Orhan Pamuk & What is World Literature?

I had the extreme privilege of attending a lecture today by Orhan Pamuk, as part of a series of Norton Lectures at Harvard (the rest of which I, sadly, missed).  There is something about being in the presence of such greatness which is truly humbling, and at the same time, inspiring, particularly when aforementioned greatness is speaking about the art of the novel.

More specifically, Pamuk’s talk today was on the “center” of a novel, or the novel’s subject or theme, or better still, its focus.  Delving into his own favorite novelists, Pamuk discussed the various methods authors use to get to that elusive center – how Dostoevsky once demolished a novel when he found a new center for the idea, for example.  He also, quite hilariously, tore into genre novels, referencing Murder on the Orient Express as example of how such novelists (with a few notable exceptions, including Patricia Highsmith, of whom I’m a fan) follow a formulaic model that includes a shared center; in other words, all murder mysteries share a center, that is, the murder itself.

Pamuk also talked about the need for the center, for both novelist and reader.  For the novelist, creating the center is about expressing a viewpoint, creating a space which does not exist on earth.  Of the process, Pamuk said, “the hope of finding a center encourages us to be receptive with our senses.”

For the reader, Pamuk says, the center is about finding our own place in the world.  We look for the center in novels in order to find a place where we can possibly fit in, find refuge.

And of course, he notes, one book can have more than one center, and that, “to discuss the center with another is to discuss our view of life.”

What I truly loved, however, was his closing example, referencing the opening of Anna Karenina: “If her book hadn’t been boring,” Pamuk said, “We wouldn’t have entered the novel through her gaze.”  Or in other words: “Because Anna could not read the novel in her hands, we read Anna Karenina, the novel.”


But it wouldn’t be an event if there weren’t something to criticize.  Have no fear, faithful reader, the bone I plan to pick is not with Pamuk, who was nothing if not gracious and warm.  No, my complaint lies with the nameless Harvard professor who introduced him.  In his introduction, the professor quite clearly referred to world literature (his words, not mine) as an “emerging” field.

Interesting, that.  As a friend pointed out when I complained (on Twitter of course), the statement could potentially have referred to the emergence of interest in so-called world literature, or the increase in translations of world literature, but somehow, I doubt it.

No, instead the statement seemed to me as if the professor was anchoring literature firmly in the west, conflating “standard” literature with “white” or European literature.  The rest of the world’s literature, of course, is confined to one category on the shelves of bookstores, just as “world music” and “foreign films” have been for decades.  When I visit a bookstore, I find the generic literature section, sometimes a section of “women’s literature,” African-American literature, or even Christian literature, and then simply a section of “world literature” (you can surely see that even having the “African-American literature” section and not, say, a “Latin-American literature” or “Asian-American literature” section is troubling, in terms of demographics and U.S. race divisions anyway).  Even the Wikipedia article for this mystery genre is shockingly sparse (and perhaps even a bit wrong).

The point I’m driving at is this: If “world literature” refers to everything but Western European literature and now, American literature, then “Western” literature is therefore made the norm, and everything else the Other.  I find that extremely troubling, and racist to boot.  It ignores the historic greats of literature (Persian or Chinese, for example) and situates the “West” as the center of the earth to which the rest of the world should orient.

Has the field of literature always been this ethnocentric?

10 replies on “Orhan Pamuk & What is World Literature?”

thanks so much for posting this jilian! i am been in a vacuum lately of trying to find how to get my students to read this semester. spending hours on devising new clever methods to make reading exciting to a group of students who have actually told me they’d prefer that i “spoon feed them” and just “tell them what happens” in the novels i’m teaching.

the curriculum i teach outside the u.s. is usually genre based whereas in the u.s. it’s based on nations (usually british and american only…). but teaching genre-based classes means that i can and do teach literature from all over the world. so i’ve spent quite a bit of time combing through various world literature anthologies. when i was in grad school those anthologies were still “western” (in the same vein as western civ classes). now they cover the globe, although of course european literature still dominates. here are some examples (you can see the table of contents):

i wonder if the professor meant that it’s “new” because a lot of what s/he is identifying as “world” literature is literature in translation, and a lot of this has not been in translation until quite recently, particularly from arabic and turkish. “world” literature from former british colonies has pretty much been around for some time in the sense that many writers have written in english and not their native tongue because the remnants of british colonialism (and of course in other places in french and spanish and portuguese) mean that many people can still express themselves better in english than they can in their native tongue.

just some thoughts…

I had earlier written on Twitter that in Germany, I have never encountered books being grouped by origin rather than by genre.
So I was quite surprised when I went to a huge book shop here in Berlin, only to find a section called “world literature” – exactly the term the use of which in German book stores I had just denied. I instantly went there to see what I would find, only to be surprised again: By “world literature”, they mean literature of international standing.
As I had expected, “international standing” equals “European classics”. You find anything from Homer via Shakespeare to Dostoevsky there. While I didn’t examine all the shelves, only one book by a non-Western (Turkish, in this case) author caught my eye. So the problem is there again, only reversed: There’s Western literature, and then there’s the rest. But maybe that’s changing, after all the other sections were much more diverse, the English-language one the most, by the way – with authors from the US beneath writers from Nigeria and China.

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