October 21, 2011

Here be dragons: Are there still great national literatures — in English?


At the time of writing, a Battle of Ideas is being fought at London’s totally dreamy Free Word Centre. The question: ‘Is it ever valid to judge literature with reference to its nationality, linguistic distinctions aside?’ The event’s blurb doesn’t pull any punches: ‘Are we kidding ourselves that we even understand works in translation?’ it demands—a question that panelist and translator extraordinaire George Szirtes is sure to have a thought or two about. If anyone reading this was at the event and would like to report any impassioned defences of translation to these impassioned publishers of translations, the comments section is all yours.

But there’s another question here that’s unrelated to translation, and on which the blurb says not a peep. If—as seems to be taken for granted—there were once such things as ‘great national literatures’ within the English language, are there still? And how much longer will that last? So much great writing starts its life online now, in a discussion space that is—in theory at least—open to all. And yet many—most?—online lit zines maintain a local colour, with editors and contributors largely of the same nationality. Of course, this is very often because they have parallel existences IRL, in the shapes of friendships or businesses, but it’s interesting to consider whether there’s an effect on the writing. Is there something intrinsically American about, say, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency or HTMLGiant, where, oh, I don’t know, The Beat feels more British?

What we can say for sure is that, to date, the UK has trailed behind North America in this race, with fewer new mags launched (perhaps unsurprisingly, given its relative size), and an almost weird dedication to print among some of those that did appear. This Guardian article of late last year set out to prove the health of literary magazine publishing in the UK, but focused on Five Dials, published as a PDF for its readers to print out themselves, and the now-defunct Pen Pusher, which self-avowedly owed part of its failure to an ‘ill-advised lack of interest in the digital world’.  Now that a web presence and some online publication are virtually prerequisites for a publishing deal, here’s hoping for an imminent leveling of this particular playing field, be it in the guise of online booms outside of North America, or greater crossover in the existing scene.

And as an aside: writers and editors of online lit zines the world over, I want to read your sites! Please leave links in the comments. Especially if you’re Australian.


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.