The Literary World System | The Nation


The Literary World System

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What are you doing? I mean, right now. You're reading a book review. A review of a book that, as it happens, is almost certain to become quite famous among intellectuals around the world over the next few years. And the reason it will become so famous is, in part, because of reviews like this one. After all, Perry Anderson, writing in the London Review of Books, has proclaimed that La République mondiale des lettres "is likely to have the same sort of liberating impact...as Said's Orientalism, with which it stands comparison"--a prophecy that, because it is by Perry Anderson, and because it is the London Review of Books, is, to an extent, self-fulfilling. So by reading this review--becoming one of the people who've heard of the book, who've begun to form an opinion about it, who might even buy it, read it, discuss it, cite it--you're not only learning about its impending fame, you're becoming part of the process by which that fame is established, a process the book itself calls "legitimation." (Translation, the act that has turned La République mondiale des lettres into The World Republic of Letters, is another step in that process.) And this is perfectly apt, because the mechanisms of legitimation--the global economy of prestige that ushers some authors into the international literary sphere while keeping others shut out--is exactly what Pascale Casanova's brilliant, groundbreaking book is all about.

About the Author

William Deresiewicz
William Deresiewicz is a Nation contributing writer whose Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and...

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To understand why it's groundbreaking, it helps to know how the international literary sphere is usually thought about--or rather, not thought about. Academic departments, literary academies, histories and reference works, honors and prizes: The institutions of literary life almost invariably partition the world of literature into discrete, autonomous national traditions--English over here, American over there; Italian in this classroom, Spanish in that; German Romanticism, French Symbolism, the Russian novel. Even the Nobel Prize, our one global literary honor, makes a point of emphasizing the national provenance of its laureates, so that it is understood that it is often a country as much as an author that is being recognized, and that the consecration of, say, a Saramago, shuts the door on all other Portuguese writers for the foreseeable future. As for the books that enter our national literary space from the outside (especially from outside the English-speaking world), do we ever think about why some reach us and not others? Where do translated writers "come from"? Are they simply the most celebrated authors in their own countries? (In fact, they often aren't.) If we think about these questions at all, we probably assume that the writers we become aware of are just better than the ones we don't. (But "better" according to what criteria, enforced by whom?) In other words, we've bought into the myth of an international literary meritocracy, or, in Casanova's words, "the fable of an enchanted world...where universality reigns through liberty and equality...the notion of literature as something pure, free, and universal."

Casanova's work amounts to a radical remapping of global literary space--which means, first of all, the recognition that there is a global literary space. Her insights build on world systems theory, the idea, developed by Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein, that the capitalist economy that has emerged since about 1500 must be understood as a single global system of interlinked national economies. Some of these economies belong to the ruling "core," others to the dependent "periphery," but none can coherently be studied as a discrete entity. Casanova, a scholar at the Center for Research in Arts and Language in Paris, argues, convincingly, that an analogous literary system, a "world republic of letters," has gradually taken shape since around the same time. In her analysis, a core group of nations--France, England and the founders of other "major" European literatures--having built up large reserves of "literary capital" over the past several centuries, control the means of cultural legitimation for the countries of the global literary periphery--a region that, as in the capitalist world system, has grown ever larger over the past two centuries with, first, the rise of European nationalism and, second, decolonization, as nations without previous literary standing, and writers from those nations, have sought international validation. And the capital of the world republic of letters, the place to which even other countries of the core must look for ultimate consecration and the global reputation it brings, is Paris.

That last idea might damage the English speaker's amour-propre, but our self-esteem should be diminished even more by the evidence Casanova marshals to support her thesis. For it is an ongoing source of shame that so many of the finest exponents even of our own literature were acclaimed in Paris while still virtually unknown in London and New York. Faulkner, without a name in the United States until just three years before winning the 1949 Nobel Prize, was celebrated in France from as early as 1931. Joyce, though already recognized within the avant-garde, was unable to find a publisher for Ulysses until the book was taken up by the great French translator Valery Larbaud. In later years, Tropic of Cancer, Lolita and Naked Lunch would join the list of pathbreaking English-language novels first published in Paris. It was also through France that much of English literature found an international audience. Casanova lists Shakespeare, Scott, Byron and Poe among the authors whose works were long read in French translation, or translations based on the French, throughout Europe and Latin America. This isn't true just of English literature, of course, but of all literature, which is why Paris has been the capital of literary exiles for the past two centuries. And it is also why Paris is the answer to the question of where translated writers "come from." Borges and Kundera are just two of the many authors who became known in the English-speaking world--and the world in general--only after being consecrated by Paris.

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