January 20, 2014

Jaipur Literature Festival becomes the place where everyone goes to dump on American literature


Jaipur: Every one of these banners contains a unique handcrafted insult to American literature.

Jaipur: Every one of these banners contains a unique handcrafted insult to American literature.

There is no whipping boy like the American literature whipping boy, as the Jaipur Literary Festival has been proving this last week, with not one but two high-profile authors claiming that American literature is massively overrated, at one point to Jonathan Franzen’s very face, which stood in for the entire country’s literary production.

It all happened at an incredibly controversial panel on “The Global Novel” on Saturday, which brought together Franzen, Jhumpa Lahiri, Xiaolu Guo, Jim Crace, Maaza Mengiste, and was moderated by Chandrahas Chaudhry.

In the course of the discussion (which you can watch here in full), Lahiri described American reading habits as “transformed by the mainstream,” chided American publishing for not translating more foreign literature, then double-chided them by complimenting Italian publishing on how much they translated in comparison, and topped it all off by the “overrated” accusation. She was then joined by Guo, who turned to Franzen, and said the following: “I love your work, Jonathan, but… American literature is massively overrated, and I really hate to read it, and I never read it anyway.”

What in the Sam Hill is going on here? Is it sheer coincidence that Franzen was placed dead center among the panel participants, where he could most effectively be ganged up on? Did the Jaipur organizers purposefully invite the biggest birthday piñata of all American writers, hand the participants wiffle bats, and point out exactly where to whack them?

It certainly feels like it. This kind of criticism usually only comes out in dribs and drabs: a cranky NYRB blogpost here, a late-career Guardian interview there. Lahiri and Guo took the usual haranguing up by several zillion degrees. Jaipur, it seems, is now the place where, in the heart of one great literary culture, you can happily trash another one.

Of course, one might ask on what grounds Lahiri doesn’t consider herself part of the mainstream, or of American literature. And all such scolding of American literature for being insular, narrative-obsessed, and generally childish can sometime have an element of self-serving snobbishness about it, particularly when it’s being done by American writers who somehow, deep into their careers, seem surprised to discover that other literary cultures not only exist but interact with yet other literary cultures in ways that are not exactly like the way American literary culture interacts with the rest of the world, i.e. pretty thuggishly.

But, discounting those elements of the discussion, Lahiri and Guo, especially, ended up making a number of very incisive points about language and publishing that warrant further thought. For instance, Guo, who writes in both English and Chinese, said that she writes in English for both intellectual and pragmatic reasons: on the one hand, she finds that writing in English frees her up from certain burdens having to do with Chinese identity and the ideological background.

On the other hand, Guo commented that writing in English means not only that her novels will reach English-language audiences faster, but also more fully, acknowledging that translated novels rarely have the impact  — or even the chance for an impact — that novels written in English do.

This is a perspective worth keeping in mind, because it combines broad experience (the experience of living fully in two languages and multiple literary cultures) with a larger understanding of the forces at work, instead of the simply anecdotal viewpoint or with blanket portentousness, as expressed by Franzen, for instance, who, on cue, yammered a bit about the homogenization of global culture. Guo, on the other hand, got straight to the point: “Language,” she said, “is a dubious, dangerous passport.”


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.