“Is American Literature Parochial?” by Ilan Stavans

American exceptionalism makes us believe we are extraordinary. Consequently, we trust our literature is outstanding as well. Truth is, we are as narrow as everyone else, and our literature showcases it.

Globe with United States in the picture
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I have no intention of rehearsing yet another diatribe against the Swedish Academy’s Nobel committee in Stockholm, which, as is well known in US publishing circles, hasn’t awarded its prize in literature to an American writer since 1993. A few years back, Horace Engdahl, a member of the academy, justified the rejection by stating—famously—that Americans are “too isolated, too insular,” and that we “don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” Expectedly, the response from our quarters was fast and furious: the Nobel in literature, the most outspoken decried, has become irrelevant. How else to explain the fact that obscure European honorees keep on being chosen while brilliant craftsmen like John Updike and Philip Roth are ignored? One of the literati was even quoted as offering to “send Engdahl a list” of American writers worth reading. 

We may wish to rationalize the rejection in a number of ways. We could pretend, for instance, that we don’t care a bit since the Nobel is only about sales, whereas good literature is . . . well, about being good. Or we could argue that it is dangerous to align the Nobel, and literature in general, across national lines. Think of Isaac Bashevis Singer, who got it in 1978. Is he an American writer? Singer was a refugee from Poland who came to the United States when he was already thirty and who wrote most of his work not in English but in Yiddish. How about Joseph Brodsky, who was born in Russia—or better, he was born into the Russian language? The only true country a writer can claim is the language in which he writes. 

There is actually no such thing as “the American writer”; instead, there are infinite ways of being a writer in America.

In any case, the Nobel is supposed to celebrate individual talent, not nationality, which in and of itself is an amphibious concept. Ever heard of Pearl Buck, the American Nobelist of 1938? Well, Buck wasn’t an American through and through. She lived almost her entire life, up until the publication of her enduring novel The Good Earth, in China. At least two new biographies of Buck have been published in the past decade, and several of her books remain in print and widely read. But the Chinese have a stronger claim on her than we do. To fashion her as an American to boost the Nobel list smells of utilitarianism. In addition, the Nobel committee in those days was still laboring under the edict of Nobel’s will about “idealist” literature. Now take Jorge Luis Borges, who unquestionably should have received the prize, especially given that no Argentine has ever been selected. Yet his reputation, mind you, is intact without it; and I’m not sure Borges would have liked to have been awarded the Nobel because he was an Argentine, since the adjective made him uncomfortable. All this to say that good literature is never good by committee. 

Of course, generalizations are always dangerous: Engdahl’s argument that American literature is “too isolated, too insular,” that it is reluctant to “participate in the big dialogue of literature,” are broad strokes that make him look like a baseball player trying to hit a fastball in the dark. Could these arguments begin to encompass the diversity of American literature? How about looking beyond the realm of American fiction to poets such as Richard Wilbur, W. S. Merwin, Charles Simic, and Robert Pinsky, all of whom have been active translators and very open to extraterritorial influences? Even if we stay with fiction, the same claim could be made about the provincialism of Orhan Pamuk, Mo Yan, Herta Müller, José Saramago, and almost any other recent Nobel laureate. Naguib Mahfouz focused only on Egypt, Imre Kertész on Hungary, and so on. The trick, obviously, is to understand the tension between the local and the universal, the microcosm and the macrocosm, which is what Gabriel García Márquez did with Macondo and William Faulkner—that most “provincial” of North American writers—with Yoknapatawpha. There is actually no such thing as “the American writer”; instead, there are infinite ways of being a writer in America. 

One should also think of the US writers who are read abroad and ask why they are read so widely there and not here (for example, Richard Powers in Germany, Paul Auster in France and Japan). Or one might ponder the evidence that among the most stylistically interesting things done in American writing today are Mark Danielewski’s “ergo-writing,” Chris Ware’s graphic novels, and the fledgling nature of “multimedia literature” on tablets, led by such newfangled approaches as Electric Literature

And yet, to generalize, as Engdahl does, is an essential human disposition. To abstract, to simplify is the mind’s way of dealing with a vast universe of infinite possibilities. Without abstractions there is no thought, for to think is to condense, to synthesize, to sum up—to make sense. At any rate, I truly don’t care, as I said, about the Nobel per se; what I’m attracted to is the kernel of truth behind the rejection, if such a kernel is indeed tangible. For, as far as I’m concerned, the statement is dead on: American literature is parochial, although I’m not sure this is a quality that distinguishes us and our literature from other nations and their respective literatures. By the same token, American literature could be described as the most cosmopolitan, the most universal of local literatures. By virtue of the fact that we are an immigrant nation, we have more “foreigners” (myself included) involved in shaping our bookshelf than any other country on the planet. Plus, when American authors write immigration and financial collapse stories set in the United States, aren’t they writing about world concerns, considering the common theme of contraction following an arms-wide-open welcome (Sweden’s a good example) and worldwide financial crises (Ireland, Greece)?

American literature could be described as the most cosmopolitan, the most universal of local literatures. 

The argument for parochialism isn’t difficult to prove, though. There has been a plethora of recent analysis offering some context, including Pascale Casanova’s volume The World Republic of Letters. In a country like the United States with a population of over 315 million, the place of literature among us is risible. It is true that as a nation we don’t participate in the big dialogue of literature among ourselves. Our literary writing is done by a small elite mostly for its own sake. The average American, ages fifteen to sixty-five, barely opens a single book a year. Still, the number of books published in the United States in 2012, according to Bowker, was 400,000, 55 percent of which were self-published. In other words, production far outstrips the demand: we manufacture books but don’t do much with them afterward. Along the same lines, our bookstores appear to be on the verge of collapse, although this too is a double-edged sword since Amazon.com has created an entire new way of selling books. Bookstores in European countries have been propped up by laws that don’t allow discounting, which is why there are no bookstore chains in France and Germany. 

American literature is taught in colleges, which accounts for a large number of book sales. Interestingly, as William Chace reasoned a couple of years ago in The American Scholar, statistics show that in the past twenty years the number of English literature majors in universities in the United States had dropped by 50 percent, down to only 3.7 percent of college graduates, while the number of MFA programs has skyrocketed. On the changing nature of literary readership, it is sometimes said that undergraduate reading mainly focuses on “transgressive” literature (mainly non-WASP). This means that figures like John Cheever go unread. Conversely, Epictetus was broadly read in British schools in the nineteenth century. Perhaps this explains the concept of a funnel shape to literary reading, with the distant past at the narrow end. In any case, nobody seems to care too much that the place of literature in the United States is vanishing. We’re transitioning from the traditional print book to e-books even though, again, this truism is questioned by the leveling off of e-book sales in recent years. Besides, storytelling in America is probably more alive today than ever. Our days are filled with tales we tell one another; it’s simply that literature is no longer the conduit. Movies, TV, the Internet, and video games have displaced it.

American literature is parochial because America is solipsistic. This isn’t to say we don’t travel. Actually, travel is a national sport among the middle class. We’re in cars traversing the country, and, money permitting, our curiosity leads us to visit other societies. But travel for us is by definition a complacent endeavor. Americans only go to safe, secure places where the food and accommodations guarantee that we still feel at home. Therein lies the key to our parochialism: it is an illness of abundance. There is much to see and means to achieve it. Yet we fail to venture beyond secure confines because we are afraid of getting lost. Loss is about the lack of control, and we love to be in control. In our literature, we embrace the exact same approach: we love when our fiction shows us foreign lands but only if those lands are friendly to Americans; and when they aren’t, we want the characters to make it safely home. For home is what we’re all about: its security, its durability.

How do we define home? As the absence of foreignness. The easiest way to show the degree of parochialism in American literature is to point to the allergy we have toward foreign languages. We never listen to popular songs in other languages. And notwithstanding the popularity of films like Mexico’s Like Water for Chocolate and Germany’s The Lives of Others, we tend not to like movies with subtitles. If a successful movie is made in French, for instance, we’d rather wait for the Hollywood remake. In general, translation makes us uncomfortable, even though this country is a Babel of languages, with more than one hundred languages spoken just within one school district in Los Angeles or Queens. On TV, we only like foreign series like Downton Abbey, which are made in England and satisfy our obsession with class difference. Sure, the show is a hit in other countries as well, from Sweden to South Korea. Still, nothing in the original language from Italy, Germany, and Turkey is likely to make it to our screen. This aversion is equally apparent in literature: only 3 percent of what’s released by American publishers is in translation, in contrast with close to 45 percent in several European countries. Yet American publishers brag about being the world’s primary seller of foreign rights. As a result, the exposure the United States has to foreign literature is minuscule. A country as vast as ours is really an island.

None of this says anything about American literature as such. To what extent is the fiction we consume narrow-minded? We are somewhat more forgiving with nonfiction, endorsing investigative writing dealing with war zones and other “problem” sites. We like that type of nonfiction if it is about American policy or about American genius understood in the broadest sense: our capacity to make the world a place we can recognize. But let’s stick to fiction. Even when our writers travel abroad, like Jay McInerney or Jhumpa Lahiri, it is to follow an American character on foreign soil. That anchor allows for all sorts of explorations: ignorance, courage, self-knowledge. What matters is that one of us is always receiving an epiphany.

The world entire is contained inside us. This view suggests that American literature is a microcosm. But this is a cheap excuse: precisely because we welcome the huddled masses yearning to breathe free do Americans have a responsibility to the rest of the world.

Look at Philip Roth, our perennial Nobel candidate and a writer I admire profoundly. His oeuvre is a tapestry of American motifs: male insecurity, the voracious dream of success, the collapse of public trust. . . . Roth is a cosmopolitan in that he ventures outside our own confines: to London, Prague, and Israel. His Newark is an aleph of the world entire, the universal inhabiting the local. One must also take into consideration Roth’s estimable work as cultural mediator in editing the Writers from the Other Europe series for Penguin and in publishing interviews with writers from a wide variety of countries. But the other side of the argument is true as well. He and his movie counterpart, Woody Allen, are actually kings of parochialism. Rome? It looks like Cinecittà. Barcelona? A vacation spa. In Roth’s case, whenever he ventures out, it is to places where another Philip Roth, a doppelgänger, is doing his tricks, as in the Israel portrayed in Operation Shylock. That is, he does go abroad—always to Europe—but the outcome remains the same: the world is there for him to become better. Hardly ever does the world exist on its own terms. 

Examples showing the two sides of the debate are plentiful. Take John Updike, another icon: his Rabbit trilogy is as American as apple pie, and equally insular. Events in them always happen in the suburbs; the rest of the world is a rumor, an afterthought. Tim O’Brien and Robert Stone let themselves be puzzled in Vietnam, and occasionally in the Middle East or Latin America, but it always feels as if the whole journey is a variation on the theme of American Quixotism. In The Poisonwood Bible and The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver, another admirable novelist, sends her cast overseas; but they are missionaries of American values, struggling to inculcate them in others (even when they know the consequences) or to be tested by the political environment on which they stumble. Then there are more native cases, like the boy genius David Foster Wallace, whose focus is the American obsession right here and now. But the reverse is true too: Don De-Lillo has cosmic aspirations; and Dave Eggers’s books wander as they wonder (to use a Langston Hughes expression) from Somalia to San Francisco, distilling a genuine desire to look beyond, to explore what other realities are about. Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Orphan Master’s Son is about North Korea minus the American traveling abroad. The fact that it was a New York Times best-seller might be seen as proof of our antiparochialism.

It could be argued that foreignness in American literature is unique because this is a land of immigrants and foreignness is never outside our shores. Henry Roth, Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, and Chang-Rae Lee write about the shock of arriving, getting acclimated, and reinventing oneself here. The world entire is contained inside us. This view suggests that American literature is a microcosm. But this is a cheap excuse: precisely because we welcome the huddled masses yearning to breathe free do Americans have a responsibility to the rest of the world. That responsibility isn’t about making others familiar with who we are but about acquainting ourselves—without subterfuges—to what life elsewhere is about and not doing so for our own benefit. American immigrant literature is as parochial, maybe more so. Take Junot Díaz, whose characters are mostly Dominican. In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao he sets the plot in the Dominican Republic, as he occasionally does in his stories. But even then the material feels American-centric: a chubby American geek interacting with locals through the prism of American pop culture. That’s what we all do: be in the world while never leaving home. Sandra Cisneros and Amy Tan seem to look at the globe through the rear-view mirror.

Was American literature always impossibly local while envisaging ambitiously global dreams? There was a time—the Gilded Age—when writers needed to prove the United States was a worthy literary place. Hawthorne, Poe, and Emerson sought to claim a place for the US, to test its strength, to find its true worth. They positioned the nation’s worldview as worthy of any European counterpart. Melville’s Moby Dick might well be the most cosmopolitan of American novels, or the most nearsighted, depending on how one sees it. (In my mind, it is the first encyclopedic Latin American novel ever written.) Arguably, the less parochial of these might also be seen as the most American. My reverence for Mark Twain is enormous. He recounts his travels abroad in front of American audiences, but that tourism felt authentic. Likewise, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which Ernest Hemingway saw as the source, the beginning of everything American, is a journey inside our national boundaries that forces us to confront our limitations: a child and a free slave live in limbo.

The writer that has best come to represent the fortunes of Americans abroad is Henry James. The Portrait of a Lady is about a spirited young American woman in European society, the clashes she encounters, the tension between the two cultures. In other works, James explores the vicissitudes of Americans outside their milieu. The bridge between the Old World and the New feels symmetrical in his oeuvre. At the end of the nineteenth century, America was still a young democracy, struggling to find its footing in the world. And during the first half of the twentieth century, the Lost Generation went to Europe to find itself. And therein the solipsism that defines us: exile was nothing more than an extension of home. Spain and France were the stage where Americans like Hemingway socialized, where they proved their true worth. The discovery of those cultures was important to their maturity, but it was a temporary stage, unlike trips by subsequent writers such as Paul Bowles, whose detachment from his home base is unequivocal.

All in all, it’s a fact that the dominant culture of the United States is aliterate, often antithetical to serious literature, which doesn’t mean American literature is inferior. During the Modernist period, serious writers were fortified by the belief that they represented an adversary culture, that they were at odds with their time. American writers are not adversaries but symptoms of an ambient, complacent philistinism. Again, it is important to keep in mind that these traits aren’t unique to the United States. How many people in Albania, Bolivia, and Kenya read Goethe? Americans possess an aversion to foreign languages, and foreign films are rarely shown on American screens. But when they are, they are invariably shown with subtitles, forcing audiences to acknowledge foreign sounds. By contrast, in Italy and many other countries, every foreign film is dubbed, meaning that audiences are totally insulated from any contact with the language in which the film was made. That almost 45 percent of Italy’s books are translations doesn’t mean Italians are more cosmopolitan than we are.

For every writer sees the world from a provincial perspective. Franz Kafka’s Amerika provides a look at Oklahoma from the vantage point of Prague. And to prove how cosmopolitan we are, how nonprovincial our view is, one might look at the nominees for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Awards. Poetry finalist A. E. Stallings flew in from her home in Greece for the event. David Ferry was another poetry finalist, and much of his book consists of translations. Autobiography finalist Reyna Grande wrote about her immigration from Mexico. Other finalists in autobiography included Anthony Shadid writing about his family home in Lebanon and Ngu~gı~ wa Thiong’o writing about his childhood in Uganda. In nonfiction, Katherine Boo provided a riveting account of life in a Mumbai slum. For fiction, as I mentioned, Adam Johnson set his novel The Orphan Master’s Son convincingly inside North Korea. The winning fiction entry, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, is neoclassical in its focus on one day, Thanksgiving, and in one place, Dallas, yet it encompasses the world. In other words, our philistinism is the key to our sophistication.

I was once at a dinner party in Chile when a distinguished writer told me an invaluable truth: excitement in our time is rarely connected to literature anymore. It belongs to science. It is far more fun to have lunch with a scientist these days than with a writer. Scientists are at the cutting edge; the world belongs to them. Writers, instead, like to complain they don’t get enough attention. And literary critics—like me—make a profession of these types of complaints. She added that Americans are prone to complain even more than everyone else. When something doesn’t go their way, they let the world know about it. Since their ego is the size of their country, their complaints are louder. Her main argument was that in the twenty-first century, literature has lost its mojo, but American writers haven’t realized it. She concluded by saying—and this I remember as the apex of the evening—that to compensate for this, writers in the United States like to think of themselves as entertainers. They don’t belong to the society of world literature because that society would parry that what American writers do isn’t as entertaining as they think it is.

Another generation, for sure. Anyhow, the comment reverberates in my mind. American exceptionalism makes us believe we are extraordinary. Consequently, we trust our literature is outstanding as well. We are as narrow as everyone else, and our literature showcases it. What does it mean to be exceptional? The conviction that one is just like everyone else, except a little more so. Other nations don’t believe they are exceptional, so their parochialism has fewer global consequences. But then again, perhaps we’re just entertainers.

Amherst College

Photo by Kevin Gutting

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American, and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, the co-founder of the Great Books Summer Program, and a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. His award-winning books include, most recently, The Seventh Heaven: Travels through Jewish Latin America (2018), The Wall (2019), How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish (2020), Popol Vuh: A Retelling (2020), Selected Translations: Poems, 2000–2020 (2021), Jewish Literature: An Introduction (2022), and The People’s Tongue: Americans and the English Language (2023). His work, adapted into film, theater, TV, and radio, has been translated into twenty languages.