never let me go kazuo ishiguro

Is Literature Losing a Battle with Commercial Monoculture?

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

“A creeping homogenization is developing in prose fiction, a kind of generic international content and style that transcends national borders,” writes Burton Pike in today’s feature story, “Cultural Homogeneity and the Future of Literary Translation.” The result, he suggests, is a kind of prose that is of everywhere, but from nowhere. It’s commercial, rather than cultural. And the effect it is having on fiction, in particular, is deleterious.

But is this actually happening? And if so, why?

Several examples come to mind. If you listen to Kazuo Ishiguro — that most English of writers — discuss his career, as he did with Rick Kleffel on the publication of Never Let Me Go, he identifies a moment when he realized that his career almost demanded a kind of transition from the cultural hyper-specificity of his early works to a somewhat more generic world. The result was his transition into abstraction and lite SF. The change was partially motivated by the need to ease the burden on his translators.

And look at the past several years of mega-hits? Are they not largely based in and around stories that reflect little of contemporary culture and rely, instead on their their own self-created world? The Hunger Games, Harry PotterFifty Shades?

I suspect part of the reason we love those books so much is because they offer a simulacrum of world we live in — a place where the consolidation of commercial power has leveled the cultural landscape into a medium for frictionless transactions. When the language of commerce (and sex) dominates everything, where is there room for the political or cultural?

I suppose that resides at the level of the individual, which is why we so rarely see novels these days that truly try to summarize a particular historical moment or epoch, ones with the grand sweep and ambition of capturing an entire culture, a complete time and place. We do get lots of memoirs though.

Yes, among the living English-speakers, we still have our Jonathan Franzens, Tom Wolfes. AM Holmes’s, Mark Helpins, [insert your favorite name here], but they are rare creatures. And, certainly, they are not always consistently good. If in fact, their books are flawed — seriously flawed — isn’t that merely a reflection of the human experience? Is’t that the point of literature?

If you flatten the language to such an extent that it becomes a generic reflection of everything, but stands for nothing? What are you left with?

Agree, disagree? Let us know in the comments.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

Edward Nawotka is the Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. A former foreign correspondent, he has covered the book business exclusively since 2000, serving as daily news editor for Publishers Weekly and columnist for Bloomberg News.