Monday, January 20, 2014

Is American literature overrated?

Last night, Greg of the New Dork Review of Books* tweeted an article in which author Jhumpa Lahiri denounces American literature as being "massively overrated". She points towards abysmally low translation rates into English as compared to those into other languages, using her own experiences with the Italian literary market as a contrast. Greg and I started discussing the use of the word overrated - what it essentially means here, and whether or not Lahiri was oversimplifying.

Lahiri was oversimplifying - period. You can't make a blanket statement about hundreds of thousands of books without oversimplifying. Furthermore, by using the word overrated, she implied that many of the highly regarded novels published in English (her own included, I suppose) are undeserving of any praise. But the essence of her point is spot on, and here's where I find myself ultimately agreeing: Anglo-American literature is rated more frequently and more prominently than almost any other literature in the world. And often, those ratings are not entirely deserved.

Just one example: Louisa Young's My Dear I Wanted to Tell You. A distinctly midlevel novel, not a huge bestseller, no lasting impact that I've noticed, not an award winner, no particular innovation (literary or otherwise), the author is not a household name, not really hyped... nor is it exceptionally good (it's alright). Yet this fairly mediocre book got translated into Hebrew. It got translated into French. It got translated into German, and probably a couple other languages as well. This unremarkable book has made its way across the globe. Contrast that with Amir Gutfreund's excellent short story collection The Coastal Mansions**, winner of the 2003 Sapir Award, which has never been translated. Or any of acclaimed, award-winning author Lea Aini's books. Or dozens of other Israeli authors who will never be translated, and thousands upon thousands of authors worldwide whose books will never see light in English. Because, well, hmm.

Here's a fact: Anglo-American literature is given more attention, more airtime, more importance and more respect than equivalent and better literature from across the globe. The NYT Book Review almost exclusively reviews Anglo-American books. The Ha'aretz Book Review, meanwhile, looks at Israeli novels alongside American, English, Italian, French, German, Latin American, Chinese, Swedish, Japanese, and all others every week. Every issue houses books from at least two languages, to say nothing of the countries these books visit. Just as Lahiri sees an Italian literary culture that embraces far more books from across the globe, so too does Israel***. And so do most countries outside of the United States of American and Great Britain.

This too is somewhat oversimplifying matters for a very obvious reason: the U.S. and the U.K. publish significantly more books than Israel could ever hope to. Maybe even more than France, Germany and Latin American as well, though I honestly don't know. This means that it makes a lot of sense for a certain amount of Anglo-centrism, but nowhere near the levels we see today. Not a token title or two out of 100 notable books per year. Not the rare review in the most respected literary journals. Something that respects and acknowledges the excellent literature to be found worldwide.

On the whole, Anglo-American literature is kind of overrated. I won't deny that some of my favorite books have been penned by British or American writers with an Anglocentric mindset, but I can also point to the other favorites which are distinctly not originally in English, or deal with cultures and ideas beyond the standard Anglo norm, and can easily show you how much less press and attention they've gotten. English is and will remain a language with a vibrant and wonderful literary tradition, one that gives us hundreds of truly excellent books every year, but for now it also remains the language that celebrates and touts its own mediocre options over top-notch, truly excellent titles from other languages from all around the world. It's this favoritism, this Anglo-American default that leads to Lahiri generalizing and calling all American fiction "massively overrated" (when that is obviously not true).

So yes: big picture, a lot of American literature is valued more highly than it should be. And while we can choose to view that as some sort of problem, I think we should focus on the flip side - let's get more international literature, more literature in translation. Let's have a broader picture of a bigger world. Let's have the very best literature, period. No matter where it's from.

* Still one of the greatest blog names ever, by the way.
** My rough-and-fairly-literal-and-inaccurate title translation; I hope the book gets a better title if it's ever actually translated.
*** Though to be fair, many of these titles in translation are from English, and indeed a weekly column in Israel's other (more popular) newspaper that aims to showcase "titles from abroad" almost always presents American novels...


  1. Yes, overrated. If something is hyped as a hundred times more important than everything else, even if it is only twice as good as everything else, it's overrated.

    And American Lit probably isn't even at that level...

  2. I think there's also a lot in the fact that English is an international language so it might appear to have wider appeal. Though that's not a good reason for a lack of translation. American, English-language books as a whole, are overrated, and I completely agree with your 'more translation please'. That said I do think there's a problem in the west, where if it's not in English a lot of people won't bother, and I wonder if that could spread to translation, too.


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