The novel goes global

October 11, 2011

By John Lloyd
The opinions expressed are his own.

Nothing can be more nationally rooted than the novel. Recall your mental images of the squalid alleys of Dickensian London and the stormy moors of the Brontes (both Emily’s and Charlotte’s, the latter beautifully photographed in the latest film reworking of “Jane Eyre”); the narrow streets and minds of the Norman towns in which Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary’s yearning for romance is broken and the gilded salons of Paris where Eugenie de Balzac’s heroes claw, or fail to claw, their way up the social scale; the field of Borodino where Tolstoy had Pierre Bezhukov put face to face with carnage of war, and the crumbling slums of Petersburg where Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov commits his crime and suffers his punishment. These are part of the reader’s mental furniture, imagined and re-imagined millions of times down the decades, but always seen as inextricably of their place; places which take on characters of their own, malign or comforting.

Now, a series of intertwined trends threaten this assumption of rootedness, and have the capacity to shift us from the tidy allocation of fictions to nations which the study of literature has furthered, and which it now struggles to contain. The British-Italian writer and translator Tim Parks believes that this shift is as large as that from the use of Latin to the “vulgar” or local languages as the medium for literature in the medieval period. It is, though, a kind of reverse process: where, almost a millennium ago, pioneers like Dante and Chaucer, writing in what became Italian and what was already English, led the writing world into multiplicity, the pressures of globalization hammer away at Babel’s Tower, seeking to replace it with a single column of glob-ish.

One trend is the continued spread of English as a global lingua franca, giving birth to a variety of English-es with a French, Italian, Russian, Chinese coloring – as well as the longer established African and Indian versions, ingrained in imperial times. Closely tied to that is the dwindling weight of the smaller national languages, as a growing group master English and freely choose Anglophone rather than native sources for their reading of all kinds, as well as, of necessity, their business.

Tied to this again is the vast imaginative attraction of the United States which – however much its economy is declining relative to the tigers of the east – remains a real and virtual center of dreams and stories, flawed heroes and sympathetic villains. A place in which the fiction factories of Los Angeles and New York, Chicago and San Francisco, have poured out such powerful streams of narrative and character that every culture, even those which set themselves against it, is caught in some part of their coils. A country whose readers are both largely indifferent to the products of other nations’ active imaginations and carelessly colonizing of their passive literary enjoyment.

Ancillary to these trends are the cascades of literary festivals and prizes, used by publishers everywhere to distinguish their products from the ruck, and brand them on the international market as something more than “just” another foreign writer. And for the publishers themselves, those who survive have transformed their once famously snail-like habits into strategies of rapid, multinational marketing, where the products of the mainly Anglophone genre masters  — as Tom Clancy, Jodi Picoult and Ken Follett, as well as the more literary but still massively marketed novels of Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen and Hilary Mantel -– are sent for translation, sometimes, before the author has finished writing, and flood into a hundred national markets almost simultaneously.

Parks, who works with Professor Edoardo Zucatto at Milan’s communications university IULM on a unique program examining these trends and their effect, seeks to understand rather than lament or polemicize -– but notes that, for the smaller languages, their survival as literary vehicles is already damaged and will be further. Even large language groups, like the Italian, now consume more than half of their fiction in translation: while, more seriously, their writers strive for a style which eschews particular stylistic maneuvers in favor of one which is more easily rendered into other languages, especially English. Professor Zucatto compares the work of two famed Sicilian novelists  -– Leonardo Sciascia, who died in 1989, and Andrea Camilleri, still writing in his mid eighties -– and notes that the first is notoriously hard to translate (and unfashionably pessimistic) while the second, who created the figure of Inspector (Commissario) Montalbano and has sold some 10 million books worldwide, writes more accessibly.

Further still: the demands placed on the would-be global author are not just linguistic, but thematic. In an essay written earlier this year, “The Nobel Individual”, Parks writes that “an editor at my Dutch publishing house tells me that if she wishes to sell the foreign rights of a Dutch novel, it must fit in with the image of Holland worldwide…my Italian editor tells me that an Italian author published abroad must be condemning the country’s corruption…” National stereotypes, rather than national subtlety, gather the world’s nations into a network of contrasts based on what widely read authors have found successful – as Stieg Larsson, Henning Martell and Jo Nesbo have discovered Scandinavian sado-pessimism to be gold mines, even if, for the first, posthumously.

Parks is right to insist that this is not for mourning, but for understanding. Global coexists with micro, here as in other walks of life: Professor Zucatto, studying global trends for a global audience, writes poetry in a Lombard dialect which must be translated into Italian before his co-nationals can understand it. The fault lies not so much with the new development of languages, but with the perennial desire for celebrity – now hugely magnified by the Net, and the global market. Little to be done about that, in the short term.

PHOTO: A customer reads a copy of Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s latest book in his Millennium series of crime novel, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest”, at a Madrid bookstore June 18, 2009. REUTERS/Susana Vera

One comment

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You’ve hit on an important fact about current literary trends that I hadn’t considered, but is well worth bearing in mind for those of us who still care about the development of literature in the world, especially more “serious” literature, if I can use that elitist sounding (but accurate) modifier.

There is a lot of change going on in our world and though I try to remain optimistic, I worry that so much of the bumps and sharp edges of our character are getting ground down and rounded out into a bland ball of sameness. As you point out, even literature is infected. There are rich literary subtleties of language and culture endemic to a diversity of nationalities that would be criminal for the art of literature to lose.

I think the arts in general are at risk of becoming solely geared toward mass appeal. On the other hand, I believe that there will always be people expressing themselves in artistic ways, and some of it will actually be excellent.

I think we’re all in for a furiously wild ride. Hang on.

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