The Literary World System | The Nation


The Literary World System

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Casanova is also surprisingly enamored of the great-man model of historical causation. Without du Bellay and Herder, apparently, literary history would have been completely different. Indeed, her whole account of the initial emergence of the international literary sphere, from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, is sketchy and dubious. Her Francocentrism requires her to minimize Dante's De vulgari eloquentia, a defense of the vernacular that preceded du Bellay by two and a half centuries, as well as to obscure the monumental achievements of sixteenth-century Italian literature--Ariosto, Tasso, Machiavelli, Castiglione--that ultimately flowed from it. And far from English literary identity's emerging in competition with France during the eighteenth century (if anything, cultural admiration traveled the other way at the time), we already find the language being defended as equal to Latin, Spanish, French and Italian around the time of du Bellay--a truer picture of the international literary space that had already begun to emerge during the Renaissance. Indeed, for all her remarkable knowledge of global literary developments, Casanova is surprisingly, even laughably, ignorant of the English literary scene, asserting at one point that Shakespeare had not yet become canonical by the turn of the twentieth century (about two centuries too late) because he was considered "subversive." Given that Britain has been France's great rival for literary pre-eminence over the past 400 years, this ignorance is rather too perfectly ironic.

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

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Still, the main thrust of Casanova's argument, which covers roughly the last century and a half, is unimpeachable. She has created a map of global literary power relations where none had existed, and she has raised a host of further questions. What exactly are the mechanisms and institutions of legitimation? Just how important, for example, are book reviewers like me and readers like you? How applicable is her model to power relations within individual countries? What kinds of self-betrayals, for example, does New York exact, and what kinds of resistance does it provoke, from writers from the American hinterland? How relevant is her model to the other arts? (Undoubtedly, very much so.) Most important, how relevant is it to the world of today? Casanova herself acknowledges, in a brief chapter that feels like a late insertion, that the system of literary internationalism governed from Paris may have already given way to one of commercial globalization controlled by mostly American publishing conglomerates. With the development of mass-produced, globally marketed literary product that mimics, as Casanova puts it, the style of Modernism--she mentions "world fiction" like the novels of Umberto Eco and David Lodge, to which one might add the many books that piggyback on established literary "brands" (The Dante Club, The Jane Austen Book Club, Anna in the Tropics, etc.)--true literature, like everything else of any value, may be on its way to being replaced by a clever simulacrum of itself.

But the most important question her book raises, for me at least, is simply this: Why are we so lame? Why is American culture, and the American intelligentsia in particular, so closed off from what's happening in the rest of the world? Why do we still need Paris to tell us what's going on (if we still even listen to it)? If anything, the situation is more dire than it used to be, when instability or repression in Europe supplied us with a steady stream of émigrés who acted as a bridge back to their former world. Susan Sontag used to play a similar role, but she no longer does, and no one's taken her place. The more we impose our image on the world, it seems, the more foreign the world becomes.

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