A global novel romanticism

Orhan Pamuk does narrate the “local” as Kirsch tells us, sure, but he does this by turning the image into an allegory. He diagrams the fluid reality of a society by reducing it to sharp dualities

14 Kasım 2019 13:00

Adam Kirsch’s book, The Global Novel: Writing the World in the 21st Century, (publisher: Columbia Global Reports and in Turkish translation by Vakıfbank) is a text written to defend the growing criticism in recent years of the “global novel.” Kirsch asserts in this short book that such suspicions are exaggerated and even misleading and he compiles those criticisms and builds counter-arguments.

The “global novel” is an umbrella term used to describe a group of novels which have in recent years gained in popularity and attracted worldwide attention. Even though it is not easy to bracket these novels into a single category, the common denominator of criticism is that such literature subordinates the reality of the local from which they emanate.  From this perspective, we are presented with texts that are either unable to provide a true experience of the “authentic” universe they express or that they do so in a bland way. This is mainly because global novels take shape according to the demands of the cultural center of the world (or centers) and the global trends thus determined. The hallmark of these works in question is considered to be that their language and style is determined according to the possibility of translation into English and the wishes of the global reader.

I think that a global novel conceptualized in this way corresponds mostly to a criticism of inauthenticity and it is an approach that problematizes the ethical position of the writer (and in the next step, of the global reader.)

In his book, Adam Kirsch considers the problem of the global novel in light of discussion of “world literature.” According to him, the discussion reflects disillusionment with a process that began at the start of the nineteenth century with Goethe’s concept of Weltliteratur. On the surface of this disappointment lies a belief in a balanced world market formed within every national literature that simultaneously protects its own identity while going beyond the boundaries of the nation; and that instead we have reached a point a mono-center that is excessively hierarchical and guided by the wants and demands of a culture industry.

Kirsch rejects this pessimistic perspective. First of all, he is of the opinion that the global novel does not even have an “integrated style.” On the contrary, he thinks all kinds of texts can be counted among these works and what makes them global is their different contents, forms and attitudes. First and foremost, contrary to what is often claimed in discussions about the global novel, these are not texts that do not care about localness or ignore “the authentic local” for the sake of being easily translated. For example, it is necessary to know the history of modern Turkey to comprehend Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow and Pamuk searches for ways to convey the reality of his homeland without trying to make life easier for the foreign reader whom he knows will not have this knowledge. Indeed, realization of what the reader knows or does not know of this makes the process of translation problematic. Another example is Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. According to Kirsch the author, so embeds the local in these best-selling and much-read works that she does not even avoid the frequent use of Neapolitan dialect which makes reading and translating the text quite difficult. This means that global novels that do not reduce the local or simplify the language of the local or which aren’t easy translated, do exist.

In Kirsch’s opinion, a majority of global novels are truly concerned with global problems. For example, we see in recent years the migrant issue or worldwide concern about terrorism showing up in bestsellers. Or, in the example of Houellebecq and Atwood we see texts dealing with the shared future of the world make up a significant portion of global novels. Thus the global novel is in reality appreciated because it addresses a global audience, giving voice to global concerns. 

The bottom line of Kirsch’s argument is to suggest that we should turn criticisms on their head. He thinks we should imagine what is considered to be a sort of weakness and loss by many critics as instead criterion for success. What is behind the success of these novels is their capability to be global. It can even be said that today what we require, indeed, what we in fact need is the global novel. In this context, for a global novel to be a success it should pass through certain filters and arduous stages. Seen through Kirsch’s eyes, it is not even worth mentioning that those who point towards a pessimistic and a rather stereotype critique of the culture industry are actually making a rather lazy and reductionist choice. 

When we look at the writer’s overall approach we see that he does not in fact clearly define what a global novel is. Worldwide readership and concern for contemporary global issues are there as the two main criteria but the description does not seek to go much further than this. But more importantly Kirsch develops his praise for the global novel without in any way considering the power relations between the literatures of different languages, the economy-politics of the dominance of English, the decisive quality of the demands of the universal reading public of the English language, and the development of mechanisms to meet these demands. He evaluates the criticisms he mentions in the beginning of the book as conservative regret rather than an attempt to understand world literature and the global novel. We know very clearly how shaping the concept Casanova borrowed from Braudel of “uneven trade” applies at every point in the history of literature and there is not an equal relationship between literary centers. (Let us think about the relationship between French and Turkish Literature for example in the context of our modernization adventure of the last 150 years.) So isn’t it too comfortable a choice to consider the “merits of being global” independently from the demands and interferences of the ones in power?

It can in part be said that Kirsch is the inheritor of a traditional and in fact a rather outdated romantic attitude. “According to the standard view, the world of letters is one of peaceful internationalism, a world of free and equal access in which literary recognition is free to all writers, an enchanted world that exists outside time and space and so escapes the mundane conflicts of human history. This fiction, of a literature emancipated from all historical and political attachments, was created in the most autonomous countries of world literary space,” [iii] says Pascale Casanova. For writers at the center of the literary world, leaving this autonomous realm is to underline that most often they are unaware of this structure and that they accept the romantic definition referred to above as the natural state of the literary world. 

Even though Kirsch did embark to write such a book, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that this idea of natural state is the determining aspect of his thought. In order to demonstrate this let us return to the two examples I’ve cited above, to Pamuk and Ferrante. First of all, Orhan Pamuk does narrate the “local” as Kirsch tells us, sure, but he does this –if you ask me– by turning the image into an allegory. He diagrams the fluid reality of a society by reducing it to sharp dualities. Yet not for a moment does Kirsch doubt that what is told is the authentic reality of Turkey. Secondly, what Kirsch has to say about Ferrante is based on an unforgivable mistake. For if Kirsch reads the novel in the original, he’d see that in the places where it is emphasized that the characters are speaking in the Neapolitan dialect, except for a few expressions, the narrator transcribes the words in modern Italian, not in dialect. That he didn’t even feel the need to check this, is highly indicative of the covert way in which the perspective of the text is constructed.

This should be stressed: As a list of “global contemporary novels” is being formed, the critiques engage an idea of the global novel which tends to view this whole process as limited to  politics, the demands of the center and the powerful as well as the sovereignty of the dominant language. This can be quite reductionist at times and of course it’s always useful to be precautious and vigilant against this. The fact that he even mentioned it, is valuable. But on the other hand, despite all the good intentions of Kirsch-ish globalism and internationalism, the omitting of power relations and of “unequal exchange,” but even more importantly that his own position as a writer from the center is not problematized is unforgivable. Will anything remain of an approach that fails to consider the complex structure of “the literary space” as anything other than a romantic praise of “literariness” and of free market mysticism? The truth is, I’m not so sure. 


[i] An example of this is Murakami about whom I had written again on K24: https://t24.com.tr/k24/yazi/gizemli-merak-uyandirici-hakikatsiz,1066

[ii] Pascale Casanova. The World Republic of Letters. Translated from the French by M. B. DeBevoise. Harvard University Press, 2004. P. 12

[iii] Casanova. P. 43.


Translated from the Turkish by Melek Hamer.