World Literature certainly 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.1 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.
Certain texts have always circulated among geographically broad but socioeconomically thin strata that we could call worlds. The Thousand and One Nights, common property of literate peoples in much of the Middle East and southern Asia, was in that sense world literature; so was the Sanskrit literature that was read, into colonial times, beyond the boundaries of the Raj. Likewise, the Vulgate (and associated scholastic work) was world literature for the literate few of the European Middle Ages. And long before the modern nation-state, people all over Europe were translating and imitating the canzoni of Petrarch in their own vernaculars. But the ideal of Weltliteratur in its modern form dates to Goethe, an indisputably great writer, so Germans say, who happens not to translate very well. “I am more and more convinced that poetry is the universal possession of mankind,” Goethe said in 1827. “National literature is now a rather unmeaning term; the epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.” In the same interview he mentioned reading Chinese novels and Persian poetry in translation, and discussed his own reception in France.
Most striking about Goethe’s admirable comments is how wrong they seem. Poetry isn’t as universal a possession of humankind as prose, less of which is lost in translation — and this only became truer with the disjunctions and word games of modern and postmodern poetry. More importantly, 19th-century literature, far from converging into a single world literature, was deepening in its national character. In the prior century, the British diplomat Lord Chesterfield had been able to say that illiterate, “in its common acceptance,” meant someone who didn’t know Latin and Greek, implying a definition of literacy covering only a tiny pan-European elite: socially, a wide puddle of a world, but they had a literature. Even in the 18th century, however, and especially by the 19th, a “world literature” of dead-language classics and neo-Latin was giving way to vernacular national literatures built atop a broadening base of readers. By the mid-1800s, something like a bare majority of people were literate, in the contemporary sense, in Protestant countries, France, and Japan.
The spread of modern nation-states — carrying out central administration, within defined borders, of a population often linguistically defined — standardized national languages (sometimes slowly, as with Italian) and sometimes separated them (as with Swedish and Norwegian). Newspapers published in capital cities and written in the national language were decisive, as Benedict Anderson has argued, in establishing the “imagined community” of the nation-state; the same papers also published poetry, fiction, essays, and criticism. Literature’s audience came to be nationally constituted even where, as with the US and UK or most of Latin America, states shared a common language. Meanwhile the Bible, Koran, and Torah, no respecters of borders, dwindled in relative importance.
The big story since Goethe’s proclamation of the imminence of world literature, in other words, has been, until recently, the nationalization of literatures. The very idea of the state-of-England novel or Great American Novel, the fact that these aren’t the same, testifies to the national character of writers who have mainly felt themselves to be addressing a compatriot audience. So does the way that poets in the same language work the national register: no way Lyn Hejinian, Derek Mahon, and Geoffrey Hill could swap passports and still sound like themselves. The sound of modern literature, including almost all modern works later promoted to World Literature, has usually been that of someone speaking, or attempting to be heard, in a nation-size room.
In practice, this was a room intimate enough that the writer could give offense. Shelley, living in Italy in his late twenties, had already published enough in England to get kicked out of Oxford, disowned by his father, and refused the polite society of London, and to have several pamphlets and poems officially confiscated and destroyed. His more reverberant calls to revolution are those of someone with a chance of truly pissing off “an old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king; / Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow / Through public scorn . . . / A Senate — Time’s worst statute unrepealed,” and other obstacles in the path of liberty. Something similar could be said of Turgenev, a writer dismissed by some contemporaries (including Tolstoy) for spending too much time in Europe, but one who could infuriate, and did — even more than Tolstoy — his fellow Russians. Flaubert the aesthete was put on trial for obscenity in France. In the middle of the 19th century you could hardly walk a block in Paris or London without running into one or another exiled writer — a Mazzini, a Heine, a Herzen, a Marx — sent packing from his country for calling for revolution, or national unification, or both. (It happens that Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl, first translated Madame Bovary into English.)
In modern times, World Literature has consisted mainly of texts from abroad read in translation. For readers with a second language, the most common was French. This had been the case since the establishment of French as the language of diplomacy in the 17th century, and remained so until a few decades after World War II, when English won out. Paris was thus, as Pascale Casanova argued, the world capital of the republic of letters throughout the roughly two centuries when more and more Europeans and Americans could read and spent more and more time with books. Works in French could more easily become works of World Literature than those composed in other languages, and it was most often by way of Parisian houses that World Literature added to its library the works of a Russian, an American, or an Argentine. (Borges’s was among the last gigantic reputations made principally in French; he shared the first Prix International with Beckett in 1961.)
Throughout the long Parisian period of World Literature — before headquarters were relocated to London and New York — a northern or metropolitan author usually addressed an audience consisting chiefly of compatriots (even if he was later translated). Things were a bit different for writers from “the periphery,” whose main or only publishers might be located in a European capital: for a Senegalese writer, Paris; for a Peruvian, Madrid; for an Indian, London. This split the southern writer’s audience more evenly than the northern writer’s between an audience abroad (where the sophisticated and sympathetic read foreign work) and at home (where the literate population was proportionally smaller). Of course the metropolitan writer might also enjoy an audience in those “peripheral” countries where his own language was used — but the metropole can always more easily ignore the periphery than vice versa. For this reason, writing from the global south has always tended to be more international-minded than that from the global north (even if its translation into other languages was less, rather than more, assured). Work addressing a smaller-than-national linguistic community — in Catalan, Kannada, or Welsh —very rarely entered into World Literature. An exception was Tagore, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1913, who used, in Bengali, a “subnational” language spoken by tens of millions of people.
Modern literature also emerged in an atmosphere of threatened revolution to radically reorder — or, among colonized peoples, simply establish — the nation-state. The specter of revolution haunts modern literature, from Romanticism to postcolonialism. In the later 19th century (a time of advancing mass literacy and mass agitation both), naturalism shuddered at images of rising social classes and ruined individuals. Zola in France led to Gissing in England; Dreiser, Norris, and Wharton in the US; Verga in Italy; Ibsen in Norway; and arguably to Mao Dun and Lu Xun in China. As apolitical a writer as Henry James wrote a superior novel about anarchists; and even the infamous arch-decadent slogan from Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s Axël (1890) — “Living? Our servants will do that for us” — revealed the unstable class structure underneath l’art pour l’art.
Literary modernism in the strict sense — the “last literary season of Western culture,” Franco Moretti has called it — was a more international than national phenomenon. This was a virtue made partly out of necessity, since modernism was nowhere locally popular. Ulysses, written in Zurich and Trieste, published in Paris in 1922, and unprintable at home in Dublin, became an event in London and Berlin. Futurism was current in Italy, but also Soviet Russia and even, through Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticism, England. Surrealism was French (Breton) and Spanish (Lorca), but also Brazilian (Mario de Andrade) and Chilean (Huidobro). Little magazines and publishing houses set up in capital cities all over. Yet much as the general air of revolution had invigorated modernism with a sense of enormous imminent change, the repression of revolution knocked the wind out of it. The failure of socialist insurrection in Germany and Italy in the ’20s, paving the way for fascism; the success of the generals’ uprising in Spain (during which Lorca was killed); the frigid congealing of Stalinism (which put to death modernists as varied as Mandelstam, Babel, and Pilnyak) — these thinned the ranks of international modernism and demoralized its troops.
In modernism, the universal and the obscure make familiar bedfellows. Who in the 20th century wrote poetry more deserving of being translated into all languages and sent on thumb-drives in spaceships to all galaxies — so that aliens may become acquainted with our better selves before deciding whether to enslave or befriend us — than the impoverished Peruvian Communist and surrealist César Vallejo did upon returning to his tiny rented apartment in Paris from a Republican Spain that was attempting to stave off fascism? Virtually no Parisians, Peruvians, Spanish speakers, or fellow Communists read Vallejo at the time; his posthumous Poemas Humanos (1939) intone distraught sermons to a nonexistent congregation on the lost cause of somebody else’s civil war. These poems continue to live, while the works of such contemporary world-spanning giants as Malraux and Gide slowly fade to oblivion. Which goes to show that “world literature” is like happiness: you might possibly achieve it, but not by aiming to.
Tidings of war and revolution accompanied European literature for only a few years after 1945. The term “modernism” became current in the ’50s and ’60s, when the thing itself was expiring. The so-called late modernism of the postwar — of Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, and Sarraute; of Peter Handke, Nabokov, and John Barth, as well as the earlier texts of Kafka and Borges that now attained a vast audience — feels very different from the “high modernism” of Joyce or Woolf, Bely or Dos Passos or Döblin. Titles from these writers include Dubliners (1914), “Kew Gardens” (1919), Petersburg (1913), Manhattan Transfer (1925), and Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929). There is, by contrast, a kind of geographical and social underspecification about much of the best Euro-American literature published after World War II, which, in the most striking cases, turns deep personal peculiarity into a gnarled universality.
Kafka, precursor to this tradition of blank allegory, had been literally a man without a country: a fitfully Zionist German-speaking Jew in Prague whose people, including his three sisters, were soon wiped off the map by the Nazis. That no one can say where The Trial and The Castle take place helps add these books to World Literature. Borges in Buenos Aires had his own reasons for stinting on local color in his fiction. Raised largely in Geneva, speaking English from an early age with a British grandmother, he went gradually blind while living, until late middle age, under the same roof as his mother; the hinterlands of Argentina were hardly more familiar to him than those of Canada or Russia. Beckett, “the last modernist,” came by placelessness in yet another way. An Irishman of Protestant background living from his late twenties in and around Paris and writing, after 1946, in French, his fiction is virtually solipsistic: no need to speak of street names, let alone social classes, when you’re howling and chuckling to yourself in a small bare room. These late modernists — who attained the purity of World Literature without seeming to pass through the crucible of nationality first — were a few very odd people with unusual backgrounds. Freud had described a related phenomenon: plumb individual pathology deeply enough and you emerge in an underground realm of universal mythology.
In the more recent fiction of a pacified Europe, a smooth EU-niversality prevails in place of the old strife within and between countries. Handke, such a late modernist that the party appears to have ended, is an Austrian who lives in Paris; but can you regularly identify the city or country his peripatetic characters are passing through, metafictional preoccupations in train? Much of the postwar European fiction, some of it very good, that we might read as World Literature — Perec, Bernhard, Nádas, Nooteboom, Jelinek, Marías, Sebald, now Knausgård — is extremely psychological in character and only vestigially social and geographical. Typically the narrator is a monologist, resembling the author, who tells of personal turmoil amid social stasis. He recognizes himself, with snobbish self-approbation, as a part of a stable polyglot pan-European elite; most other inhabitants of his country, as of the neighboring ones, are unthreatening idiots who turn on the TV after returning from work. The younger ones take drugs and dance to club music on weekends; the older ones go on package tours before dying of cancer. Nietzschean last men (and women), they can be roused neither to the self-promotion nor to the gun violence that lend spice to American life. Their tribune is Michel Houellebecq. Other big-name European novelists write books about personal relationships and international culture, and not much in between. Resigned to terminal minorness, this is a European novel written by, about, and for literary people who attain a critical mass only at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and then without taking the opportunity to riot against the European Central Bank. Many suicides occur in its pages. The wonder is there aren’t more.
If the prospect of social revolution or counterrevolutionary crackdown departed Europe after World War II, it didn’t disappear from the world. It flared up in the form of wars of national liberation in South Asia, Latin America, the Arab world, and Indochina. The portion of southern writing that became World Literature required champions in the publishing houses of northern capitals. Through declining Paris, the West got Carpentier and Cortázar from Latin America; through rising London, Gordimer and Naipaul from the Commonwealth. Their international reception depended on a cosmopolite audience — political, curious, appalled by the war in Vietnam — that emerged with the end of colonialism and seems to have lasted through the Central American dirty wars of the 1980s.
The social situation of the southern writer remained what it had ceased to be in the rich countries not long after World War II: to one side of the writer stood a large, increasingly educated population of working people whose ongoing tolerance of social injustice could not be taken for granted, and to the other side a government run on behalf of an owning class too insecure and divided to shrug at the opinions of national writers. The class composition of many postcolonial countries resembled that of European countries three-quarters of a century before: a ruling class uneasily split between rural landlords and a thin stratum of urban bourgeoisie, a working class that still consisted more of peasants than city-dwelling wage-seekers. The combination of restive masses and a hostile or approving but not indifferent bourgeoisie gave the work of southern writers a social charge no longer available to literature in the stabilized rich countries.
The valence of this charge naturally depended on the book in question. In Petals of Blood (1977), Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a man of the left from Nairobi, excoriated the comprador bourgeoisie of young independent Kenya; in Guerrillas (1975), by the increasingly reactionary V. S. Naipaul, a Trinidadian of Indian descent writing from southern England, the leader of a left-wing uprising on a Caribbean island was a half-educated black rapist. Either way, these and other southern novels of their time were buoyed by revolutionary ferment. The Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa’s War of the End of the World (1981)—a historical novel about a millenarian movement for social justice in 19th-century Brazil written in the middle of the author’s trajectory from reflexive leftism to Thatcherite neoliberalism—was pervaded by contemporary South American anxieties about left-wing maximalism and neofascist repression.
The major transitional figure from this earlier era of World Literature, when things were still “postcolonial,” to the contemporary globalized period, is Salman Rushdie. Midnight’s Children (1981), a genuinely angry book, belongs to the older style of World Lit: Rushdie, outraged by the Emergency, wrote a Günter Grass–inspired denunciation of the failures of India. Pakistan was served up for similar treatment in his next novel, Shame (1983). In The Jaguar Smile (1987), a still left-wing Rushdie went to Nicaragua to check out the Sandinistas, about whom he offered guarded praise. The book was criticized in the US for its silence about the “totalitarianism” of the Sandinistas — twice elected in honest elections and facing a right-wing paramilitary insurgency from the Contras, secretly funded and armed by the Reagan Administration.
The book Rushdie published the next year, The Satanic Verses (1988), now looks like the inauguration of World Literature’s global phase, in the form of the novel of “hybridity.” Rushdie answered the question posed at the beginning of the novel — “How does newness come into the world?” — by devising his own English-Hindi-Urdu patois, in which he gave a revisionist account of the mingled, mongrel voices that went into composing the Koran. Fortuitously, The Satanic Verses was published the year before the Warsaw Pact unraveled: now a world split by the cold war could become a unified globe. Less fortuitously, the head of the Iranian Revolution — itself a salvo against cultural globalization, among other things — put a price on Rushdie’s head. Khomeini had thus inadvertently sanctified the global novel in English. “L’affaire Rushdie” became an opportunity for some writers (Sontag, Hitchens) to put on their best face in defense of free speech, and for others (Le Carré, Berger) to don their worst in a misguided third-worldism. The novel itself was deeply impressive, deploying the metafictional techniques of postmodernism to address the major contemporary theme of migration, later prompting as much theory as it seemed to be responding to.
But a post–cold war, globalized World Literature was not a more radical or politicized one. On the contrary: for Rushdie and other writers like him, what had been radicalism swiftly collapsed into a single pious axiom — freedom of speech — on whose behalf they would support any action. Three years after The Satanic Verses, the US would invade Iraq for the first time; just over a decade later it fell to Rushdie, no longer in hiding, to make the “liberal case” for the second invasion. Rushdie, who hadn’t cared for the Indian national ideal, came to have few qualms about the United States. Following The Satanic Verses, the association of postcolonial writing with anti-imperialism was dead.
The World Literature that confronts us today seems, at first glance, to fulfill the hopeful-sounding prophecy of Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto (1848): “National one-sidedness and narrow mindedness become more and more impossible, and out of the many national and local literatures a world literature arises.” Many writers today are unavoidably, increasingly, transnational—in experience, subject matter, reading tastes. Still more belong to a manifest world-system. Their publishers are multinational corporations; the universities they teach at, or where their work may be taught, train a global elite; and much of their audience, actual or hoped-for, reads English, though huge markets for books also exist in Mandarin, Spanish, and French. In France itself and in smaller markets, half the fiction on offer may be in translation (though in Europe two out of three translated novels are from English).
Marx and Engels wrote, however, when literature was on the march, at a time of fast-growing readerships in Europe and America and the beginnings of universal public education. The literate portion of the population, and the quantity of modern literature it consumed (in addition to its diet of journalism, scripture, and delectable trash), would go on swelling for another 120 years or so. Even today, in a few countries, including enormous India, the average person probably reads more rather than less each year, and maybe even reads better stuff. Elsewhere, writers of serious or half-serious fiction and essays, never mind poetry or plays, face national audiences apparently shrinking in relative or absolute terms. The readership for “literature”—in the sense of actual or wannabe works of artistry and intellect—may be spreading out, globally, but in most societies it appears also to be thinning. Literature never quite shed its elite connotations; today it is a more professionalized and elite activity than it was a generation or two ago. One temptation is for writers to hope that enough thin-sliced national audiences, stacked together, might be world enough to support them.
Today’s World Literature might better be called Global Literature. World calls up aspirations to true universality—“We are the world!”—while global, through no fault of its own, evokes phenomena like global capitalism and global warming the good and bad effects of which are by no means universally felt. Global, in other words, implies worldwide processes that polarize the conditions of the world’s people (including, presumably, their literary condition). Through globalization, the US and China can become equally unequal! Writers aren’t to be blamed for this situation, or not much. The question is what we make of it.
Global Literature can’t help but reflect global capitalism, in its triumph, inequalities, and deformations. In the English language, World Literature has its signature writers: Rushdie and Coetzee at the lead, and Kiran Desai, Mohsin Hamid, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie among the younger charges. It has its own economy, consisting of international publishing networks, scouts, and book fairs. It has its prizes: the Nobel, of course, but more powerful and snazzier is the Man Booker, and the Man Booker International. Its political arm is PEN. And it has a social calendar full of literary festivals, which bring global elites into contact with the glittering stars of World Lit. Every year, sections of the dominant class fly from Mexico City to have Julian Barnes sign books in Xalapa, or from Delhi to Jaipur to be seen partying with Mario Vargas Llosa. The Hay Festival, started in Hay-on-Wye in rural Wales, now has outposts in Dhaka, Beirut, Nairobi, and elsewhere. “Hay Festival in Cartagena de Indias” is an accidentally funny phrase — Sí, hay festival — redolent of a strange new intimacy between global north and south.
What happens at these festivals? No debate; no yelling; some drinking; lots of signing of books. They are like peace conferences, though the national constituencies haven’t been consulted. They represent the state of World Literature at the present time. Everywhere, a political writer has acquired a quieter global successor. Insurrectionary Gordimer has given way to the sedulously horrified Coetzee; ranting Grass to mourning (and deceased) Sebald; angry Rushdie to shitty Rushdie. Of course there was something wrong with the old militancy, too. “We fought for parties that, if they had won, would have sent us immediately to forced labor camps,” Bolaño said bluntly, without too much exaggeration: “We fought and put all our generosity into an ideal that had been dead for more than fifty years.”
World Literature was not often called that when there were still three worlds: first (capitalist), second (Soviet-style socialist), and third (could go either way). Since the cold war, what it has gained in circumspection it has lost in direction. In spite of the increasing worldliness of writers, the contemporary world often fails to impress itself on World Lit with much force. Themes of the novel (the main vehicle of World Literature) from the era of late modernism and postcolonialism — exile and trauma in particular — have become, pried from their original political context, devices of blindness more than insight. Michael Ondaatje, a Sri Lankan–born Canadian of Dutch ancestry and hero to many world litterateurs, has been exemplary in the worst way, with his sinuous capacity to suggest a political mind without betraying a real one. From the occasionally good English Patient (1992), you could catch a whiff of how his signature brew would go sour: dispossessed Hungarian count and Sikh sapper exchange quick words in a moldering Italian landscape, all expressed in the kind of breathless short sentences that once were John Berger’s specialty (though Ondaatje avoided any hint of Berger’s nostalgic Marxism). More recent books like Divisadero (2007) and The Cat’s Table (2011) show a deeper spoilage. Here are soft-focus word-pictures of fig jam and recipes for spring salads, the glimpse of “a sprig of absinthe leaves used as a bookmark,” and rural poets lifting their wives’ yellow cotton dresses and fucking a tergo beside the water barrel still glinting in the moonlight. Late Ondaatje will give a French character a Spanish name, so that another character can reflect on its brilliance: “Segura. The irony of his name was not lost on him.” Shifting arbitrarily from region to region with spurious worldliness, these books inspire jet-setter jacket copy: “Spanning three continents . . .” It’s not even as if the novelist were desperate to match the American imperium or international finance in scope. It’s more like the writer is writing for a global West Village.
An older global novel was animated by an attempt to win for fiction not only a new language and form but a role in securing an entire realm of freedom. But the political liberation failed, or was botched or betrayed; to write as if third-worldism were still a source of promise would be an especially tedious kind of cant. In the absence of political prospects, writers have produced backward-glancing narratives of trauma (like the atom bomb going off at the end of The English Patient). World Lit trauma thematics mar the work of a number of acclaimed younger Jewish novelists, with characters discovering the source of everything in the Holocaust — the most flagrant case so far being that of Jonathan Safran Foer, whose first novel, Everything Is Illuminated (2002) was a tearjerking mixture of ESL comedy and destroyed-shtetl travelogue. His second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), was about an innocent and precocious child traumatized by the death on September 11 of Tom Hanks — or rather his perfect father: a conceit at any rate designed to create the maximum of sympathy with the minimum of reality. Burnt Shadows (2009), by Kamila Shamsie (one of Granta’s latest 20 under 40), carries the global formula to a climax of absurdity: it begins in Hiroshima in 1945, moves to partition-era Delhi in 1947, Zia-ul-Haq’s Karachi in the 1980s, New York on September 11, and concludes in Afghanistan as American bombs start to fall.
More significant and accomplished works have also concentrated on historical trauma in a way now typical of World Literature, as when Junot Díaz’s Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) turns abruptly from the lives of contemporary Dominican Americans to their painful background in the Trujillo dictatorship. In Teju Cole’s Open City (2011), a searching and often brilliant book, the main character Julius quests throughout New York for memorials testifying to slave markets, the killing of American Indians, and other atrocities. As in Sebald, a clear influence, melancholy wanderings among the dead seem a way of shielding the novel’s protagonist, and perhaps the novelist himself, from a contemporary world he can’t face.
The obsession with past trauma refracts World Lit’s sense of belatedness, even when the genre advertises its contemporaneity. You can argue that we’re still haunted by Hiroshima or the Holocaust, that people refuse to speak about this haunting — kind of the way they refuse to care about the novel. Past horrors, unlike contemporary ones, also tend to be events liberal readers agree about. But they displace the contemporary world, locating politics always elsewhere, in some distant geography and irrecoverable past. Present day confusions and controversies are neglected or sentimentalized.
The key institution in the creation of World Literature has not been the literary festival, or even the commercial publishing house, but the university. Every World Lit writer seems to have an appointment. Pamuk teaches at Columbia; Paul Muldoon at Princeton; Junot Díaz at MIT. University-produced postcolonial theory was also part of the education of World Lit. Rushdie had crucial friendships with Edward Said and Homi Bhabha, as did Ngugi with Gayatri Spivak. Increasingly writers from Calcutta and Cape Town attend MFA programs in East Anglia or Syracuse. Universities that celebrate their commitment to diversity — of cultural identity, if not class background — owe it to themselves to hire writers of odes to hybridity. “I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me, / and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation,” wrote Derek Walcott from Santa Lucia in “The Schooner Flight” in 1979, the same year he joined Boston University, where he’s remained. Walcott’s definitely not nobody, with an ear for English to rival Tennyson or Eliot and much more intelligence than the former and more commitment to his vocation than the latter — but he’s not really a nation anymore either (nor, it seems, an internationalist, despite the elegy on Che Guevara he wrote long ago). His work of recent decades bears the mark of the global in being more broad than deep.
Universities began to hire and promote writers from the global south around the time that the national liberation movements failed, prompting many to flee abroad. (After the cold war, the US was also willing to grant visas to writers, like Gordimer, whose fellow-traveling sympathies had previously kept them out.) These southern writers turned into guest workers of a kind, their employment dependent on a permanently foreign identity. The result was uprooting without assimilation; foreign writers transformed exile into professional expertise and literary theme. Fundraising draws at the university and stars of the festival circuit, they were invited to speak on panels about the loss of self under migration, or to meditate on the bloody crossroads of politics and literature in rooms where nobody raised his or her voice. (Across the hall, the purely academic panels in the 1980s were, for better and worse, more vituperative.) Bereft of both a native and a general metropolitan audience, with a readership geographically broad but socioeconomically thin, they floated in the wake of the academic boat steaming ahead of them. Academic theorists of hybridity, the postcolonial, and World Literature gave novelists an authority that no longer emanated from themselves. The novelists must have felt required to perform their identity in a solemn key, since few if any wrote self-burlesquing comedies of exile as Nabokov had in Lolita and Pnin.
The university even more quickly became basic to the careers of younger writers. You can see this in the way it suddenly intrudes, like a dissonant chord, in the sophomore work of World Lit authors: the trace of the moment when they took their first teaching job. Dinaw Mengestu, whose first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (2007), was an assured first-person narrative by an Ethiopian émigré shopkeeper in a gentrifying neighborhood of Washington, DC, wrote a second novel, How to Read the Air (2010), narrated by an Ethiopian émigré teacher of literature. The narrator of the earlier book told a straightforward story of flight from a failed revolution; the second novel told a similar story, but presented it metafictionally in a classroom setting. Junot Díaz shifted from his chronicles of down-and-out Dominicans in Drown (1996) to an American campus in Oscar Wao, where the eponymous character is obsessed, cultural studies–style, with the semiological analysis of comic books and science fiction. The very first word of Adichie’s third novel, Americanah (2013), is “Princeton.” No law of literature says the university can’t be the setting of great fiction, but it says something about the difficulty of the feat that the best example we can think of—DeLillo’s White Noise—was written by a writer who has never taught at one.
The university always threatens to insulate World Lit from the world it wants to describe and address. The great Ngugi began with socialist bildungsromane and in midcareer wrote Petals of Blood, a Marxist classic about rising peasants and workers who — he hoped — would overthrow the corrupt new ruling class of postcolonial Kenya. But Ngugi eventually decided he was producing one of Empson’s versions of “pastoral” — proletarian literature for nonproletarians — and stopped writing in English altogether. He composed subversive plays in Gikuyu and put them on in villages, deliberately forsaking “global literature” for pieces addressed to a specific community. His gamble that Gikuyu was more threatening to power than English proved correct: he was thrown in prison by the Moi dictatorship (an injustice protested by writers around the world), where he composed the first Gikuyu novel, Devil on the Cross, on prison toilet paper; in 1982, he went into exile. In the university Ngugi’s analysis of the uses of language by those in power faded into a wan poststructuralism. All material questions were replaced by issues of language. In 2006 he published a “Big Africa” novel, The Wizard of the Crow (written in Gikuyu and translated by the author into English), which bore the marks of performance theory. In 2011, he gave the Wellek Library lectures, published the next year as Globalectics: an unhappy attempt to fuse theory and autobiography, crowned with a dreadful title. Unable to return to Kenya — the last time he tried, about a decade ago, his wife was kidnapped by people who remembered his provocations from thirty years before — Ngugi continues to teach at UC Irvine.
One writer who avoided the University Archipelago was V. S. Naipaul, a genuinely dangerous and unstable quantity. Despite some “pain and admiration” (Edward Said’s phrase) for his work on the academic left, he was the ogre of World Literature. Invited to teach at Wesleyan for a year in the late ’70s, he alienated everyone in his department with his hostility to campus liberalism and wasn’t invited back. He and Rushdie were perhaps the last World Lit writers to elude the university. In Naipaul’s best novels you get the impression of a man calling it like he sees it, pitilessly. (Walcott, who admired Naipaul’s prose and disliked his politics, seems to have shared with his fellow Caribbean what might be called an antitraumatic aesthetic: “Now, I require // nothing from poetry but true feeling, / no pity, no fame, no healing.”) But Naipaul’s vision was always filmed with prejudice, especially toward women, and eventually these prejudices curdled into pure hatefulness, jeering. In the autumn of his monstrousness, he became a figure of the English country house, whose strangeness he evoked in his last great book, The Enigma of Arrival (1987) — its very title a masterstroke, standing for any work of World Literature — before he no longer found England enigmatic, and called it home.
Alas, Rushdie; alas, Naipaul. In the mid-’80s, people debated these two figures as if they represented a momentous choice. “Rushdie is brilliant,” says one of the guests in the Hindi film Party (1984), a skewering of the Indian literary scene, “but give me Naipaul any day.” “Oh, Naipaul, no, no — too bitter!” says his interlocutor in reply. Each novelist is now a Faust, relegated, as if in exchange for his achievement, to a private hell. Rushdie emerged from the fatwa a damaged writer, his puns reflexes, his recourse to myth and fable showing signs of hackery. He took to appearing onstage with U2, grinning with Bono under the suspended Trabants of their Zooropa tour. To view him now — witty but humorless, soft and thick with moneyed confidence — is to view a wreck. The books are soft, too; the reviewers’ knives don’t even need sharpening. Rushdie himself reviewed Naipaul’s latest in 1987, for the Guardian: “I think it was Borges who said that in a riddle to which the answer is knife, the only word that cannot be employed is knife. There is one word I can find nowhere in the text of The Enigma of Arrival. That word is ‘love.’” For Rushdie, this made the book “very, very sad.” There’s something in this: if later Rushdie seems estranged from earlier Rushdie, the sadness, the lovelessness, he rightly identified in Naipaul’s work comes from Naipaul’s persistent implication that the only legitimate escape from “half-made” postcolonial countries is to become V. S. Naipaul.
Other major writers from the periphery have had happier or, at least, less compromising fates. The Russian Eduard Limonov, a significant figure on the national level, has remained outside World Lit circulation and off the festival circuit, probably because he is such a jerk: he goes uninvited, one imagines, less because of flirtations with fascism than because the last time he attended a literary festival he hit the British writer Paul Bailey in the head with a bottle of champagne. Saramago, in his weaker work, could be sentimental, but his greatest novels were those of an unrepentant Communist and anti-Christian blasphemer for whom humanism was the foundation of politics but no replacement for it. Bolaño, having become famous in the Spanish-speaking world when he won the Romulo Gallegos prize for The Savage Detectives (1998), a book thick with mockery of literary types, didn’t follow that novel with anything easier to digest but with the enormous and appalling 2666, 150 pages or so of which are a plotless catalog of masculine violence against women in a Mexican border town (a contemporary rather than past atrocity). Then there’s Arundhati Roy, who may well have abandoned the novel, after The God of Small Things, because she couldn’t find a fictional form that was right for her developing radical politics. “With her unrelenting critique of not only the liberalist ‘development’ of India but also the expansive double standards of the USA,” wrote the Indian novelist Tabish Khair of her activism, “Roy has isolated herself from many people of the sort who go to literary festivals. What they want is some soft criticism that does not make them feel too uncomfortable.”
World Literature, in the form gestured at by Goethe and now canonized by the academy, has become an empty vessel for the occasional self-ratification of the global elite, who otherwise mostly ignore it. If an earlier World Literature arose in the four decades after World War II to challenge northern narratives of the south, these days writers from outside the rich countries don’t seem afflicted by white writing in the same way, not when titles like Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013) are being published. The contemporary phase is different, less contentious. Today’s World Lit is more like a Davos summit where experts, national delegates, and celebrities discuss, calmly and collegially, between sips of bottled water, the terrific problems of a humanity whose predicament they appear to have escaped.
There is another path. The historic rival to a World Literature made up of individual national authors was the programmatically internationalist literature of the revolutionary left: journalism, treatises, and speeches, novels, poetry, plays, and memoirs necessarily written in a given vernacular but always aimed at a borderless audience of radicals. This was an internationalism embodied by Marx and Engels themselves, German-speakers at ease in English and French, able to read Latin and Italian, who corresponded from England with comrades born as far away as Russia. The politics of 19th-century radicals required them at least to listen to speeches delivered in heavy accents, and often to go into exile (where they would become the guys with the accents). Prison was another common destination for socialists and anarchists, and years behind bars offered, if nothing else, the company of foreigners and plenty of time to read and write. The formal name of the first International, The International Workingmen’s Association (1864–76), gives some idea of the intended audience of the revolutionary left, as does the title of the speech delivered in Russian by Trotsky at Brest-Litovsk in 1918 during Soviet peace negotiations with the Central Powers: “An Appeal to the Toiling, Oppressed and Exhausted Peoples of Europe.”
When it came to an audience, the reach of the international left considerably exceeded its grasp. This was even more true after World War I than before: the Western Marxists who grew into intellectual maturity during and after the 1920s, though polyglot, were less aware of arguments made in languages not their own (or in French) than earlier generations of comrades had been. Meanwhile, for writers in the Soviet Union, the abstract ideology and practical censorship accompanying Stalin’s “socialism in one country” interfered with any real internationalism of the mind. Like international socialism, a truly internationalist literature has so far enjoyed hardly a moment of historical realization.
Uncompromising work across the world suggests the outlines of a thorny internationalism opposed to the smoothly global. A list drawn up by a few Americans incapable, unlike the offspring imagined by Leopold in Ulysses, of “speaking five modern languages fluently” can only be drastically incomplete and tentative. Still it’s worth naming a few names: in France, the polarizing works of Marie NDiaye, with her long sentences dividing into different strains of thought; in southern Italy, the feminist novels of the reclusive Elena Ferrante, the terrifying Days of Abandonment (2002) and the quieter trilogy beginning with My Brilliant Friend (2009). In Mexico, Juan Villoro and Álvaro Enrigue place themselves at a sharp angle to the history of Latin American literature; in Argentina, Pola Oloixarac’s Savage Theories (2008) is an extremely smart novel of the Theory Generation. In Russia, the poet Kirill Medvedev’s rejection of copyright, made in response to the depredations of the Russian publishing system in the 1990s, has turned into a gesture of international significance. In China, Yan Lianke, unlike the Nobel-winning Mo Yan, has moved underground and gained in creative power. In India, a host of English-language writers from Samanth Subramanian and Tabish Khair to Roy herself and, in the vernaculars, Girish Karnad and Mahasweta Devi, have been lending their efforts to a more combative public sphere.
A developed internationalist literature would superficially resemble the globalized World Lit of today in being read by and written for people in different countries, and in its emphasis on translation (and, better yet, on reading foreign languages). But there would be a few crucial differences. The internationalist answer to the riddle of World Lit — of its unsatisfactoriness — lies in words never associated with it. These include project, opposition, and, most embarrassingly, truth. Global Lit tends to accept as given the tastes of an international middlebrow audience; internationalism, by contrast, seeks to create the taste by which it is to be enjoyed. The difference, crudely, is between a product and a project. An internationalist literary project, whether mainly aesthetic (as for modernism) or mainly political (as for the left) or both aesthetic and political, isn’t likely to be very clearly defined, but the presence or absence of such a project will be felt in what we read, write, translate, and publish.
The project can only be one of opposition to prevailing tastes, ways of writing, and politics. Global Lit, defined more by a set of institutions than a convergence of projects, treats literature as a self-evident autonomous good, as if some standard of literary excellence could be isolated from what writers have to say and how they say it. In its toothless ecumenicalism, Global Lit necessarily lacks any oppositional project of form (as, again, international modernism did) or of content (as international socialism did); the globally literary content themselves with the notion that merely to write or read “literary” books is to enlist, aesthetically and politically, on the side of the angels.
Literary excellence aside, Global Lit makes no judgments. The work it favors is in consequence often a failure on its own narrow terms, good writing being, in a word, the creation of people trying to tell the truth, however slant, rather than to produce “literature.” Writers more interested in literature than the truth ensure that they never come out with either thing — one reason that the word literature today sounds so fake, as if you were to insist on saying cuisine every time you meant food. Food, as in sustenance, is more like what we have in mind.