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Is Literature Losing a Battle with Commercial Monoculture?

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.

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7 Comments

  1. Posted January 22, 2013 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Two words. Alice Munro. Okay, several more: the perfection of her writing and the cultural specificity of her stories has given her a whole world of literary fiction readers, far beyond the Canada of her citizenship and 90% of her story settings.
    I’d also like to add Peter Carey (Australia), Bodil Bredsdorff (Denmark), and Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan) as well but then I am blurring the line between literary excellence and the global audience the latter two, in particular, deserve.
    The mystery/suspense genre has been on to the thesis of your provocative essay for decades of course, ditto fantasy/scifi, providing exciting ‘foreign’ locales and characters who are read in skid-loads elsewhere. It’s always been harder for literary fiction to gain international audiences except for acknowledged masters of even such rarefied and “hard to sell” forms as the short story. Unless one’s name is Alice Munro. Thanks are due to the relatively few magazines who still publish short stories and which have large audiences: The New Yorker, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, Paris Review.

  2. Posted January 22, 2013 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    This article doesn’t seem to know what it wants to say. How can a book simultaneously ‘reflect little of contemporary culture’ and ‘offer a simulacrum of world we live in’? It has always been the case that books like The Hunger Games offer a critique of contemporary society by reflecting aspects of that society in a different setting. Satire and dystopic fictions. That’s the point. It’s not fair to lump HG along with 50Shades anyway, as the latter is straight genre fiction, and poorly executed at that. PLus, HG reflects too much in the way of contemporary minutiae in its constant reference to quality branding.

    As for there being few novels which ‘truly try to summarize a particular historical moment or epoch, ones with the grand sweep and ambition of capturing an entire culture’ – there are plenty! There are a good many mid-list writers doing this. But the point of literature is not to document the trivia of a particular age, but to highlight the enduring aspects of the human condition that speak to us across the ages and remain the same, that endorse our experience and present problems that intrigue us, whoever and wherever we are. We don’t read Tolstoy for the farming details, but for how Anna is drawn into and deals with her tragic situation.

  3. Edward Nawotka
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    @StroppyAuthor — Yes, perhaps you’re right, perhaps I could have been more articulate, but this is a rather large issue and one that is difficult to summarize in a single post. And of course, it is a “discussion question” rather than an essay, as such. I know full well there are plenty of authors out there who manage to be both universal and particular at the same time, specific to their moment and timeless. I suppose that the larger question is no how books reflect the culture, but whether then culture — particularly as it is flattened by commercialization — is worth reflecting in books?

  4. Posted January 22, 2013 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    That’s a completely different question! But literature deals with culture that is ‘not worth reflecting’ by criticising it – Bonfire of the Vanities, for example. Or the whole of Dickens.

  5. Benny
    Posted January 27, 2013 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    I think you’re asking the wrong questions here. It isn’t “why is everyone writing the monocultural literature?” it’s “why is monocultural literature what everyone is buying?”

    If you actually try (and look past the Oprah bookclub lists, New York Times Bestsellers, etc.) you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for. I don’t care who you are or what your tastes are, there’s literature to fit your EXACT need(s).

    The problem is as society becomes increasingly homogenized (it’s a small world after all…), the literature that gets promoted becomes more increasingly homogenized. It reminds me of an episode of Third Rock from the Sun where the alien family attempts to become epitome of the “typical American family.” In the defining scene, they are all dressed in Gap clothing, living in a condo and reading:

    “I’m reading a Grisham thriller. It’s about a plucky young lawyer in the south who is facing dangerous obstacles to uncovering the truth”
    “Wait! I’m reading a Grisham thriller about a plucky young lawyer in the south who is facing dangerous obstacles to uncovering the truth”… (and then they all switch their respective ‘Grisham thrillers’, and continue reading, seamlessly).

    Or, if you’d like a broader analogy, look at pop music and look up “four chords”. Most pop music is based around the same four chords because time, science, and the Billboard charts have shown that these sounds are pleasing to the ear.

    Authors and publishers are finding the same magic equations in literature as well.

    If you stray too far from the status quo and the “tried and true”, you risk alienating too many audience members.

    My tip? Get the hell away from the topseller lists or anything with a celebrity/magazine/NPR endorsement.

    Head over to Librarything or Goodreads and do searches for things that interest YOU. You’ll quickly find things that break away from the typical mold.

    For once, the Hipsters may have gotten something right…

  6. Posted January 30, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    I think there are actually several bits being talked about here. Let’s break them down.

    First, cultural homogenization is the natural extension from the Internet. It is inevitable that people who are connected on a regular basis will begin “cross pollinating” their cultures. Short of shutting off the internet, this is going to happen. Cultures will merge. We’re headed toward a global cultural identity, given enough time. People who get together pass along bits of their culture to each other – and the internet facilitates and encourages that cultural merging.

    So yes, we’re going to eventually end up with one literary culture as the core (and a lot of little subcultures orbiting at various distances around that core). Literature is not losing a battle with monoculture; literature is a PART of culture, and so our literature reflects the growth of monoculture.

    OK, the other element being discussed is “literature vs commerce”. It’s not a battle. Shakespeare was commercial fiction, recall; as was Dickens. Both were roundly criticized in their time for appealing to the masses. Do not try to predict which books of our decade will be remembered in a hundred years: you will almost certainly fail. ;)

    The article says that Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Fifty Shades “reflect little of contemporary culture and rely, instead on their their own self-created world”. I have to wonder if the speaker actually *read* any of those books. Harry Potter is a classic coming of age tale; and it’s an appeal to everyone who was bullied as a child and wanted to grow up strong enough to overcome bullies. Yes, it uses fantasy elements instead of “real world” ones as the building blocks of the story, but it absolutely does reflect contemporary culture VERY well – which is why it sold so well.

    Hunger Games? Anyone who missed the parallel between the “evil Capitol vs outlying areas” and the feelings most Americans have toward their political class completely missed the boat. Corrupt, powerful, abusive, and cruel, the folks in the Capitol were a perfect mirror for the general state of the USA. Reflect contemporary culture? The fact that those books were so popular ought to be a *serious* warning to modern politicians about the level of antipathy present toward them in contemporary culture. People liked the book because they easily identified with the characters.

    Haven’t read Fifty Shades. Can’t comment on it. But honestly, I don’t think many books achieve that level of commercial success unless they DO reflect contemporary culture very, very well. What that says about our culture in this case, I’ll leave for someone else to discuss (as I said, I have not read those books).

    Contemporary culture is not something forged in academia’s ivory towers and then stored in a museum. Contemporary culture comes from farms, from factories, from taxi drivers, from waiters. Contemporary culture is about everyone, and is formed by everyone.

    Books which sell very, very well are be definition a reflection of contemporary culture. We can discuss whether or not we like what that says about our culture – but popular fiction is not at war with culture. It defines it.

  7. Benny
    Posted February 2, 2013 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

    @Kevin O. McLaughlin

    Having heard far too much about 50 Shades from my mother, I think I’ll give this one a stab:

    The female’s subjugation by an over-controlling, powerful, and wealthy man very clearly parallels the main issues fought by feminism. On the other hand, the man takes care of the woman’s every monetary need (who doesn’t want that?) which placates many women’s fears in an increasingly unpredictable economy.

    In the end, as is my understanding, she “breaks free” of his control, he learns to be a good lover and so she’s cured him of his psychosis and she gets the best of both worlds: a good guy and financial security. Given that many women are currently fighting to secure their role in an increasingly gender-equal society, yet are still pulled backwards by the socio-political beliefs that it’s the guy’s job to provide for his wife and family, I’d say this trilogy meets both those subconscious (or overtly conscious – depending on your willingness to be honest with yourself) drives.

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