does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Guest Blogger - What Is Good Literature?

One of the unexpected joys of becoming a blogger has been discovering wonderful bloggers from around the world. One of my favorites is A Cuban in London. I so enjoyed his December 6, 2009 post that, with his permission, it is my guest blog post today. Here is what he has to say on the question, What is good literature?

I have never read a novel by Philip Roth. I recently opened the first page of Joyce's 'Ulysses' and closed it again. It can wait. Especially when the introduction runs almost as long as Sylvia Plath's 'The Bell Jar'. I have yet to read Don DeLillo's 'Underworld' despite many people's claim that it contains one of the best baseball scenes ever written, and I am a fan of that sport. In my early twenties I opened and closed in succession, without reading, the following 'masterpieces': 'La Casa de los Espíritus', 'Steppenwolf', 'Death in Venice' and 'Cien Años de Soledad' (since then opened, read and closed but not liked).

In the meantime, though, I have devoured almost all of Milan Kundera's novels, become acquainted with and enamoured of Margaret Atwood's oeuvre, delighted in Salman Rushdie's fiction and become a fan of Zadie Smith's novels and essays.

So, when my Literary Judgement Day arrives what will I declare? What will my excuse be for not liking 'Don Quijote de la Mancha'?

I'm only asking because it seems to me that ever since papyrus was first used during the Early Dynastic Period in Egypt, there has been a need to have a 'must-read' canon to which we, avid bookworms, must kowtow if we want to be accepted in the lap of literature's gods. This attitude, which I shall call 'the dictatorship of the classics' does not take into account human life span, basic needs or cultures. No, the classics' tyrant's only concern is what he/she calls good literature and our incessant pursuit of it.

And what is good literature? By no means I am attempting to replicate Zadie Smith's magnificent fifteen-part essay which I have been uploading on this blog weekly since September and whose latest instalment focused on the 'corrective critic'. But the question of what good literature is has been roaming my mind since many years ago an acquaintance of mine said to me with a frown on his face and a scold in his voice: 'I can't believe you have not read (insert famous novel title here) yet! But you like reading so much, I always see you with a book. You are so eloquent and passionate about literature. I would have thought you already had (novel title again) under your belt.'

Well, for starters I don't wear a belt most of the time. But what most intrigued me and, I confess, annoyed me from my acquaintance's tirade was the surprise on his face that I had not read this 'classic'.

I don't know about your reading habits, my fellow bloggers and readers, but mine are as follows. I have always had a list of books I wish to read out of pure enjoyment, regardless of their literary merits or lack of them thereof. But sometimes, even if I like the author and I am familiar with his/her work, I hesitate before delving into the narrative they offer me. This uncertainty is mainly based on circumstances rather than volition. The will is there, but the spark is missing. The opening sentence is not enough bait for me to swallow the hook. There are exceptions, though. I started twice and put down the same number of times two Toni Morrison's novels: 'Beloved' and 'Jazz'. The third time around I stuck with them - on separate occasions, mind - and I was rewarded with two magnificent literary behemoths, which I am planning to re-read very soon. But my habits, on the whole, remain the same. I am attracted to a book, be it a novel, essay or poetry collection, for its (potential) literary merit rather than its cultural impact. That the two of them coincide oftentimes these days is more down to the fact that I have fine-tuned my search for good books in the last fifteen years and become choosier.

And economics plays an essential role in that decision. I referred to three elements that 'classics tyrants' overlook when it comes to evaluating a work of art: the length of human life, basic needs and culture. Let's examine each of those aspects separately.

From an early age you will be exposed to a lot of reading material. And bar the small fact that your parents or carers will choose the books they'll read to you when you're little, you will be free most of your teenage, young adult and mature life to pick out which novel or poetry collection you want to read. Assuming that you're not a book reviewer - minority -, your main incentive for reading will be to enjoy the work in front of you. And that's without taking into account the literature you will have to read through your student's years or as part of your job. That means that a novel like 'War and Peace' might not be as appealing as, say, a collection of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe. The seven volumes that make up 'À la Recherche du Temps Perdu' will look like a waste of time and money when you realise that it will not take you as long to read Nadime Gordimer's entire catalogue and still have time to enjoy 'Telling Tales', an excellent compilation of short works by some of the foremost authors nowadays edited by the South African writer; I strongly recommend it. But the classics' dictator will have none of it. To him/her (although it's more 'him' than 'her' if truth be told, so I will start using the masculine from now on), to this person, Proust is the apogee of good literary taste. His is the most beautiful type of literature there is and the fact that not many people can 'get' him is evidence of the critic's own infallible ability to judge what's good and what isn't. Some people call this attitude snobbery. I have a stronger word for it which I won't use because I don't like gratuitous swearing on my blog. My conclusion is, though, life's too short, read what you want without feeling you 'must' digest this or that novel because it's a classic.

Basic needs are better expressed through the current economic downturn, a fine euphemism for a financial crisis if ever I saw one. With unemployment and inflation rising, the time and resources for meandering through aisles of old tomes that call out for our attention are diminishing. The dilemma worrying many people at the moment is how to survive in the midst of this credit crunch and that's why the market is awash with escapist novels and what I call crap lit. This is the type of book that Borders (alas, in receivership now) and Waterstones advertise in their 3 for 2 deals. It's probably why the Katie Prices of this world have supplanted the J. M. Coetzees. And although I also stick my snobbish nose up at the former, this phenomenon has a logical genesis. You think of putting food on the table first and then indulge in your favourite pastime afterwards. But to the classics' inquisitor this shift of loyalties is akin to the original sin, without the snake, mind. My verdict on this aspect is that as much as I love books, I need to look after my family first and foremost, and you can burn me at the stake if you want, Mr Despot.

And so we come to the cultural element which I have left for the end because it's always been a bugbear of mine. So, if you notice an axe being swung it's because I have one to grind.

It's logical that in an English-speaking country most literature will be read in that language. The same goes for Spanish or Chinese. It's not surprising that when people are asked to list their favourite novels or poems, the majority will be works in their own lexicon. It is also reasonable to suppose that we tend to think of many of the books we hold dear as the centre of the universe, what my acquaintance referred to as the 'I-can't-believe-you-haven't-read-that' type of literature. After all, some of us are miniature dictators ourselves.

But when the classics' autocrat gets up on his High Chair to list the 100 Best Novels of all time, or nominate the greatest poem of the 20th century, my ears always prick up and my eyes open wide. I'm usually interested in who makes the cut and who is left out. That's also the moment when my cynicism sets deeper in. Because no matter how broad the scope is, the majority of the works enumerated will be usually European and more specifically in English. And that cuts across the board. Whether you're talking about visual arts, theatre or cinema, the bulk of any 'Best...' list will have at the very least an Anglophone undertone. This is not to detract from the very good art that has been produced in North America and Europe, especially Britain, for many centuries. But it is rather disheartening for anyone who, like me, has been exposed to equally brilliant art from an early age in his/her country of origin, regardless of economic outlook.

My first reaction to Stephen Moss's article on TS Elliot (link above) was to write to The Guardian to let him know the names of five poets from Iberoamerica from whose body of work I could select any poem that could very easily compete with TS Eliot's 'The Waste Land' to win the title of 'greatest poem of the 20th century'. They were: Rafael Alberti, César Vallejo, Gabriela Mistral, Julia de Burgos and Mario Benedetti. If you know your Hispanic poetry you will be aware that I did not include any Cuban poets in that list; I did not want to be accused of jingoism. But on second thoughts I decided against writing the letter because it would have been futile. The classics' dictator has two major shortcomings: monoculture and monolanguage. The landscape in which this literary Stalin lives is monochromatic. He doesn't read Alfonsina Storni's 'Voy a Dormir', not because he doesn't like her but because he doesn't know who she was. This authoritarian ignoramus lives in a secluded intellectual island beyond whose shores he will rarely venture. The thought of learning another language in order to delve into a different culture terrifies him. But this deficiency will not stop him from deciding which writers have the qualities that define good literature.

When non-English speaking writers do make it to the aforementioned lists, it is because they are read in translation, with the usual suspects - at least from my neck of the woods - being showered with all kind of compliments: Gabo, Isabel and Borges. This hurts because the plethora of good writers in the Spanish-speaking world who gets left out is mindblowing. Julio Cortázar's 'Rayuela' is a Latin American classic, paving, as it did, the way for other similarly innovative writers such as the Cuban author Guillermo Cabrera Infante whose 'Tres Tristes Tigres' I devoured earlier this year and it's shaping up to be my Book of the Year. Gabo (Gabriel García Márquez) drew heavily from another compatriot of mine, late writer Alejo Carpentier, to become the doyen of the so-called 'magical realism' genre, however it was the islander who first coined the phrase 'lo real maravilloso (the wonderful reality)' in the prologue of his trail-blazing novel 'El Reino de Este Mundo'.

And it wouldn't matter really, whether these non-English speaking writers were acknowledged or not by an Anglo-Saxon public, because they have already earned their kudos in Iberoamerica. But since it is the Germanic lexicon in which the worldwide literary market chiefly operates, non-recognition equals to small or zero sales, so it does matter in the end. As the Indian author Pankaj Mishra pointed out recently in The Guardian Saturday Review, if you want to be published abroad you have to conform to the stereotypical views many readers have of a particular writer's nation. For Cuban authors, it is 'steamy sex or salsa' or nada at the till. This situation results in a Catch-22 for the writer who has to resort to formulas in order to sustain a living through writing. Which in effect is convenient cannon fodder for the classics' tyrant in order to back up his claim of what he believes to be good literature.

I apologise if I have stepped on some toes today. After all most of the people who visit and comment on this blog are English-speakers. So for the record, this is not a diatribe against the Anglo world or European culture at all - good Lord, probably Nigerian or Jamaican writers are in a similar situation - but against that prejudiced classics' dictator who would like nothing better than lock us up, rebel readers who dare to read for pleasure, in a type of Konzentrationslager, where our hours would be devoted to analysing the symbolism of TS Elliot's second chapter in 'The Waste Land': 'A Game of Chess'. Me? I'm off to read some Girondo.


A Cuban In London said...

Many, many thanks for this honour. Coincidentally your post about 'Lamento Boricano' is also featured on my blog today.

Greetings from London.

melissashook said...

I have found your blog through The Cuban....
thank you...

Ann Victor said...

Judith, I'm signing out of blog-o-sphere until after Christmas, so here's wishing you uKhisimusi muhle, Geseende Kersfees and a very Merry Christmas! :)

Sun Singer said...

When it comes to reading, I always feel like I'm running against the wind. So I pick what I want, though I'm not unaware of the canon because I had to read a lot of it in high school and college.

I can't go back and see if my life would have better or worse had I not been exposed to the canon. At some point, I think we must recognize that the canon is part of history, part of an evolution of today's literature in every language a culture. To some extent, it seems remiss not to be familiar with the history/literature of one's own culture.

On the other hand, this approach takes up all of one's time in school, and possibly that makes it more likely that when s/he gets older, there will have been little or no exposure to other books in other languages and cultures.

It's a puzzlement to me just how I should keep up. Time and expense alone are a major part of the decision making process--quite simply, I can't read even one book per year from every cultural background, much less really know, say, the best of Indian lit and the best of Cuban lit and the best of French lit. ("Best" being a very subjective and loaded concept here.)

So I plod along. I read 2666 (unfortunately, not in Spanish) and I read Sunetra Gupta and I read Pat Conroy and Julianna Baggott and Dan Brown. My shelves look like a garage sale of the good, the bad, and the ugly. That's probably because I was a rebel in lit classes and wanted to read what the spirit moved me to read. I still feel that way.


Maggie May said...

How very happy I am to have found and now follow your blog. Wonderful, wonderful.


Maggie May

Judith Mercado said...

Thank you all for stopping by and leaving your comments.

Cuban: It was a pleasure to feature your blog and equally an honor to have been discussed in your Sunday post. Thanks again.

Melissa: I’m really glad Cuban brought us together.

Ann: We’ll “see” each other in the new year.

Sun Singer: When one considers how many books are published currently, add the ones already published over millennia, and then add a dash of economics and time constraints, this provides a recipe for either guilt or permission to just say, Hey, I’m going to read what I want to read when I can read it. I usually tend toward the latter but must admit to a lingering sense that I “should” be reading x,y or z. Running against the wind is a good way of putting it.

Maggie May: So glad you have found me!

Cynthia said...

Hi, I agree, there are so many
"must reads" that people will hold
up to the light, when frankly at
this point I agree with Zadie,
about deep feeling and this must
be present for a novel to pull
you in and touch you. Certainly
will not. I also read the first
chapter and will put the book down
if not engaged.

Only several novels have changed
my thinking and or heart.
Beloved is one of those novels.
As is Swan Song and the poetry
of Theodore Rothke. However,
I have truly enjoyed many, many
more books.

Cool blog, very interesting.