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?