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Is American literature ‘massively overrated’?

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Dima Gavrysh/AP

(Read caption) Pulitzer Prize-winning US author Jhumpa Lahiri also criticized America's literary culture, calling the lack of translated works 'shameful.'

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British-Chinese author Xiaolu Guo recently commented on the dominance of Anglophone novels in the international book market during the Jaipur Literature Festival in India this weekend. The session on “the global novel” featured six international panelists, including American writers Maaza Mengiste, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Jonathan Franzen.

Guo, who was selected by Granta Magazine as one of the best young British novelists and was recently shortlisted for the Orange Prize, criticized the way "our reading habit has totally been transformed by the mainstream."

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"Our reading habit has been stolen and changed," she said. "For example, I think Asian literature is much less narrative … but our reading habit is more Anglo-Saxon, more American.… Nowadays all this narrative [literature is] very similar, it's so realism, so story-telling driven … so all the poetry, all the alternative things, have been pushed away by mainstream society."

"I love your work, Jonathan," she told Franzen, "but in a way you are smeared by English-American literature.… I think certain American literature is overrated, massively overrated, and I really hate to read them."

Guo, who was the only author on the panel who writes in multiple languages, said that her experience in writing in Chinese is charged with personal and ideological baggage, which is not always the case when writing in a non-native language. “When I write in English, I feel freer,” she said. However, she added, "In a way the easiest and laziest way is to write in English. What a struggle to write in any other language than English." She said it is a struggle to do so because one might have to wait for years for the book to be translated as a way to reach a larger audience. The most widely translated language in the world is English.

"If you write in Japanese or Vietnamese or Portuguese you have to wait … to be translated, and translated literature never really works immediately as English literature unless it wins the Nobel or some big prize," Guo told the Jaipur audience. "I'm saying language is a passport. A dubious, dangerous passport too.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri also criticized America’s literary culture. "[It is] shameful the lack of translation, the lack of energy put into translation in the American market....  It is embarrassing, to me, and I think just getting out of America for a little while makes you much more conscious of that," she said.

Lahiri, who currently lives in Italy, says that she has not read any books in English for the last two years. "I was looking at [an Italian paper's] 10 best books of the year, and they chose seven books written in English," she said. "This was astonishing to me. I can't imagine the New York Times ever choosing seven books written in a language other than English as their choices … there is so much literature that needs to be brought forward and the danger now is that it's getting even less exposure."

Franzen expressed concern with the "homogenization of global culture."

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“Isn’t part of what’s happening with globalization, that every place is getting more and more alike?" he said. "That kind of experience, [like] 'Wow, Achebe has shown me something about Africa' … my worry as a reader is that becomes almost a nostalgic experience, the very idea of cultural difference.” He later said, “The worst way to be universal is to try to be universal.”

"One of the consequences of globalism, it seems to me, and I think we see it even in the literary world, is that things become less horizontal and more vertical," Franzen told the panel. "If you can imagine everything perfectly translated, that we have massive subsidies for translation, that anyone publishing in Romanian in Romania, [their book] is instantly available in all languages everywhere, you are still faced with the finite amount of reading time that an individual reader has … in a funny way, you'd think there'd be greater diversity in what is read, but I worry that the trend in a more global literary marketplace is even more towards a kind of star system and a vast sea of people who can't find an audience."

Lahiri was not so convinced that multicultural literature could be dismissed. Statistics from 2007 show that only 3% of books published in the U.S. are translations.

"Translation is the key," she said. “[It is] the bridge for so many of us to be able to read across our limitation.… ‘Global’ is a commercial term, [but] ‘universal’ [is about] writers transcending barriers of ourselves.”