Panel Including Jonathan Franzen and Jhumpa Lahiri Calls American Literature "Overrated," and They Probably Have a Point
At the Jaipur Literature Festival, a panel titled "The Global Novel" featured six international panelists, including American authors Jhumpa Lahiri and Jonathan Franzen, who discussed, among other things, just what "global novel" might even mean. While delving into the concept of globalization, Chinese novelist Xiaolu Guo, the only one of the six who writes in two languages, criticized the dominance of Anglophone literature, and called American literature in particular "overrated." And she may have a point.
Look, no one is saying American literature isn't impressive. But Anglophone literature, and American literature in particular, also dominates the global literary marketplace in way that's rather unfair and one-sided. As Jhumpa Lahiri noted during the Jaipur panel discussion:
I was looking at [an Italian paper's] 10 best books of the year, and they chose seven books written in English ... I can't imagine the New York Times ever choosing seven books written in a language other than English as their choices.
Indeed, America doesn't see many translated books — only about 2 percent of books published annually are translations — but our literature is exported far and wide, translated onto languages the world over. It makes American literary exchange a one-way street, and it means the American writers risk becoming isolated from the rest of the world literature.
And this perhaps is the crux of the matter. It's not that American literature isn't good. It's just that it's not somehow inherently superior to any other country's literature. To say that America's literature is "overrated" isn't a judgement on the quality – it's saying that America, instead of participating in the global literary scene, imposes upon it. Imposes with some very good books, but imposes. Because, yes, English is the international language, but America isn't overly interested in reading even those books that are translated into English.
The effect of all this is that American literature is treated as some sort of pinnacle. People all over the world read American literature, and people in America read it almost exclusively. As high quality and as diverse as American literature is – some of the most diverse in the world in fact – it's not diverse enough to justify neglecting the rest of the world, and not high quality enough to justify being read at the exclusion of other literary cannons.
So is there a solution? Well, really the only thing we as readers can do is read more translations. And not just books by the latest Nobel Prize Winner that are bound to be translated into English (that is, if they weren't written in English originally). No read, works in translation by names you haven't heard of, and then recommend them to your friends. Because the only way publishers will think that it's worthwhile to try out translating more books if the demand goes up.
But in the meantime, American literature remains a one-way street. American works are widely read abroad; comparatively few books written abroad are read in America. And though American literature as a whole is very diverse and very good, from a global point of view, it is still rather "overrated."