Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Response to Alan A.'s comment

The discussion about the American hysterical response to Horace Engdahl's comments about American insularity could not have received a better case study than the comments written by "Alan A." in the comment field below.

This is what he wrote in the comment section below:

"You seem to be just as unaware of what is happening in modern American literature, and what is available to the public, as Engdahl is. In the same way that people see a McDonalds and don't acknowledge that the finest gourmet and international cuisine is ALSO available in every major American city, you seem to be unaware that American literature has a range from regional/provincial to undeniably universal. As a nation built on immigration, it is impossible not to."

This is a perfect case example because Alan does not want to even discuss the possibility of whether or not American Lit is un-cosmpolitan; he assumes Engdahl and I are ignorant of American literature. We just don't know it. And what is worse, we're part of a mindless overarching anti-americanism.

This is very typical of the general response. The fact is Engdahl is a very knowledgeable critic and my guess is he knows quite a bit about American literature. I graduate summa cum laude in American Literature and on Friday I'm defending my PhD in, yes, English and American Literature. I even have a press that publishes a lot of American Literature. Could it be that I think American lit is insular because, not in spite of, my background?

Like many of the responses, Alan's response typifies a common attitude of American Exceptionalism - which can be seen in Sara Palin's speeches and in this comment about America having the greatest restaurants in the world. This is precisely the kind of attitude that keeps American insular. I've had to deal with it every day of my life since I came here in the 80s. Xenophobia and Exceptionalism. I am not allowed to criticize the US or American lit. It always leads to shrill hysteric attacks or dismissals - whether overt or hidden. Why is this? That's something to be discussed.

Further, I've heard a lot of people make this claim about immigration as being the key to American cosmpolitanism (All European countries are now also countries of immigration by the way). More importantly, there is not a direct effect of having immigrants and allowing/encouraging immigrants to publish/write. As an immigrant, my experience has been that I've been very much discouraged from writing unless I fit into a little preconceived idea of what immigrant literature should be. Look at journals, look at books, look at what's taught in classes, look at what's reviewed etc: How many American books are written by immigrants? How many by White Americans who have been to fancy schools?

The real question, as I note in my comment field below, is not whether American literature is insular (it is, proof's in the pudding); it's whether we want literature to be part of Engdahl's notion of the Great Literary International Discussion? And whether we want our literature to be insulare? (Those are two separate questions. We can be open to the foreign without participating in his idea of a high-culture, politically-conscious literature. Obviously that's my view.)

Engdahl's comments are clearly meant to provoke. I think that's good. I think it may start a discussion we need to have in this country. I've been trying to have it for years.


Blogger Chris said...

I haven't read the comments in the other threads, but: It seems like the problem is that there isn't one "American literature" to pin this tag on. This, I think, is the point of Alan's comment. To think there is such a thing as a monolithic "American literature" (or, even, one that has any singular characteristics that do a good job of describing it) shows a lack of knowledge of what the terrain of American literature looks like (or, worse, a desire to steamroller it into flat platitudes).

I keep being bugged by your use of the word "insular"; but the US is not an island, or not literally one, and there must be some better metaphor to suggest the reasons for its seeming independence from a Eurocentric border-crossing tradition. But then again, I mangled all sorts of metaphors above, so who am I to complain.

12:00 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I think I spoke to these issues in the comment section below.

It is true that I think Engdahl doesn't probably understand how small presses work in the US, that that's where the interesting stuff is going on. In part this is because Sweden doesn't have a tradition of indie presses. Their big presses have been very good about taking chances big US presses would never in a million years go for.

Having said that, small US presses aren't exactly translation-loving either.

And you are right about the border crossing cosmopolitanism that Engdahl proposes. This feels very much like Grand Old Literature to me, and so I don't want to advocate that either. And i think that's what bugged Max (below) as well: the idea that we have a central dialogue.

I am i favor of something much leakier.

12:13 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

American presses have at least as much love for translations as American schools have for teaching languages (including English). Not blaming the teachers, of course, though I might be glaring at the provosts, the business officers...

12:18 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

I will add, personally, that I can't stand translations (except as writing exercises, or understood collaboratively, etc.) and read them only when necessary; I certain don't feel like I get an understanding from another language's writing style (esp. poetry!) from reading it in translation. (It's like a cover song, maybe: You don't listen to it to understand what the original is like, though you might enjoy the cover, and it might illuminate aspects of the original if you understand both.)

But I do think that the US could teach (non-English, esp.) languages more, and in fact sometimes I feel aggro and suggest that you can only read poetry in your nonnative language.

12:21 PM  
Blogger Fran├žois said...

Chris: It irritates me to no end when someone states they don't like translation, as if it made one language subordinate to another. Again, this is a very American position. More importantly, it underlies a lack of understanding about what translation is. Translation does not try to slavishly replicate a foreign language poem into a target one. It is another form of writing. As such, the way Johannes translates is not the same as the way I do it which is not the same as the way Sarah Riggs does it which is not the way Pierre Joris does it. If anything, translation is a form of dissemination as Derrida sees dissemination, or what Spivak calls a form of love. To think that one can try to understand a foreign text from its original language is just another form of colonization.

2:44 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Well, yes, but trying to understand any text must surely be a form of colonization. Also, hugging someone. I mean, it doesn't end.

But yes, as another form of writing: That's fine. But then "reading a work in translation" written by a Swede, translated by (say) an American: Does that tell us about the Swede, or does that tell us about the American? Obviously that's reductive. When I read Graves's translation of Homer, I'm reading Graves, and emphatically not Homer. And if I read a few dozen translations of Homer, then I'm getting a vague sense of the narration of the original, but not much of the poetry at all (as a brief glance at the Greek will tell me)!

But it also doesn't get at the layer of reading that I'm most interested in (esp with poetry): The relations and tensions between words, the grammatical and syntactical flexing. The sense that, in this language -- in, say, Latin -- we have flexible word order and a system of case endings, and so our poems can be built like so, and these effects can occur. And no translation into English is going to replicate that, is going to have that information.

So it's not the subordination: It's just that the translation doesn't give me what I want from the writing, from the interaction with another language, but replaces it with more of my own language. And if that language has interesting poetry to say, that's fine; if translation is a form of constraint writing, that's fine; but then there is no getting off the island!

2:58 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

I wasn't aware that it was the point of the Nobel committee to give awards to the most "cosmopolitan" literature. I think perhaps Engdahl just made that up out of thin air.

I also don't get the impression that Engdahl was attempting to provoke meaningful discussion with his comments, whether they provide the foundation for meaningful discussion or not.

Maybe one of the things we're forgetting in all of this is that the Nobel prize for literature represents perhaps one of the most bloated, pie in the sky fantasies for authors to attempt to make real. It's right up there with the dream of writing the "great American novel" in terms of lameness. We should avoid the Nobel with all our might, not because of what Engdahl said recently, but because it drives literature of all countries, regions, traditions, etc. toward a most pernicious normalcy.

3:40 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Okay just a few more comments:

1) Certainly, the US has urban centers which ARE quite cosmopolitan, and which promote a cosmopolitan mentality in their citizenry, but America is a very large country with many large urban centers, and I don't think this cosmopolitanism can possibly ever stretch far enough to satisfy Engdahl's requirements for "cosmopolitanism." Perhaps if we cut out the center of the country and plopped and east and west coasts together, Engdahl would change his tune.

2) But cosmopolitanism is stupid. It gives Seoul, SK KFC locations that are open 24 hours. And McDonald's. And everything that will keep foreigners feeling safe and secure that they will never have to actually engage Korean culture. Why learn Korean if all the college students who feed you Starbucks in the morning speak perfectly good English? This is why almost everybody who moves to Korea to teach English inevitably wants to settle in the Seoul metropolis. Lots of people speak English, there are a lot of Western goods and services to be purchased. In other words, it's so "cosmopolitan" that you'll never have to feel as though you don't belong. That's part of the reason why I resisted moving there in the first place. "Cosmopolitanism" sucks.

3) So I think that when Engdahl promotes "cosmopolitanism" as this Nobel-worthy thing, what he's saying is that Europe wants to recognize itself in American literature. That America is too "insular" for anybody else to find a way in. But I wouldn't hold Swedish literature or French literature up to that standard. I never have, and I never will. I think that people should ENJOY the possibility, when they open a book, that they won't be able to immediately find themselves in it.

4) That said, for anybody from "the West" to claim that they can't find anything familiar (i.e. "cosmopolitan") in American literature is absurd to say the least. I think that Americans care a lot about themselves ... far too much, actually. But we broadcast our cares and desires and needs worldwide on a daily basis. For anybody with a television set or a nearby movie theater or music store to argue that they can't see anything familiar in an American novel, for example, is disingenuous to say the least. I'm not saying that this familiarity wouldn't/shouldn't grate on their nerves, but to pretend that America is this island, especially in the information age, is kind of unbelievable. We are arrogant as a nation, yes, but don't pretend you don't know who we are.

5) About translation: Johannes, if you admit that perhaps Engdahl doesn't know much about the world of small presses in the US because Sweden's history with small presses has been different from ours, perhaps you need to admit that the US doesn't lead the world in translation because our desire to translate has been directly conditioned by the wealth of literature historically available from the get-go in English. Yes, it's a closed concept of what constitutes literature. But the bottom line is that it takes time to change this kind of mindset. Johannes, I think you can take solace in the fact that, the more you translate, the more people seem to want you to translate. You're keeping pretty busy right now, and I think that signals a shift (or at least the beginning of a shift). You seem to want to chalk up America's weakness in this area of literature to some overwhelming stupidity or obstinacy on the part of the nation, but the bottom line is that, just as the Swedish have historical conditions which would prevent them from understanding the overwhelming breadth of the American publishing industry, Americans also have historical conditions which have hampered translation as an important part of the national literary scene. Let's be fair here.

4:50 PM  
Blogger troylloyd said...

translation is a crucial necessity. w/o such a process, the monolingual reader would be in poverty -- most translated books also include the mothertongue writing as well, so an interested reader can research, verify or adjust any single translation.

i favor the multi-translation approach, esp. w/ poetry, where many different people translate the poems, either word-for-word(seemingly) or loosely -- as Burning Deck Press did w/ the Ernst Jandl book they pubb'd : Reft and Light.

the act of translation opens a whole new field of operations & how one navigates those operations & how ultimately, reading translated works may trip one's trigger to pursue an at least minimal understanding of whichever language said work was written in ... hell, i was motivated to try & learn some basic Swedish just 'cause i like old Saabs & the Swedes know all the tricks, i can't imagine trying to translate poetry, i had difficult enough time w/ easy journalist type language ...
t ex:
swedish saab forum, helping me try translation

as a sidenote

i've noticed on the po-blog scene that there's very few Swedes i can find -- any pointers?
the Finns seem to have many many poets online doin' their thing & i've even been able to pick up a slight bit of suomi, which is a difficult language & i never thought i'd attempt to tackle it, but interchange between people leads one to such things, i even wrote a minimal suomi poem:

& i was surprised to never find a translation of " lighght " into swedish, are such things possible?

i tried w/
" ljljus "
...do you think this works Johannes?

6:12 PM  
Blogger Max said...

I don't want to labor this point too much, but I don't think that anything is necessary. Certainly not translation. I think one of the biggest problems with how we frame discussions about literature, and literacy in general, is that we tend to imbue it with this urgency and necessity which simply aren't accurate to reality.

I think literature would be far more rich if we had more of a cultural appreciation of translation, but certainly translation isn't necessary, nor is literature necessary. None of it is necessary. I think it's merely the the case that we would prefer a culture that was more inclusive.

One of the thing that bothers me, quite often, about Johannes's and others' calls to arms about translation is the severity of the comments made. That, if people aren't interested in translation, they are dull and stupid and insular and monolingual or whatevertheheck. I think these people who don't like translation, or seem wholly unconcerned with the issues related to translation, are simply different. That's all. There is this really absurd desire to act as though one's stance on translation, for example, provides a commentary on his/her whole existence, gives us this error-free position from which we can judge with impunity.

I don't see why we have to engage in such militaristic, bullying attackism when we criticize those who don't share our interests. I don't think this will tend to get anybody on our side, especially not Americans. Americans have this nasty tendency to dig in their heels and take reactionary stances just to spite their critics when they feel as though they're being attacked. Given this attitudinal climate, you'd think that if you really cared about promoting and propagating translation issues in the national literature, you'd find a more evenhanded, fair, and less combative way to express your points.

6:53 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I love it when you plead for me to be less combative.


6:01 AM  
Blogger mongibeddu said...

I just categorically reject the idea that insularity works against the creation of a "great" literature, whatever "great" means. In some respects, a literary project is determined by its refusals as much as by its inspirations. Also, insularity always has a crack in it, and the light that streams through that crack can be more nourishing than a total immersion in blinding sun. I think of Niedecker's intense isolation, and the value she found in surrealism. Engdahl's imagination of literature as a "big dialogue" is just wrong; it's the imagination of a granting institution, or of a textbook writer. The Nobel laureates at a big table with flags in front of their seats is a student government vision of literature, and he can have it.

Does it have to be said? Translation is good; we need more of it. But not because it will help us create something called "world literature." My god, it's the melting pot versus multiculturalism argument all over again. '80s flashback!

Ben F.

6:06 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I absolutely agree. I am certainly not in favor of Grand Literature. Major Literature. I'm absolutely not defending this idea.

I do think he aimed to provoke Americans into rethinking their relationship to the rest of the world's literature, and a lot of the response has been heatedly xenophobic. That's what I am interested in.

I do think translation and engagement with foreign languages absolutely changes one's attitude toward language. More about this later.

6:50 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Ben -

I agree with everything you say.

Also, I would point out that it's really only America that ever gets criticized for being insular. Insular art that emerges from other countries is always praised as "authentic."

The only reason why I can imagine America might be held to a double standard is because maybe some people think of America as a large mirror, and maybe if their cultures/interests/ideas are reflected in the large mirror, it will help them be seen by the rest of the world?

Anyway, I hate to be like the rich guy who, whenever criticized, always says that everybody is just jealous of him. But I really think that Engdahl's comments are not coming from a very good place. I think he's pissed that European values and ideas are no longer the prevailing inspiration for American literature, and that moreover, American literature is no longer even operating as a reaction to European influence. His statements may have the unintentional side effect of spurring an important debate, but I don't think that's where he's coming from, or what he's trying to do. And even if he were, his statements are like the equivalent of writer's guidelines for some shitty lit mag, like "We only accept the best quality verse, etc, etc, etc."

7:18 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Your observations are typical. They're jealous of our freedom.

More later.


12:18 PM  

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