Instead of talking at our readers, I’d like to ask a question this time.
How important is an understanding of context to appreciating what you read? This question is perhaps more relevant to translated literature than general fiction, with Americans’ lack of knowledge of—or lack of interest in being knowledgeable about—other countries frequently cited for their lack of interest in reading fiction in translation. I’m not sure if I buy this argument (perhaps the fact that translated literature makes up, by some approximations, three percent of published books in this country plays a more important role), but we’ll ignore that for the time being.
Chad Post and the Bureaucratic Imagination blog touched on this issue in relation to the Roberto Bolaño craze sweeping the country (old news by now). In short, Daniel Borzutsky expressed surprise with how “grey zone writers are entering the cultural center in ways that are both exciting, confusing, and nauseating”:
[I]t’s been frankly bizarre to see Bolaño, whose reception was lukewarm in Chile, catapult into the American literary mainstream… [H]is books are often about the mundane details of very specific and frankly petty literary disputes and details that must make little sense to, say, readers of The New Yorker, which just published his short story “Meeting with Enrique Linh,” wherein a first person narrator named Roberto Bolaño spills out a multi-page, unparagraphed dream in which he hangs out with the Chilean poet Enrique Linh in a bar.
Most American poets, let alone subscribers to The New Yorker, don’t know who Enrique Linh is, and I’m certain that neither group has any clue who Bertoni, Maquieira, Gonzalo Muñoz, Martínez, and Rodrigo Lira [are...] Far from having universal appeal, this story speaks to a very particular plight, namely, that of “young poets with no support… who’d been shut out by the new center-left government and didn’t have any backing or patronage”…
I don’t mean to sound like I’m one of the rare anointed ones smart enough to understand the specific references: but I think it’s fair to ask why The New Yorker published this story. Or perhaps a better question is what audience do they think they are serving? Is it the same audience that reads O, the Oprah Magazine, where book reviewer Vince Passaro foolishly compares Bolaño to Juan Rulfo and Garcia Marquez, and states that “holding a reviewer’s copy of 2666 in public was like brandishing the newest Harry Potter at the playground three months before the on-sale date.” Passaro, who probably stole his ideas about Bolaño from Jonathan Lethem’s book review of 2666 in the New York Times, apparently thinks it’s cool to run around reading a book about the murdered women of Juarez. But does he really think this? Or does he only think that he is supposed to think this because every other book reviewer thinks this?
The post is definitely worth reading in full for some other interesting issues it raises.
I bought into the Bolaño hype, picking up The Savage Detectives to brace myself for the onslaught of 2666. I figured if I liked Detectives enough, I’d go for the whole thing. But as I was reading, I kept wondering if this was the same author being praised to the skies in basically every review—the whole thing seemed very alien to me. Which doesn’t mean that it isn’t quality writing, or isn’t worth reading—but Bolaño’s writing presumes familiarity, even intimacy, with some major but mostly minor cultural figures who definitely are not indigenous to this country or its “insular” literary scene. I eventually grew weary, frustrated, and bored with the book, and decided Bolaño was a phenomenon I would have to skip.
Similar frustrations have marked my encounters with books like Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Camera (Dalkey Archive, 2008). Though the reasons for my lack of context are far removed from the issues associated with Bolaño, I still feel that if I were more familiar with the author’s society, I would’ve picked up on smaller nuances—maybe an idea of setting—that would’ve made me appreciate it far more. I’ve noticed this problem is more pronounced with so-called “experimental” literature than it is with more conventional fiction—maybe because the author’s duty in the past included creating his world from the ground up, as it were, rather than assuming, as Bolaño does, an innate level of familiarity with it.
I had no problem with context in Mati Unt’s Things in the Night (Dalkey Archive, 2006)—which I heartily recommend, by the way—probably because Soviet-era Estonia was in a sense part of the Soviet-Russian experience generally, something I’m more or less familiar with. The imperial power the Soviet Union held over Estonia meant that many Russian cultural references, as well as the Russian language, became (forcibly) widespread over its huge land mass. Besides the fact that Russia and Estonia, both northern, forested countries, already have many levels of cultural similarity.
So what do you think? How important is context in appreciating foreign literature? How does this issue affect Americans’ reading preferences, and what can be done to address it?