Is World Literature a wholesome idea?


It’s hard not to be suspicious of anything as wholesome as World Literature. 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?: n+1

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. 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.

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