Most writers sidestep the problem of the audience, the reader, by saying that they write first for themselves, the things they would want to read. Problem solved. However, the matter is compounded by the needs of the publishing industry, which today (or since its inception?) tends to, has to, view the book as a product that it must sell. This involves identifying a target market and producing books that the target market will spend its money on.
Tim Parks, in a recent essay for the Sunday Times, approaches the problem from the angle of international literary prizes, specifically the Nobel Prize for Literature. He discusses the crucial but all too often neglected role of translation in the process of anointing prize winners, then goes on to suggest the writer might facilitate entry into an “emancipated, transnational culture” by writing in a “pure” style, one that is existentialist (which he equates with internationalist). Such a style, in today’s market, seems to be magical realist in mode, in which writers present the culture of their affiliation (never a “foreign” culture) in a fantastic, non-realist or non-contemporary fashion, and in a way that conforms to the accepted stereotypes of that culture on the “international” scene.
Mr. Parks also points out, tellingly, that American writers do not bear this burden, America being an object of fascination for the rest of the world—“no novelty is required”—and the majority of American writers continue to write as they have for the last century or so, in realist mode, exploring the nuances and minutiae of American (often middle-class) life. I would add English writing to this, as well, though to a considerably lesser extent, as English writers have to clear the curatorship of American publishers and critics before worldwide attention can be granted them.
This suggests that the real “international” audience, prizes notwithstanding, is American for the time being. Although a prize such as the Nobel can draw attention to a writer’s oeuvre, it does not guarantee lasting critical or commercial success, as a cursory glance at the list of literary Nobel laureates will demonstrate. Mr. Parks does acknowledge that literary prizes are a kind of lottery, though without noting that readers are savvy to this these days. What matters more is American attention—American editions of translations into English, critical attention in the American mass media and academe, perhaps a Hollywood adaptation. For instance, although Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy was already flying off bookshelves in Europe, it took an American debut for it to become a truly global phenomenon. The first Harry Potter novels languished quietly in British editions before their American publisher picked it up, allowing it to become the franchise juggernaut that it now is.
Therefore, when Mr. Parks speaks of writing in an “international” style as a strategy, he really is saying that the work (he seems to be referring primarily to fiction, specifically the novel) should be written for an American reader. The text is therefore hardly “pure,” and the venue far from “emancipated” or “transnational.” Nathaniel Rich made a more explicit observation in The New York Times, suggesting that novels from outside America should be larded with American pop cultural references to gain entry.
All this happens at the expense of cultural specificity and nuance for the “international writer” (apparently non-American, or non-white American, to be precise) who must couch cultural references in terms of the fantastic (here defined as that which is not acceptably plausible in a rational, enlightened, developed world) or elevate it to the “universal” (here defined as existential/Humanist, or male bourgeois Anglo-Saxon), while allowing a tolerable amount of cultural strangeness to permeate the work.
The alternative, it seems, would be to write in anthropological mode, becoming an informant on one’s culture, for which the memoir, rather than the novel, seems the currently acceptable genre, possibly because the storytelling requirements of the novel do not leave much room for expository discourse. Meenakshi Mukherjee, in the article “Epic and Novel in India,” tells of how Indian novels written in English during the colonial period, now largely forgotten, appear to be addressed to an assumed reader outside Indian culture, and posits that “a concern for this shadowy reader burdened these novels with an excess of ethnographic documentation and explanatory asides.”
The commenter “Cynthia Hernandez” responds to Mr. Parks’s article, saying “Bleak House is one of my favorite novels not because I care about Chancery in England circa 1850, but because it is about the impossibility of justice (not only legal) anywhere at any time.” However, Charles Dickens must have cared about Chancery in England circa 1850, and passionately, or he would not have written about it in such nuanced detail and at such length.
These days, in the process of making a work relevant to an “international” audience (usually abetted by an editor-curator), a writer must slough off any kind of individuality—cultural, personal—to fit into a stereotype for easy classification. Woe to the “international” writers who would write specifically for their cultures of origin, resisting facile translation and labeling by using local idioms, aesthetics, concerns, and other forms of cultural reference. Woe as well to the “international” writers who would write about cultures other than their own, no matter how convincingly. They miss the global express and are left behind.
For readers, this entails considerably more effort—to seek out books, research on foreign cultures, perhaps learn a foreign language—which many contemporary readers are unwilling or unable to exert. For writers, this adds unwanted complexity to the question “Who do you write for?” and tacks on the more sinister “What are you willing to do to garner a broader audience?” For every writer eager and willing to jump on the global express, there must be scores of others who stay put. At least I hope so, because a transnational culture will only arise at the expense of silenced local cultures, and unless one is coming out of the hegemonic culture, stasis might be the better option.