It has been a few weeks since the literary journal N+1’s diss of the global novel — “World Lite” — landed on our collective screens. The rebuttals on social media and academic blogs were swift, as was the rebuttal of the rebuttals from the N+1 editors on their Letters page. A particularly thoughtful response more recently appeared in the Financial Times from academic Pankaj Mishra. But let’s rewind a bit. N+1 is transparent enough to print the behind-the-scenes editorial decision-making exchanges that accompany some of their columns. And so we learn that some of the titles thrown around for the article were “World Republic of Successful and Well-Intentioned Novelists in whom we are Ultimately Disappointed” and “World Republic of Losers”. Say what? OK, we get it. Funny.
I grew up in just done gone post-colonial Zimbabwe. This was back in the 80’s where our version of the dollar still meant something and Robert Mugabe was still considered by most a general-all-around-stand-up-kinda-guy. The education system had been very elaborately constructed to mimic the “best of British” 1950’s public schools, from the starched uniforms with regulation underwear right through to the rigid curriculum taught by Oxbridge exiles.
I bring this up because despite growing up a prolific reader, I had read just a handful of American novelists by the time I entered graduate school in the US in my early twenties. And though the Americans numbered few, even fewer were the African writers I had read (or Indian, Asian, …). No Faulkner, no Kerouac, no Updike nor Roth. Amongst The Shakespeares and The Chaucers and occasional Achebes that consumed whole semesters of my youth, my insufficiently educated mind had been fed a steady and, I’ll admit, sustaining diet of Lawrence, Hardy, Forster, Austen, Dickens and Dame Vera Britain. The applicability of these authors to young scholars in the far corners of the midnight of the British Empire was not only not questioned. The universality of these texts was assumed.
Circling back, what ‘World Lite’ seemed to put forth is that what presents itself as world literature (in and of itself a straw man), is watered-down and apolitical drivel delivered by a transnational elite afraid of offending the milquetoast western sensibilities of their target audience. ‘World literature’ written in the English language has been leveled into a Dakota plain by the fact that the writers tend to live in their metropole, have teaching positions at universities in the West and generally strive for a global audience. This somehow discredits their efforts. What counts is internationalist literature defined by–it would seem–any radical, fictional work whose author determinedly sits outside the global mainstream and refuses to commune with the very elites she criticizes.
What this misses (and Mishra gets right) is that what such transnational ‘elites’ such as Teju Cole, Jhumpa Lahiri, NoVoilet Bulawayo et al create is intensely political–sometimes unconsciously so, more often overtly so. How can it not be? This status is accorded to this work by virtue of these writers completing the creative task in the ghetto of ‘other’. The fact that the global novel has emerged from the world of the global literary economy (international book festivals, book prizes, world class universities, and corporate publishing houses) and addresses an audience of citizens in any country and not a compatriot, does not render it ‘lite’. This merely conflates the writer and the product of his labor. The exposure to a view that is not only not your own but exists in a different body, geographically or phenotypically is important and profound. The so-called ‘bland consensus’ this type of global novel produces is often the only doorway into a world that one doesn’t inhabit if one is raised on a diet of the kind of novels that form the vast swathe of the western canon.
From where I sit, the essence of a good novel in addition to its transformative power, is its universality. Whether one writes of revolution or fomenting revolution or quotidian matters (the family struggle in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s seminal Nervous Conditions) is just as valid and important as the ‘uncompromising’ work of Marie Ndiaye or Elena Ferrante, cited as internationalist exemplars in ‘World Lite’. It just depends, I guess, on where one sits.
We, as readers, bring ourselves to the novel. Our birthplace, our hometowns, our interests, our language and understanding of the English language, our politics and ideology, our lives. We read to expand our world in literature. In the end it’s just us, the text and this experience of this world and our place in it.