It’s been stimulating and thought-provoking reading the EWWC keynote speeches on the future of the novel and the concept of a national literature.
Usually, of course, format and national characteristics coincide. In many ways the novel is, like the map, a colonial, bourgeois construct. It is no coincidence that its ascendancy as an art form paralleled the UK’s imperial gains. Having the time to write a novel and the time to read it both demand a leisured class; having the education to understand it and the publishing and bookselling industries to mass produce it, and libraries for those who cannot afford to own books or bookshelves, all presuppose societal and economic conditions that did not exist in most of the world. It is to the credit of writers such as Dickens and Eliot that they used their genius to illuminate the differences within their own societies, even if they did not explicitly refer to the geo-political inequalities underpinning their existence.
(Not that this is exclusively colonial: equally imperial was Russia before the revolution. In Soviet times enabling a population to read the works of genius created in the 19th century led to a highly literate population within less than a century.)
There is a critical position of JM Coetzee’s Disgrace which repudiates it as representing a monolithic, hermetically-sealed world – a book which could only have been written from a position of white privilege. Artistically I am not convinced by this argument, but it is a fact that until recently the vast majority of the world’s population including much of South Africa have not had the necessary circumstances to create or consume this kind of art.
So national literatures vary not just in content but in format. Oral societies will privilege performative art, including song lyrics. Many societies value poetry far more highly than prose, from the Arab World to Pakistan to China. One of the frustrations of bringing writers from around the world to the UK is that we are as readers accustomed to a format that we created to suit ourselves – novels with a beginning, middle and end, psychological realism, credible plot and characters.
It is a joy to see resurgence of interest in neo-modernism, non-linear plot, stream of consciousness narrative, complexity of concept. But this is a nuanced difference; Will Self’s Umbrella is still categorically a novel.
This takes the problem of introducing writers from outside our Anglo-Saxon/European tradition way beyond that of literary translation, a serious enough issue in itself, into cultural translation. For me to understand a ghazal, a haiku, the Mahabharata, an Eisteddfod or creation myths from North East India, takes an effort that reading Mo Yan, Orhan Pamuk, Chinua Achebe does not.
This is where digital technology has the potential to be so exciting and where we can move the debate beyond the future of the novel to the future of storytelling; for a new generation of writers from across Africa to connect with those of South Asia and the Caribbean without the barriers of traditional publishing structures. True, it is likely that the hegemony of the English language will be reinforced, which is to be lamented; and finding the semiotics to distinguish the good from the bad will take time. But writers will be able to contextualise their work with references, illustrations, cultural iconography in a way that will I hope be creative, inspiring and egalitarian.
Susie Nicklin, Director Literature British Council