A Reflection on America’s Literary Culture
In many countries, we might find an individual who represents the collective conscious or Zeitgeist of the nation. This person is a national figure, a symbol, an icon who is a great source of pride for her/his people. This person is a writer who serves a purpose that is different than what many writers do here in the United States. The role of these iconic writers is to voice an opinion of the masses, articulate the ideas of the whole, rather than to write stories of dysfunctional relationships, romance, or barely-disguised memoirs that are popular in the United States. Sometimes the writer is not currently living, but rather a long-revered figure in the nation’s history. This writer’s works are read and studied at school or at university; s/he is immortalized in a statue in a great public square or in a museum; or, s/he is a heroic figure that dares to speak out against the authorities—-and sadly pays the price.
Very often these writers are not the product of a literature department nor do they hold a degree in creative writing. They may not draw upon conventional fiction writing techniques, and they probably have not attended book discussion groups in the American sense (where a book is selected and then discussed at a chosen location), though they have most likely sat for hours on end in cafes discussing literature and their favorite writers and philosophers with their peers. Very often, these writers are individuals who have been involved in fields outside literature—-politics, diplomacy, labor, comparative linguistics, philosophy, journalism, activism, medicine, et cetera. Vaclav Havel, is just one such example: a renowned playwright who was politically active, he peacefully led the Velvet Revolution that separated the Czech Republic and Slovakia when he was President. Octavio Paz was a Mexican diplomat who served in India (his marvelous In Light of India serves as a testament to his time there). And the heroic Chokri Belaid who led the Arab Spring movement in Tunisia before his untimely death was a lawyer and a poet.
Often, the work of these writers takes on a political tone or is highly allegorical. I once had the opportunity to see the renowned Salman Rushdie give a talk; what impressed me most was the clear aim of his art to serve as the intersection between literature and society. One need only read his brilliant (and underrated) Shalimar the Clown to appreciate the political history of India and the Partition — with British and American involvement — cleverly disguised as a love story. In the same breath, one could naturally include Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, which is a love story set in the backdrop of modern Turkey and its issues of fundamentalism vs. secularism.
In short—-the Great Writer in other countries and cultures is more than a writer who has trained in writing and (perhaps) literature. This writer has a broader perspective on life that filters into her/his works. S/he is a (wo)man of letters, a cultural critic, a public intellectual.
Shrewd observers would immediately note that these are the types of writers who are awarded the Nobel Prize. This is absolutely correct, though there are many writers of this ilk who are not Nobel Laureates: Isak Dinesen, George Orwell, or writer and revolutionary Georgi Pulevski (who wrote before the advent of the prize). And those same observers might raise the issue that, to define a culture by a writer, to use a writer as an icon or symbol of a culture, there must be a strong sense of nationalism, a sense of nationalism that harkens back to the 18th and 19th Centuries, when many European nations emerged and defined themselves culturally and politically. But nationalism is a highly charged phenomenon, still regarded with suspicion in the United States, with connotations of exclusivity, homogeneity, and – at its worst – xenophobia and genocide.
Anointing a writer as a cultural figurehead is impossible to do, detractors might say, in a country like America, which is based on pluralism, diversity, multiculturalism, and a multitude of viewpoints ranging from class to race to gender to sexual orientation to region. We can barely agree on whom to elect as President; is it possible to find a writer who represents all 315 million of us? Is it plausible to have a National Writer who speaks for all (or many) of us? And do we need one? We do have a Poet Laureate, but this is a relatively new phenomenon, and the sad truth is that only a tiny handful could name him or her (our current Poet Laureate is Natasha Trethewey, and I confess I had to look up this information.) So why even try to unite ourselves by the word?
Literature is not necessarily a part of our daily culture: we generally do not sit together outside of academic/scholastic or formal settings discussing Emerson and Thoreau, Zora Neale Hurston, or Mark Twain. But we do have innumerable excellent writers, scholars, poets, and the like. Our universities have world-famous scholars that were spawned here, as well as imported from abroad: American academia has long been a haven for intellectual refugees, such as Joseph Brodsky and Ha Jin. The fact that we have scores of Master of Fine Arts and Ph.D. programs in creative writing attests to the great desire to learn the craft of writing by thousands. The top programs admit single-digit percentages of students who are selected from a countless number of high-quality applications, many of whom are not of European descent or who are international. In addition, our Comparative Literature departments serve as a bridge between the United States and international bodies of literature. Despite condescension from the literary fiction establishment, there are still many authors whose popular, plot-driven novels and serials are eagerly devoured by millions, as is evidenced by the New York Times bestseller lists.
Perhaps there is another reason why we do not seem to have national literary figures who cross disciplines and serve as more than entertainment (other than those who are interested in literature): At its worst, our culture is very individualistic—-writers are not often encouraged to speak out for causes beyond themselves—-and insular, unaware of what happens elsewhere in the world.
We lack a sense of scope. A lot of modern writing is a form of therapy, an outlet for personal purposes. Our literary culture does not draw upon other traditions, does not take frequently into account what is happening with writers elsewhere in the world. Our curriculum does not heavily feature literature from other countries, though we do have great diversity in our own tradition. We are a monolingual culture in terms of the common culture, and being a polyglot is a rare thing in the United States. It does not encourage (as a whole, there are always numerous exceptions) the plumber to become a playwright, an economist to write free verse, the housewife to write political theater. There are few American Nobel Laureates in Literature. It is often lamented that Philip Roth has been neglected by the Nobel Academy; I would argue that Roth’s tremendously prolific output and intelligence do not mean that he is a global, socially-conscious writer with a vision for humanity, the sort of writer I have described above.
Also, we do not have a culture that supports public intellectuals. One of our best and most controversial today, Camille Paglia, is a rare exception. We have little government funding for the arts, and even that is fraught with debate over issues of morality. Economics have a big impact on what gets published and sold, the publishing industry is very market-driven, and this in turn shapes people’s tastes. One could argue that the reason for our escapist nature in our literature is because life in America is financially difficult. We have very little provided to us, as we are not a social welfare state, and when we are not earning our keep, we seek a diversion.
Is, then, America’s literary culture completely useless and insular, confined just to academia?
The answer is a resounding no. We should allow our individualism and enterprising spirit serve to educate us. Let it lead us to explore writers, either in the original language or translation, from other nations and cultures (former Poet Laureate Robert Hass has translated Czeslaw Milosz into English, expanding our literary horizons). Let it allow us to continue forming book discussion groups where people discuss American and international fiction, and non-fiction, with an astounding range of viewpoints and knowledge of history, geography, and politics. Let it lead us to hear talks with visiting writers from overseas, or, if we are in a more isolated part of the country, to watch them online. Just as jazz is an art form very particular to the United States, let us understand our unique literary culture of metafiction, which is one of the best examples of how the intersection between individualism and art can produce a new offspring. We need to expose people to literature outside of the United States and to literature that serves various purposes (i.e. political, protest, the purely aesthetic a la Oscar Wilde).
We ultimately need to contextualize our literary culture, once we have understood ourselves, see how we relate to the world. A healthy dose of international politics and history in our educations is also most necessary. At the very least, Americans MUST develop a better familiarity with geography: that Americans, even highly educated ones, are geographically ignorant is a stereotype that is sadly true. Let us continue to publish the type of literary work we do, but let it reflect the broad, global sensibility that America embraces at its best, rather than formulaic Hollywood dullness or the self-obsessed drivel in juvenile publications. It is time we really involve ourselves in the literary cultures and sensibilities of other nations. This does not mean we need to appoint a national writer figure; it means we must understand those that exist elsewhere.
November 24, 2014
a variant of this essay appeared in my blog, https://thewomenofletters.wordpress.com