Thursday, June 13, 2013

Speculations on Eastern vs. Western Literature

In a San Francisco Chronicle review (5/26/13, pp. F1-F2) of Khaled Hosseini’s new novel, reviewer G. Willow Wilson tells of -- a few years ago -- asking a Pakistani writer (whom she does not name) “what, in his opinion, makes contemporary Western literature distinctive?” “Simple. It’s about bored, tired people having sex,” he replied. Wilson comments that “The response was so immediate, delivered with such deadpan frankness…shorthand for the opaque cynicism of the postmodern novel, so very different from the urgently political, emotionally riotous books coming out of the Middle East and South Asia.” Wilson goes on to opine that the popularity of Hosseini’s novels (which take place between countries and cultures) “hints at the advent of a new, more global, less culturally compartmentalized era of literature,” and suggests that “we are living in a time when such distinctions are increasingly meaningless, and cynicism is going out of style.” The original distinctions, and the declaration of their going out of style, seem to me far too sweeping, and there is perhaps an unfortunate bit of stereotyping going on. But I did find these speculations intriguing, and started to think about which books I choose to read, and how they might fit into this schema. True confession: I realize that many of the books I read could be, very loosely (no pun intended!), put in the Pakistani writer’s “bored people having sex” category. But -- and I know it was partly a joke -- such a description is very reductionist. Of course sometimes the sweeping statements are the ones that make us think, even as we question them, or partially reject them.

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