” Denuded and purged of difficult particularities, the global novel can then ease itself through all the levels of the literary marketplace’s supply chain until it rakes in a windfall in seven countries.

Kirsch is not without sympathy for this skepticism, and indeed, he spends the opening chapter dutifully laying out the terms of the dissenters’ arguments. But for him, many of these critics and theorists, though astute and compelling in their own right, make the blunder of biting off more than they can chew. Kirsch likens this to the Frankfurt School’s tendencies toward overbearing critiques of the American culture industry, a la: one has the right to dislike jazz, but finds it symptomatic of everything wrong with western consumerism (which sounds more like hardwired personal bias). In proposing a “more hopeful” consideration of world fiction than the ones put forth by his fellow doomsayers, Kirsch aims to quell paranoiac notions that insidious forces are at work in world literature. In doing so, Kirsch finds himself in the slightly ironic position of being being a conservative critic defending identity politics. Global novels, Kirsch explains, are not “passive products or victims of globalization” (24) but profoundly complex ones penned by writers who “see it as a duty and opportunity to explore” the rich themes wrought by globalism. Kirsch’s move here is dicey: to construct a new literary banner along political fault lines should rankle the purists.

To Kirsch, all the evidence to the contrary is as plain as day. He chooses the novel, and not poetry or drama, because it is “the preeminent modern genre of exploration and explanation.” He champions eight novels as exemplary counterarguments to the glum forecast that world literature is uninspiring: Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, Roberto Bolano’s 2666, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island, and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels are held up by Kirsch as proof of world lit’s richness. The selection, moreover, is “representative,” meaning any complete account of world literature would be substandard without them. If The Global Novel seems somewhat inadequate, it has largely to do with Kirsch’s implicit trust in these novels; if they don’t mean much to you, his argument probably won’t either.

But what exactly is “world literature?” The concept is admittedly a tricky one. In one sense, it can refer to the esteemed classics of the western canon, issued in those ubiquitous Oxford and Penguin paperbacks: Tolstoy! Flaubert! Shakespeare! Proust! Though this isn’t quite what Kirsch or the other critics in the debate have in mind, a cursory glance at the classics section in a bookstore serves as reminder that world literature is not a new concept. The 19th century masterpieces of Madame Bovary and War and Peace are offered as prime examples that the contingencies of translation and local attitudes won’t dissuade the big, red-blooded themes of humankind from being received from cultures of all colors. Who would have predicted in the days of Dante that The Divine Comedy would one day be read in Flemish and Farsi? 

At the heart of Kirsch’s defense is a belief in this very universality. Where Parks sees a deracinated, dull body of work, written under the hegemonic influence of the English language and the grubby fingers of the publishing industry, Kirsch sees an affirmation of reality and democratic appeal. It’s no coincidence that the novels Kirsch has chosen are universal in a very concrete way: they are all more or less bestsellers. Moreover, he has also chosen them for tactical reasons to show that the same industry responsible for churning out 50 Shades of Gray is also capable of producing the works of Ferrante and Murakami. This seems fair. But Kirsch's talk about universal appeal falters when he touches on questions of style.

Kirsch talks very little about style for good reason: he doesn’t have much choice, it’s the all-too-inevitable outcome of talking about books that don’t have very much of it to begin with. For example, Kirsch argues that the “sleek one-dimensionality” of Murakami’s characters (a quality of global novels derided by dissenters) plays to Murakami’s desire to prioritize “atmosphere and evocation” above “mythology” (48). This rings hollow. In an effort to invert the criticism of the anti-globalists, some of Kirsch’s pronouncements come off as flabby. Not to mention that the claim here makes Murakami sound like he is just reworking aspects from the practitioners of the Nouveau Roman. Kirsch goes on to write of Murakami that “the worldwide success of his books suggests that this insight captures something real about the way we live and read now” (51). But if universality is the standard by which Kirsch seeks to redeem the global novel — both in terms of critical and commercial success — how does he plan on defending it from the dreck that routinely inundates the top-ten lists? Again, the efficacy of many of Kirsch's’ points depends on the readers’ affinity for these authors and their books.

In another sense, world literature might be viewed as a genre. But Kirsch doesn’t think so. Instead, “The global,” Kirsch ventures, “is best thought of as a medium through which all kinds of stories can be told, and which affects their telling in a variety of ways.” If this sounds unconvincing, it’s because it is: “the novel is already implicitly global as soon as it starts to speculate on or record the experience of human beings in the twenty-first century” (12). This does not sound much different from saying that “so-and-so novel has qualities that address the issues surrounding globalism” — or something to that effect.

For Kirsch, though, the bedrock of world literature has more to do with a certain mindset. After all, how else to bridge the gaps of eight very different authors if not by psychic means? On the surface, Ferrante’s chronicle of two sisters from Naples doesn’t seem remotely close to Pamuk’s interrogation of the West-East dichotomy.  Kirsch’s definition harkens back to the culture giant Goethe, who wagered to guess that his own generation was at the cusp of a dramatic poetic epoch, in which national boundaries would cease to matter and mankind would finally have its Tower of Babel, not so much a literal one but a cohesive Weltanschauung. In writing that “if we understand ourselves as citizens of the world, then the novel must come to grips with this cosmopolitanism” (25), Kirsch affirms Goethe’s epochal call and paints himself as a new humanist enterpriser who also sees in the global novel a corrective to dithering, jaded postmodernism. In Hamid’s immigration story, Kirsch argues, “the migrant’s experience of America, be it friendly or hostile, serves as a route to the creation of a global political consciousness” (73). The global novel, in other words, has a utilitarian function. It shatters provincialism.

It’s easy to see why, on this view, Kirsch is keen on defending world literature. Globalism, as it stands today, isn’t as rosy a creed as it was even just five years ago. Large waves of xenophobia, populism and outright racism have galvanized significant swaths of the population in some of the world’s most industrialized countries, to the point that such expressions have become talking points in the daily conversation. From the U.S. election of Donald Trump, who crested his way to nation’s most important job with cries of “America First,” to the rise of fringe “alt-right” groups finding a groove in the mainstream media cycle; from Britain’s Brexit to right-wing factions gaining political momentum in France and Germany, the challenges to globalism are real and far more threatening than the mere fringe flare-ups that they once were. Indeed, such are the times that to be called a “globalist” is as much a pejorative as a simple qualifier.

Against this threat to the liberal order is the pressure that trickles down to other aspects of life, including, of course, literature. Kirsch envisions in the global novel a literary movement-consciousness that will reflect the better political sensibilities of our age. He writes, toward the end of the book, that global novels speak to each other across today’s most pressing issues: “Atwood’s Oryx, a victim of sex tracking, calls out to the hundreds of women murdered in Bolano’s Santa Teresa, who in turn recognize the experience of prostitution suffered by Adichie’s Ifemelu, and the domestic abuse undergone by Ferrante’s Lila, and the suicidal resistance of Pamuk’s headscarf girls.”

This is a moving passage, but how much of Kirsch’s desire to connect the dots is simply a form of kowtowing to the contemporary mood? Certainly, even the great modernist works — lambasted by tedious critics for navel-gazing — have always paid attention to the zeitgeist: even Malcolm Lowry’s novel about a self-destructive, hallucinating drunk offers an illuminating perspective on the Spanish Civil War and the tempestuous period right before the world plunged into the Second World War. In Enemies of Promise, the critic Cyril Connolly once warned against the external temptations that face the writer from his craft, from booze to politics, and noted famously that “Contemporary works do not keep. The quality in them which makes for their success is the first to go; they turn over night.” In the same passage he makes a distinction between literature and journalism that is worth quoting at length.

Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice; journalism what will be grasped at once, and they require separate techniques. There can be no delayed impact in journalism, no subtlety, no embellishment, no assumption of a luxury reader and since the pace of journalism waxed faster than that of literature, literature found itself in a predicament. It could react against journalism and come an esoteric art depending on the sympathy of a few or learn from journalism and compete with it.

Good, perhaps great, novels can and will come out of the welter of globalism. But who can guarantee that what Kirsch is deeming as a genre-cum-movement will be something we will be talking about ten, twenty, fifty years from now? We don’t remember anything memorable coming out of the so-called “Proletarian Literature” of the 1930s in America – though that is not to say that novels about the poor and working class haven’t always been around or that some gems have come out of it (Dickens and Steinbeck come to mind). As Kirsch tacitly calls for writers to write with an ear to current events, even with some urgency, one wonders how much literature will compromise itself until it becomes everything but itself.

SEAN NAM lives and covers professional boxing in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter at @seanpasbon.