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global literature

At the opening of the Winternachten literary festival in The Hague, Indian writer and critic Pankaj Mishra lectured on 'The Globalization of Literature, the Making of an Illusion.' Quite a mouthful, the title reflected his treatment of grand themes like Globalization and Literature (as capitalized entities) as well as his tone of urgent nostalgia.

The gist of it seemed to be that while all great literature is firmly rooted in a particular time, place and culture, it is now in danger of becoming one big, bland McLiterature, catering to the taste of a Western audience that can only digest Otherness in little stereotypical bites. As Mishra himself experienced when reading Flaubert in a small town in India, it takes effort to understand a work of art from an alien culture. Since effort is difficult to market, the current trend is easy exoticism, disregarding truthfulness.

It is fair to say that the average contemporary western reader does not have much knowledge of traditions and history separate from his own - and sometimes not even that. He or she tends to read books that entertain and inform without asking a deep commitment of intellectual and emotional energy. The French critic Roland Barthes may well have been describing such a selective consumer of literature when he spoke of the reader who 'wants to escape from history. It is a reader who wants to feel good about being who or what she is, and a knowledge of history - even one's own history - does not always cause one to feel good.'

Taking Salman Rushdie's latest novel 'Shalimar the Clown' as a case in point, its depiction of the Kashmir conflict is indeed flimsy, and probably inaccurate. And its delving into global terrorism, though fashionable, is hardly enlightening.

But then, Rushdie has been repeating his trick of the all-encompassing story for a long time now, with steadily less spectacular results. So maybe this is just not such a great novel, regardless of any trends. (Also, whether he succeeded or not, the theme of Rushdie's recent novels seems to be globalization itself, a new kind of reality defined precisely by its uprootedness.)

Moreover, Mishra's concern seems to have been recognized already: both last year's Booker Prize winner (Kiran Desai) and Nobel Prize winner (Orhan Pamuk) are very culturally particular and politically engaged writers.

His many examples did provide a nice reading list. Here's a couple of Indian ones:

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