On Some Recent Worrying over World Literature’s Commodity Status

//On Some Recent Worrying over World Literature’s Commodity Status

This article by Sarah Brouillette was originally published on the Maple Tree Literary Supplement. Many thanks to our critical friend Amatoritsero Ede, the publisher and managing editor of MTLS, for giving us permission to repost the article.

Sarah Brouillette is a professor in the Department of English at Carleton University, where she teaches contemporary British, Irish, and postcolonial literatures, and topics in print culture and media studies. She’s the author of Postcolonial Writers in the Global Literary Marketplace (Palgrave, 2007) and Literature and the Creative Economy (Stanford University Press, 2011).

Sarah Brouillette

Scholars have been discussing world literature’s status as an elite commodity for a number of years now, beginning perhaps with Timothy Brennan’s important critiques, first expressed in the late 1980s, of celebrated “Third World” writers (see Brennan, “Cosmopolitans and Celebrities,” Salman Rushdie). Since then a number of studies of postcolonial literature – a category of text that tends to be subsumed into the world literature canon – have argued for the importance of understanding that literature in relation to the markets for it (see Huggan; Watts; Brouillette, Postcolonial Writers). It recently became especially hard to avoid this concern, however, after Verso published Emily Apter’s Against World Literature and an editorial appeared in the widely read cultural magazine n+1 under the title “World Lite.” The basic narrative that these latter works construct is one in which the label world literature, for decades applied to a canon of classics curated by acquisitive publishers located in the West, signals now little more than a predictable set of moderately “different” works. These works are said to be written in such a way that they are ideal for transport from peripheral to core locations, or, when a less one-way flow is evident, they are said to be produced and consumed by the taste-making elite who inhabit the world’s networked cultural capitals.

David Damrosch’s well known approach to world literature might seem to offer a contrast, since he suggests that world literature is not a homogeneous object unified by particular thematic concerns or aesthetic parameters. For Damrosch, rather, any work that has travelled across a border to meet its readers in localized moments of consumption can be deemed a work of world literature (see Damrosch). Yet his approach is finally compatible with the narrative I outline, which positions world literature as an elite, homogenizing, complacent commodity. Even if it is only a heterogeneous aggregate of mobile works consumed in disparate locations, world literature can still be read as, also, a cultural accompaniment to an encompassing process of global market expansion. Indeed Damrosch’s own project of insisting that every literary work is unique, and that every act of consumption of a literary work is irreducible to any other, is highly compatible with contemporary capitalism’s fetish for particularity and diversity. As many scholars have argued, flexible production catered to particular consumers, and inducements for people to imagine themselves as irreducibly individual, are integral to our times.

Let us look more closely now at Against World Literature, in which Emily Apter writes of her “serious reservations about tendencies in World Literature toward reflexive endorsement of cultural equivalence and substitutability, or toward the celebration of nationally and ethnically branded ‘differences’ that have been niche marketed as commercialized ‘identities’.” She quotes with approval Simon During’s argument that world literature is a “genteel leisure industry,” part of “the recent rapid extension of cross-border flows of tourists and cultural goods around the world,” and states that she is “uneasy in the face of the entrepreneurial, bulimic drive to anthologize and curricularize the world’s cultural resources” (2-3). She even links world literature to a politically dangerous “oneworldedness,” signifying “a relatively intractable literary monoculture that travels through the world absorbing difference” (83). This monoculture is defined by “the centrifugal pressure of dominant world languages and literatures” and connected to everything from the surveillance state to state-based monomania and catastrophism (71).

In a comparable way, the editors at n+1 say of successful writers: “Their publishers are multinational corporations; the universities they teach at, or where their work may be taught, train a global elite; and much of their audience, actual or hoped-for, reads English, though huge markets for books also exist in Mandarin, Spanish, and French.” Furthermore, they write:

In the English language, World Literature has its signature writers: Rushdie and Coetzee at the lead, and Kiran Desai, Mohsin Hamid, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie among the younger charges. It has its own economy, consisting of international publishing networks, scouts, and book fairs. It has its prizes: the Nobel, of course, but more powerful and snazzier is the Man Booker, and the Man Booker International. Its political arm is PEN. And it has a social calendar full of literary festivals, which bring global elites into contact with the glittering stars of World Lit.

Increasingly written by authors employed by universities, world literature “has become an empty vessel for the occasional self-ratification of the global elite.” It is “like a Davos summit,” they maintain, “where experts, national delegates, and celebrities discuss, calmly and collegially, between sips of bottled water, the terrific problems of a humanity whose predicament they appear to have escaped.”

Both Apter’s book and “World Lite” are deliberately provocative. Yet while some objections to these works did emerge (see Rajaram and Griffith; Levine), their basic arguments were not substantially refuted, perhaps because they appeal to what is already a consensus position. The general story—a story about world literature as a product saturated by commercial and institutional pressures—has proven quite popular, such that today it seems that world literature is widely understood, as I have been describing, as a niche commercial category serving relatively elite consumers’ desires to be exposed to exotic or simply unusual experiences or even just to have their own biases confirmed. These privileged consumers either read world literature in such a way that its contrapuntal or oppositional tendencies are effectively muted, or the work is from the get go written in a style that is meant to allow for the accumulation of acclaim and prestige and little else.

Furthermore, the existence of a niche market for works of world literature is thought to have, as a result, real implications for literary form. The writing is “born-translated,” in Rebecca Walkowitz’s terms, in that works of contemporary world literature “anticipate their own future in several literary geographies” (174). It wants to be read across borders, it wants to be included in lucrative international translation rights deals, it wants to be understood by people all around the world—people with the requisite cultural capital, that is—and it wants to be adapted for film. Complexities of style and language are deemphasized; the writing is flat; plot dominates. While not all scholars are particularly dismayed by this state of affairs—Walkowitz, for instance, is interested in simply charting formal innovations, and is indeed even wary of the notion that this writing is somehow degraded—much of the recent commentary does have an oppositional tone.

For Apter and for the n+1 editors, certainly, world literature signifies easily consumed works from which progressive scholars should be distancing themselves. As Gloria Fisk argues in her review of Apter’s book, it becomes a crucial construct against which they define and defend another kind of literary writing that deliberately resists being easily accommodated by the market, along with a style of critique that values instead what cannot be easily translated and traded. Fisk suggests that both Apter and the n+1 piece construct as much as they identify their object: they present world literature as “politically naive, theoretically unenlightened, and crucially caught up in the business of making money” because they want to celebrate themselves and their audiences in flattering contrast. For Apter the work to be celebrated is that which is finally untranslatable. For the n+1 editors what is worthy of promotion is an internationalist literature which would, unlike world literature, embrace the idea that it has an oppositional project and avowed truth to put forward: “Global Lit tends to accept as given the tastes of an international middlebrow audience,” they write, whereas “internationalism, by contrast, seeks to create the taste by which it is to be enjoyed. The difference, crudely, is between a product and a project.

This broad argument, resting on the notion that there is a self-evident difference between a product and a project, is for me a crucial signal that the narrative of world literature’s market readiness entails a limited form of materialism. It seems to suggest that the market for world literature could be improved by the incorporation of works written in a different style, thus raising the crucial question: if the market could be reoriented in such a way that this preferred internationalism, or untranslatability, became the dominant taste, would the problem of world literature no longer exist? Moreover, what would be involved in changing the market to make it able to accommodate the kinds of writing that these critics prefer? Isn’t it the case that, far from resulting from the insistent interventions of a few vocal intellectuals, some fundamental reorientation of the class dynamics of writing, publishing, and reading would be necessary in order to make different sorts of aesthetic objects circulate successfully? In other words, isn’t it a matter of the material constitution of the industry itself?

Motivated by these questions, the remainder of this essay attempts to broaden the terms of the materialist critique of world literature beyond the story of commodification outlined above. Part of what I suggest is that the very story of world literature’s market incorporation is actually itself symptomatic of a broader set of tendencies that have become characteristic of cultural and intellectual work today. While I cannot fully elaborate my argument here, I discuss briefly how laments about the commercialization of culture have become an important motor within the cultural and academic industries. Certainly the dominant literary cultures produced in the advanced economies have become definitively self-questioning and self-critical. Writers and critics are expected to bemoan the fact that literary work is compromised by the commercial necessity of appealing to a broad readership, and so, in effect, these laments are generative concerns for the industry’s commerce.

Consider for a moment that one of the likely authors of “World Lite” is n+1 editor Benjamin Kunkel, a successful novelist and critic who published in the same year, to much fanfare, Utopia or Bust: a Guide to the Present Crisis, described by Verso as a “tour through the world of Marxist thought”; his likely co-author is Chris Harbach, also a successful novelist and critic, whose widely read article, “MFA vs. NYC,” which gave rise in 2014 to a successful collection of essays, laments that the NYC novelist’s imagination “is shaped by the need to make a broad appeal, to communicate quickly, and to be socially relevant in ways that can be recreated in a review.” These men are not marginal to the industry. They and their anti-market—even anti-capitalist—views are central to a key niche within it. Articulations of the idea that the product is too easy, too palatable, too lacking in the necessary complexity and restive force, are a key part of what the product is today.

A fuller materialist account of world literature is necessary in order to understand why market dynamics matter. If we are concerned about the dominance of literary products over literary projects, we cannot begin to understand and contest this dominance without outlining and critiquing the political economy of literary production. This is a topic that the critics I have been discussing leave entirely untouched. Primary to this economy is the deceptively simple fact that reading and writing literature are elite activities. The majority of the world’s inhabitants do not imagine that it will be possible in life to become authors or readers of literature. Nor would it be possible for them to imagine themselves as authors or readers – or, what is far more likely, as film directors or pop stars – so long as they have other more pressing priorities fundamentally determined by their position within the global economy.

To be clear, I am not lamenting the fact that they are not reading and writing literature; that would be pure elitism. What I am lamenting is the persistence of the exploitative capitalist social relations revealed by the fact that participation in the literary economy is a mark of privilege. To repurpose a point that John Guillory made about the canon debates of the 1980s, it hardly matters how representative our marketable literature is, and how attentive to the cultural particularities and nuances of identity we like to see forcefully on display in our art, if access to classrooms and other sites of literary reading is so limited, and literature itself is mainly a privileged articulation of a classed sociolect. That is, for any concerns about the commercial delimitation of literary writing to be actually pressing, we would have to assume first what Guillory calls “a universalized literacy not exhibited by any social formation, including the present one” (485). Given that not everyone reads and writes, and that only a relatively elite group of readers would ever access the better kind of writing that Apter and the n+1 editors would promote, preferences for one sort of writing over another come to seem precisely aesthetic, and the limitations of the common anti-market positioning become apparent. This position fails to acknowledge that the production of literature is itself fundamentally determined by capitalist social relations. This determination means, moreover, that literature’s production is fundamentally unavailable for any sort of redemptive reform while those relations persist.

It follows of course that it is capitalism itself, and the realities of combined and uneven development, that make it the case that only a select group of people read and write what will sell as literature. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels famously wrote that an imperative to expand markets “chases the bourgeoisie over the surface of the whole globe,” and so they “nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere” (84). They argue that the rise of a genuine Weltliteratur—an international literature moving easily across hazy borders—would parallel the expansion of the world market and the intrepid travels of its bourgeois beneficiaries. More recently, Franco Moretti and Pascale Casanova have formulated the most influential expansions of this kind of claim, arriving at theories of world literature that are attentive to the imbalances and inequities that determine the distribution of cultural and economic resources, and cognizant of the ways in which economic unevenness impinges upon the literary field.

Moretti’s “Conjectures on World Literature” is the first of his interventions discussing world literature as “literature of the capitalist world-system,” and so necessarily, like that system, “one, yet unequal.” Moretti elaborates:

the world-system school of economic history, for which international capitalism is a system that is simultaneously one, and unequal: with a core, and a periphery (and a semiperiphery) that are bound together in a relationship of growing inequality. One, and unequal: one literature (Weltliteratur, singular, as in Goethe and Marx), or perhaps, better, one world literary system (of inter-related literatures); but a system which is different from what Goethe and Marx had hoped for, because it’s profoundly unequal. (56-7)

For her part, in La République mondiale des lettres, first published by Les Éditions du Seuil in 1999, Casanova insists that the world’s national literatures have been defined by the hierarchized and iniquitous cultural field in which they circulate. She argues that there is a fundamental connection between liberal capitalism and the literature we tend most to esteem, since the literature that is celebrated by the industry is the work that believes in and strives for a version of aesthetic autonomy compatible with bourgeois liberalism: committed to formal perfection and to the freedom of the writer to do as she pleases. Sharae Deckard suggests that work by Moretti and Casanova, along with the materialist studies in world literature by scholars affiliated with the Warwick Research Collective, might be designated “world-literary criticism,” and she applauds it for recognizing how “literature mediates the structural divisions of the world-system.” In her own work Deckard articulates this world-literary criticism to world-ecological criticism, “drawing together a theory of combined and uneven development, with an understanding of the differentiation of the world-system into cores and peripheries, and a conceptualization of capitalism as a world-ecology constituted by ecological regimes” (1-2).

I suggest we might also articulate such a world-literary criticism to a barely existing political economy of literary production, which would consider how labour, property and ownership work within the literary system, and how they impinge upon the writing that exists. It would discuss how people come to make a living working within the literary book industries and how people come to be able to enjoy what those industries produce. It would, for instance, chart how people begin to find it possible to perceive themselves as capable of becoming authors, how their work is made visible to the right people in the industry, how manuscripts are acquired and transformed into final products, how contracts (including foreign rights and translation stipulations) are negotiated, and how a work is put in a position to be noticed by the educators who assign it to students and to the prizing bodies that bring works into the limelight.

These are matters that publishing and print culture studies have been charting in a very limited and particular way. Since the early 1980s, when book history was inaugurated mainly as a Eurocentric and neutral discipline of empirical research, the studies that do exist have tended not to have an avowed position on the fact that the majority of the world’s people are excluded from the practices in question, nor have they connected that exclusion to capitalism. In fact a broad survey of book historical research would give one the impression that the story of the last two hundred years is the story of the gradual and welcome democratization of access to literary experiences and opportunities. There are exceptions to this rule, including a number of studies arising from or paralleling the political economy of communication in the 1970s and 1980s, which are concerned with the iniquitous distribution of the resources necessary for participating in what was purported to be an increasingly global industry, and inspired and supported by international intergovernmental attempts to establish a New World Information and Communication Order. Philip Altbach, for instance, has written and assembled countless works on the neo-colonial drive of the academic system and book marketplace. But these studies, from his early work on “literary colonialism” in the developing world to his more recent studies of unequal “distribution of knowledge” within the academic system, have been almost entirely ignored by literature scholars and book historians (see Altbach, “Literary Colonialism”).

The self-styled “new sociology of literature” has also led to some work in this area. Scholars affiliated with the new sociology of literature have presented their work as an alternative to the earlier 1970s and 1980s sociology of literature, practiced by Raymond Williams, Pierre Bourdieu, Terry Eagleton, and Janet Wolff, among others, which they position as having been committed to “dichotomized and homogeneous poles of ‘literature’ and ‘society’” (Frow 237) and as having “sought to explain transformations in literary forms in terms of the external forces that had acted on them” (Bennett 255). Premier amongst the rejected binary models is the Marxist one positing an economic base that determines the cultural superstructure. What recent scholarship in this field claims to envision instead is a set of interlocking and overlapping spheres (cultural, economic, social, legal, and political), each of which mediates (informs, influences, and shapes) the other. Literature is, thus, like any other cultural process, a set of “phenomena” that “operate in and across different kinds of publicly instituted sociomaterial assemblages” (Bennett 259). I propose instead that we return to the earlier models of literary sociology precisely because they emphasize political economy and the determining force of capitalism.

What points might a contemporary sociology of world literary production make? To begin with, it can be noted that where the commercial dynamics of contemporary literary culture are concerned, the division of labour within the literary book industries is highly significant. The fact that people directly involved in literary publishing generally do not make a lot of money does not mean that their work is materially insignificant. Even though sales may be modest relative to other kinds of cultural commodities, publishers’ imprints that successfully market world literature titles make valuable contributions to the publisher’s brand equity and to the brand equity of the transnational media company or conglomerate that houses the publisher. This literature’s association with global sophistication and cosmopolitan taste is important to those parents companies that are eager to justify market expansion, and eager also to establish a global division of labour in which aspects of the production chain, such as copyediting and cover design, are outsourced to cheaply staffed “processing zones.” The fact that these companies have literary holdings associated with globally humanistic values for diversity and difference is precisely what eases their expansive drive.

Caroline Davis has shown, for instance, that Oxford University Press (OUP) accrues cultural capital by highlighting the non-commercial status of brands like Clarendon Press and Oxford University itself, and by publishing academic titles selected for academic markets located in the West. Yet in the decades following decolonization it was the economic capital that was gained through extensive sales of educational material in the African market that bankrolled those ostensibly non-commercial ventures. The sheer distance between an African branch office in Ibadan or Accra and the site of the Clarendon Press made it possible for the academic arm to pretend that it was insulated from the commercial enterprise that in fact funded its publishing programme. In volatile markets—affected for instance by the oil and economic crises of the early 1970s, by the Nigerian civil war over Biafra, or by a rising tide of anti-apartheid sentiment and attendant boycotts—the prestige of Oxford could help to justify the publisher’s continued attempts to secure contracts with Africa’s state educators. These included controllers of the contentious Bantu education system which OUP continued to court, despite the fact that several of its own titles were highly critical of the racist and intentionally limited education it afforded.

A second point to make about the sociology of world literary production—and a point that the broad narrative of world literature’s incorporation does make in certain ways—is that class is a crucial restriction on access to literary experiences. It is not only the case that world literature exists for a small roster of readers but that all literature exists for a small roster of readers. As Fisk wryly indicates: “By all of its definitions, world literature is about as bound up with the economic conditions as other cultural phenomena—which is to say, completely.” I would add that perhaps more than ever there is now what Wendy Griswold has called “a reading class” made up of “habitual readers of print with a distinct demographic profile” (1). In Griswold’s portrait, reading as a habitual activity even for working-class people was in fact something of an exception to the general rule in which only a distinct social elite read for anything other than basic information. The culture of literary reading is in fact in decline; the reading class is shrinking and closing ranks.

It seems too obvious to say that the literature we read tends to be written by a certain class of people because of the nature of capitalist social relations. We are ourselves for the most part in the positions we are in because we belong to a particular class of people who have tended to be capitalism’s beneficiaries. The literary marketplace is part of capitalism’s cultural infrastructure, and the animus against the commercialization of culture, the attempts to imagine a time when culture was more autonomous from capital, and the subtle gradations of accommodation to and distance from commercial imperatives have not done much to challenge what Marx and Engels recognized in their claim that Weltliteratur was a cultural accompaniment to an avowedly economic reality. The idea that the problem is a cultural one—a matter of lack of diversity arising from the pressures of the market—threatens to give the impression that a market better able to accommodate a more diverse array of writers doing more sophisticated, political, and less translatable things is the most pressing issue. But the problems are much deeper. The requisite level of cultural literacy and access to literary works is fundamentally determined by status in hierarchies demanded by the division of labour—hierarchies that a better or more representative world literature (more complex, more sophisticated, less translatable, more committed) cannot hope to affect.

A third point to make about the sociology of world literary production—in addition, that is, to the point about brand equity, and about literacy and access—is that if critics want to locate and valorize a kind of culture that will not be so readily available to easy market appropriation, they may not be giving the market enough credit. It is a characteristic of contemporary capital that it accommodates critique very well and finds the marketable kernel in even the most virulent anti-market gestures. The inequities of copyright and the iniquitous distribution of access to media platforms, including literary writing and the outlets that celebrate it, is a ubiquitous theme in contemporary writing and the reception of contemporary writing. So much so that scandals about who gets to benefit from the celebration of a given work are willingly orchestrated and anticipated by writers, marketing departments, agents, editors, et cetera. Think, for instance, of the debates about the (in)authenticity of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger or Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. This kind of refutation of elite—often middle-class, white, or developed-world—prestige is now one of the main engines of prestige. Such critique is explicitly invited. It means sales.

So this is part of how we might understand the contemporary moment of world literature: a moment of purportedly global circulation that is really a moment of uneven distribution of the agency and ability to author and of uneven access to reading materials and to the means of publication. In these conditions we can observe heightened consciousness about the compromises, complicities, and constraints on literary work and its valorization, and heightened kinds of circular games with reflexive unease about the extent to which particular individuals have the right to represent certain kinds of experience in their writing. The debates over world literature’s market dynamics appear here as symptomatic articulations of this kind of self-consciousness.

I wish to thank David Thomas and Lina Shoumarova for their research assistance.

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