Sunday, January 21, 2007

Li'l writers in li'l countries

Finally got around to reading Milan Kundera's essay "Die Weltliteratur—How We Read One Other" in The New Yorker. I'm no big fan of Kundera's, but he makes some food-for-thought points, particularly in the way he delineates "two kinds of provincialism: that of large nations and that of small ones." This leads to writers and audiences to deal with literature in different ways. "The small nation incalculates in its writer the conviction that he belongs to that place alone. To set his gaze beyond the boundary of the homeland, to join his colleagues in the supranational territory of art, is considered pretentious, disdainful of its own people. And, since the small nations are often in situations where their survival is at stake, they can easily present this attitude as morally justified."

Now, replace "small nation" with "minority." What Kundera writes pretty much describes what's at stakes for, say, gay or African-American scribblers in the US, and explains both why some gay or African-American writers refuse to be labeled such, and why others embrace a role closer to adovation.

It also illustrates what to me is a toxic, creativity-stifling attitude from some critics and readers, who expect writers to offer "positive role models" and represent for their peers. Kundera writes: "A nation's possessiveness toward its artists works as a small-context terrorism that reduces the entire meaning of a work to the role it plays in its homeland" Just read a popular website such as—where every show, movie or album is judged by simplistic criteria such as "But does it make lesbians look good?"—to see that small-context terrorism in action. All right, so deriding a pop-culture website for its critical acumen is easy, but this applies to more highbrow reviewers as well, and it places on writers/artists who are not straight white men (these guys never have to justify anything—just ask people as different as Jay McInerney, Cormac McCarthy or Stephen King) a whole different burden of expectations.

Unrelated: Kundera goes on to remind us that Gombrowicz once wrote a text titled "Against Poets," in which he reacted "to the view of poetry as the untouchable goddess of Western modernism." Yay, someone taking a stand against poetry!

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