American literature is world literature. One need not look to the geopolitical boundaries of nations to determine what does or does not constitute world literature, just as the idea of world literature must transcend languages. When French or Italian or Peruvian or Indian students read the literature of their respective nations they are reading world literature. When American students read American literature they are reading world literature. It’s too simplistic to categorize world literature as anything outside one’s language group or geographical borders. Rather, world literature is, as David Damrosch reminds us, a way of reading.
On the bio page to Paul Auster’s latest book, Winter Journal, it states that his work has been translated into forty-three languages. If this does not constitute world literature, then I do not know what does. The fact of the matter is that we continue to hold on to our outdated thinking when it comes to literature and nationalities. Granted, in the United States we tend to read far less work in translation that the rest of the world, but we are also contributing to world literature in strange and wonderful ways. Later this week the 2012 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature will be announced. The odds are stacked heavily against any American winning the prize, but names like Cormac McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, and Thomas Pynchon continue to be tossed around. For the past two years Bob Dylan’s work has been seriously vetted. The last American to win the Nobel in Literature was Toni Morrison in 1993. The Nobel Prize in Literature committee has something against authors from North America, and one committee member in particular, permanent secretary Horace Engdahl has stated that an American will never win again on account of its insularism and ignorance of the workings of world literature. Such remarks are themselves insular and ignorant. Nevertheless, it is likely that a non-North American will win the prize this year. For those keeping a close watch, this year’s favorite is Japanese-born writer Haruki Murakami, a powerful and elegant writer worthy of the prize.
World literature is defined by migration. That is to say, the capacity for stories to travel over space and time. Thus, translation becomes an essential element in bringing literature from foreign lands across, not only linguistic, but also geo-political barriers. The more literature we read in translation the deeper our understanding of the human condition becomes. The diversity of voices and experiences coming out of the United States is markedly different than those coming out of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. American literature has enjoyed wide appeal, and its influence has been considerable. Nobel winners like Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1982) have acknowledged the debt to American writers. Nevertheless, members of the Nobel Prize in Literature committee fail to transcend their own Eurocentrism.