World Literature sure sounds like a nice idea.
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June 3, 2017 – Online MCAT CARS Practice
Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.
World Literature sure sounds like a nice idea. A literature truly global in scope ought to enlarge readers’ sympathies and explode local prejudices, releasing us from the clammy cells of provincialism to roam, in imagination, with people in faraway places and times. The aim is unimpeachable. Accordingly, nobody says a word against it at the humanities department conclaves, international book festivals, or lit-mag panel discussions where World Literature is invoked. People writing and reading in different languages (even if one language, English, predominates) about different histories and cultures and ideas: who could be against that?
Still, in a sick, sad world, it’s hard not to be suspicious of anything as wholesome as World Literature. The word literature itself has come to sound fake. Is there something the addition of world is making up for, a blemish it’s trying to conceal?
This much is clear: by the late ’90s, a new literary globalism had begun to flourish. In 1997, Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things won the Booker Prize, soon selling 6 million copies; in 2001, Oprah had her book club read Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, an excellent 19th-century novel, published in 1995, about Indira Gandhi’s Emergency; in 2003, reading the bestselling Kite Runner, by the Afghan-born Khaled Hosseini, made some Americans feel better, and others worse, about our war over there. Literary scholars have focused on World Literature especially since 1999, when the French literary critic Pascale Casanova published her pathbreaking World Republic of Letters. In the ’00s, Franco Moretti, from Italy but resident (with Google) in Silicon Valley, instigated data-based debates about the world-system of literature in the New Left Review.
The geographic broadening of literary sensibility has taken place alongside the beginnings of a remarkable economic catch-up of poorer with richer countries. In 2013, for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, more economic growth will take place in “developing” than in developed countries. The Indian market for anglophone literature will soon be bigger than the British one. Chinese writers have won two of the last thirteen Nobel Prizes. A South American is now pope, for the first time since Columbus brought Christianity to the New World.
What has all this meant? In literature, no more folkloric long poems, like Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino (1966), let alone those dreary tales of hardscrabble villages with nonpotable water, which everyone in grad school pretended to like. In the new millennium, literature has taken a Jason Bourne–like tour through the emerging financial capitals of what used to be the third world: big books about Mumbai and Beijing, Nairobi and São Paulo, have joined books about London and New York in a glittering constellation rotating across the night sky. In the new economic era of northern slowdown and southern catch-up, the exemplary novelists have seemed to be those, like Orhan Pamuk, Ma Jian, and Haruki Murakami, who successfully transcend their homelands and emerge into a planetary system where their work can acquire a universal relevance.
The progress of World Literature since the ’90s has accompanied that of global capitalism. In the past, the spread of money — what Marx called the “universal equivalent,” for its ability to serve as an empty vessel of exchange value — strengthened rather than weakened national boundaries and languages. It wasn’t so much “world literature” as vernacular literature — composed in Florentine Italian, say, rather than universal Latin — that developed alongside international finance in northern Italy in the late 15th century. Later, the headquarters of capitalism shifted to Holland, then England, then the US, countries mainly inhabited by Protestants who distinguished themselves from Catholics (the word catholic meaning simply “universal”) largely by listening to, but especially by reading, the Bible in the same Dutch or English they spoke over dinner. Not coincidentally, these countries attained mass literacy sooner than Catholic ones. In these countries, and others gathered into the capitalist world-system, questions about how money was to be distributed, for example, were discussed in publications produced in the local and/or national language and thus legible to far more people than any “universal” language had ever been. The overall nationalization of literature, throughout modernity, didn’t mean there could never be an internationalist literature, of the kind once imagined by 19th-century radicals. But an internationalist literature would be different from World Literature as we know it.
Adapted from nplusonemag.
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This was an article on Literature.
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MCAT CARS Instructor.