On Some Recent Worrying over World Literature’s Commodity Status
Scholars have been discussing world literature’s status as an elite commodity for a number of years now, beginning perhaps with Timothy Brennan’s important critiques, first expressed in the late 1980s, of celebrated “Third World” writers (see Brennan, “Cosmopolitans and Celebrities,” Salman Rushdie). Since then a number of studies of postcolonial literature – a category of text that tends to be subsumed into the world literature canon – have argued for the importance of understanding that literature in relation to the markets for it (see Huggan; Watts; Brouillette, Postcolonial Writers). It recently became especially hard to avoid this concern, however, after Verso published Emily Apter’s Against World Literature and an editorial appeared in the widely read cultural magazine n+1 under the title “World Lite.” The basic narrative that these latter works construct is one in which the label world literature, for decades applied to a canon of classics curated by acquisitive publishers located in the West, signals now little more than a predictable set of moderately “different” works. These works are said to be written in such a way that they are ideal for transport from peripheral to core locations, or, when a less one-way flow is evident, they are said to be produced and consumed by the taste-making elite who inhabit the world’s networked cultural capitals.
David Damrosch’s well known approach to world literature might seem to offer a contrast, since he suggests that world literature is not a homogeneous object unified by particular thematic concerns or aesthetic parameters. For Damrosch, rather, any work that has travelled across a border to meet its readers in localized moments of consumption can be deemed a work of world literature (see Damrosch). Yet his approach is finally compatible with the narrative I outline, which positions world literature as an elite, homogenizing, complacent commodity. Even if it is only a heterogeneous aggregate of mobile works consumed in disparate locations, world literature can still be read as, also, a cultural accompaniment to an encompassing process of global market expansion. Indeed Damrosch’s own project of insisting that every literary work is unique, and that every act of consumption of a literary work is irreducible to any other, is highly compatible with contemporary capitalism’s fetish for particularity and diversity. As many scholars have argued, flexible production catered to particular consumers, and inducements for people to imagine themselves as irreducibly individual, are integral to our times.
Let us look more closely now at Against World Literature, in which Emily Apter writes of her “serious reservations about tendencies in World Literature toward reflexive endorsement of cultural equivalence and substitutability, or toward the celebration of nationally and ethnically branded ‘differences’ that have been niche marketed as commercialized ‘identities’.” She quotes with approval Simon During’s argument that world literature is a “genteel leisure industry,” part of “the recent rapid extension of cross-border flows of tourists and cultural goods around the world,” and states that she is “uneasy in the face of the entrepreneurial, bulimic drive to anthologize and curricularize the world’s cultural resources” (2-3). She even links world literature to a politically dangerous “oneworldedness,” signifying “a relatively intractable literary monoculture that travels through the world absorbing difference” (83). This monoculture is defined by “the centrifugal pressure of dominant world languages and literatures” and connected to everything from the surveillance state to state-based monomania and catastrophism (71).
In a comparable way, the editors at n+1 say of successful writers: “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.” Furthermore, they write:
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.
Increasingly written by authors employed by universities, world literature “has become an empty vessel for the occasional self-ratification of the global elite.” It is “like a Davos summit,” they maintain, “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.”