Michele Hutchison explores the globalisation debate for PEN Atlas. Do authors consciously write for an international market and, if so, what does that means for authenticity?

For the past two years, the literature department at IULM university in Milan has been investigating the idea that globalisation might be influencing the production of world literature – major novelists are intentionally writing for a global audience and this could affect the style and content of their novels. The literature department culminated their study with an international conference last week to which I was invited, along with a variety of critics, writers, academics and translators.

A name most frequently brought up in relation to the theory is Kazuo Ishiguro, who has admitted he aims to write a plainer kind of prose that translates easily; I fear he may have instigated this whole shebang. Other prime examples are Orhan Pamuk who has been accused of neatly condensing and packaging Turkishness for a foreign audience (in cahoots with his translator, apparently) and Salman Rushdie who might have capitalised on a version of Indianness aimed to exoticise and to sell books. Both these writers are seen as writing for a global audience, moving away from the local and specific, sometimes provoking political controversy by being ‘unfaithful to’ or ‘betraying’ their roots. 

Tim Parks who teaches at IULM, has also proposed lesser-known writers for this trend, such as the excellent Swiss and Dutch writers, Peter Stamm and Gerbrand Bakker, because of their pared-down writing style and lack of culture-specific politics. I guess he would add Flemish writer Peter Terrin, recently published in English by MacLehose Press, if he read him. His claustrophobic, existential novel The Guard is set in a non-specific European urban apartment building in the near future and written in a wilfully clinical style. It subtly references Camus, Beckett and the Belgian surrealists, but always remains compelling and direct.

The obvious counter-argument is that the market might select precisely those books that do speak to an international readership and translate un-problematically (i.e. do not require explanatory footnotes). It is certainly the view I hold and matches my experience of pitching Dutch books to foreign editors. Editors like books which give a sense of the place they are set in without the reader getting bogged down in specifics. They also look for accessibility and universal themes. Commerce dictates a particular formula. Look at the kinds of novels that have proved hugely successful in translation, in particular the crime wave from Scandinavia: Stieg Larsson, Hening Mankell, Karin Fossum, Jo Nesbo, plot-driven thrillers with a cool, slightly spooky setting. 

Peter Stamm was at the conference and was given the chance to air his views on the subject. He began by explaining that being Swiss means having a complex, diffuse identity. The Swiss do not need a national literature to define who they are. ‘Books don’t take place in nations, but in the mind.’ On his style, he said that he deliberately avoids Helveticisms, he likes neutral language with no colouring so that images can easily form in the readers’ minds. He travels a lot and so his novels are set in other Western locations – Paris, Munich, Chicago and Norway, yet ‘Swiss life’ is contained in most of his books in some way.

Some of Stamm’s thoughts were echoed by Mexican writer, Jorge Volpi, who claimed similarly that, ‘all novels take place in imaginary space’. His own novels are set in Germany, France and the US. It was only when he was published in Spain that he realised, to his great surprise, that he was considered ‘an exotic Mexican writer’. He repeatedly had to defend himself against the question – why had a Mexican written about Germany. The only possible answer was: why not? This points to a second requirement, potentially at odds with the globalisation trend – authenticity. Apparently one can only write authentically about what one knows. Commercially successful literature might then walk a tightrope between the local and the global, packaging the local as universal. What this means for Volpi and others daring to write about things not connected to their ‘roots’ remains to be seen.

About the Author

Michele Hutchison (Solihull, 1972) worked in publishing in the UK before moving to the Netherlands in 2004. She now works as an editor at a Dutch literary publishing house and as a freelance translator. Writers she has translated include Joris Luyendijk, Rob Riemen, Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer and Simone van der Vlugt.