Culture and soft power

January 29, 2014


“OUR reading habit has been stolen and changed, for example I think Asian literature is much less narrative … but our reading habit is more Anglo-Saxon, more American. Nowadays all this narrative is very similar, it’s so realism, so story-telling driven … so all the poetry, all the alternative things have been pushed away by mainstream society.”

These words were spoken by Chinese-British author Xiaulo Guo at the Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF) held recently. Guo, who writes both in Chinese and English and has been listed as one of the literary magazine Granta’s best British authors, was lamenting the domination of the global literary canon by American literature.

In conversation with her were American authors Jonathan Franzen and Jim Crace, Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri, and Ethiopian author Maaza Mengiste. Many agreed with Guo. Lahiri and Guo both lamented the dearth of avenues for authors writing in languages other than English. The conversation’s conclusion seemed obvious: to be heard, or considered in the global canon, an author must be writing in English.

The dirge of the domination of the global canon exclusively by English or specifically Anglo-American authors and forms of narrative is not new. However, the location of the conversation and its sponsorship add some new dimensions to this old lament. Taking place in India, and at the JLF’s now annual collection of literary glitter, the frustration could be a clue to the shape of things to come.

Recent surveys have revealed that Indians top the list of the world’s newspaper readers, and their appetite is not limited to news. According to the Financial Times, the Indian publishing industry is a $1.6 billion business and is likely to publish more books in English than any other market. It could be hypothesised, therefore, that a change in primary audience augurs a change in who controls the canon and defines what counts as ‘mainstream’ literature.

That would be the case if all there was to the construction of global literary taste was the market of readers. Reality, unsurprisingly, is far more complex, and some clues lie in the sponsorship of the panel itself.

The conversation on the construction and constitution of the ‘global’ novel, like so many other events at the JLF, was sponsored by the British Council. In the words of author Joel Whitney, “To understand how the mainstream is constructed it is also necessary for organisations like the British Council or US nonprofits or government councils to inspect their history in promoting certain narratives.”

Whitney, a founding editor at Guernica, has done just that. In May 2012, he published a piece in the American magazine Salon exposing the ties between the renowned literary magazine The Paris Review and the CIA. According to Whitney’s research, The Paris Review, hailed by Time magazine as the “biggest little magazine,” colluded “to share interviews and other editorial content in its vast quest to beat the Soviets in cultural achievement and showcase American writing….”

“When Xialuo Guo spoke at Jaipur about our reading habit being stolen and changed,” Whitney says, “she is exactly right; it has been, deliberately and conspiratorially.”

The Paris Review was not the only instrument in the CIA’s cultural arsenal. Frances Stonor Saunder’s book The Cultural Cold War tells of the literary magazine Encounter, which was based out of London and also an instrument of the agency. Edited by well-known literary figures, it produced well-regarded cultural commentary and commissioned many writers to produce it. In both cases, and in many others, the CIA avows its involvement in cultural production as a crucial element of using soft power to further American strategic interests.

This “weaponisation of culture”, as Whitney terms it in his essay in Salon, is not in itself a problem. The collusion of various instruments of Western soft power in literary promotion does not by itself de-legitimise all their forays into the literary sphere. Instead, it reveals areas where future investments can correct power imbalances.

One such way could be a literary magazine or platforms that publish new translated work from around the world and have clarity of focus as to why this is important. Places like New Directions, Open Letter Press and the Columbia Centre for Literary Translation are attempting to do just that. Knowledge of how the current cultural mainstream is funded and propped up is crucial in understanding what needs to be done to promote alternative interpretations and narratives.

The theory is a simple one: to counteract the domination of an Anglo-American mainstream, money must be poured into alternative voices and into translations. The challenge of course is that in the contexts from which such initiatives must arise, such as Pakistan, culture is not considered worthy of investment at all.

The hackneyed alternative to ‘Westernisation’ or ‘Westoxification’ has not been an alternative promotion of literature in Urdu. Neither has there been an effort to increase investments in translating existing Urdu literature into English such that international audiences would have access to a literary construction of Pakistan.

The response to the American weaponisation of culture as an instrument of soft power has been to deny the importance of culture itself and to advocate its destruction. The empty bookstores and libraries, the decrepit museums and archaeological sites, are all evidence of this belief.

If the sin of weaponising cultural expression can be pinned on the West, the rest are guilty of prioritising only weaponisation and leaving culture to die or decay, to rely on the strategic leftovers of superpowers.

The writer is an attorney teaching political philosophy and constitutional law.