‘Nothing human is alien to me,’ claimed Roman playwright Terence in the second century BC. If he were alive today, he might find good company among 21st century readers. Browsing the shelves of a high-street bookstore, one easily find see a range of world literature, from Chinua Achebe to Zadie Smith; international literature prizes and festivals abound, while World Book Day has become a fixture in the literary calendar. The Nobel Prize for Literature continues to offer a snapshot of the global literati even if, as is alleged by some, it may never again be won by an American.
Yet while the Nobel committee proclaims that it ‘is not a contest between nations’ there can be no denying that national literature has a particular place in the literary consciousness. Whether it is ‘imperial’ writers such as Virgil or Spenser, or modern nationalists such as Yeats and Mahmoud Darwish, or distinct national bodies of literature (19th century Russian, 20th century American and English), we certainly use nationality as a shorthand when talking about literature. To take America as an example, there can be no doubt that its writers influenced each other in developing a distinctive body of literature: from Henry James and Edith Wharton to Ezra Pound and TS Eliot, Hemingway and Faulkner, Updike and Roth, Pynchon and DeLillo… Today celebrating indigenous or foreign language writers has become the hallmark of a cosmopolitan sophistication or Western intellectual guilt, depending on your perspective. Genres such as ‘Jewish’ or ‘immigrant’ literature, meanwhile, find commonalities between peoples that transcend geographical location but imply a certain specific cultural bond.
Is it ever valid to judge literature with reference to its nationality, linguistic distinctions aside? Are some national traditions simply more important than others? Or, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, does it matter more to the modern reader whether books are well written or badly written? Is the interest in global literature evidence of a rootless cosmopolitanism, hostile to the influence of the social and political realities of a particular author’s nationality and cultural background? Are we kidding ourselves we even understand works in translation? Is great national literature universal because it is great, or great because it is universal?
Held in association with English PEN’s Writers in Translation programme
Diran Adebayo: novelist and cultural critic; author, award-winning Some Kind of Black and My Once Upon A Time
Michael Caines: assistant editor, Times Literary Supplement
Miguel Fernandes Ceia: writer, critic and translator; editorial assistant, Writers' Hub; contributor, Culture Wars
Dr Shirley Dent: head of communications, PhonepayPlus; co-author, Radical Blake
Emily Kasriel: executive producer, The Forum, BBC World Service; judge, 2011 JQ Wingate Literary Prize
Adrienne Loftus Parkins: literature curator; founder and director, Festival of Asian Literature
David Bowden: coordinator, UK Battle Satellites; poetry editor, Culture Wars; TV columnist, spiked
Thursday 20 October, 7.00pm until 9.00pm, Free Word Centre, 60 Farringdon Road, London EC1R 3GA Satellite Events 2011
Tickets: £7.50 (£5 concessions) per person. Tickets are available from the Institute of Ideas website.