Tom Perrotta and the State of American Literary Culture

Question: Was the Nobel Committee Chair accurate in calling American readers insular?

Perrotta:    I wouldn’t necessarily dispute the idea that we’re insular.  I know I certainly feel like I think a lot more about America as America than I do about America in the world, and I certainly don’t read the amount of fiction and translation that I used to, and we don’t publish the amount of fiction and translation that we used to.  That said, yeah, I don’t know that insularity equates completely with ignorance and I also feel like it’s a two-way street and I think…  You know, I know for years I had trouble getting my work published internationally and there’s a sense that it was too American that, you know, where you think that in a way the more American the fiction was the more interesting it would be to people overseas, you know, because that’s one of the really valuable ways of fiction functions, I think, in the world, which is just giving us windows on worlds that we don’t have access to.  So, you know, I can…  And, look, we throw around our weight quite a bit in the world culturally, militarily, economically, and I think, you know, I think you’re seeing a little bit of a push back from the Nobel Prize Committee when they talk like that and it seems like, really, you know, you can just hear it, it has nothing to do with the quality of the literature and I would… I haven’t read Le Clezio’s work, so I don’t know.  He may be a great writer for all I know.  It’s hard to imagine that he’s a more important writer than Phillip Roth, for example. 

Question: Why is there so little literature in translation read in the US?

Perrotta:    I actually think it reflects the American publishing world.  So, for instance, when I was in college, there’s a lot of Eastern European fiction that was being translated, and there’s a sense that you weren’t really a literate person if you weren’t reading Kundera or [IB].  Later on, you know, Latin American literature, you know, if you weren’t reading Vargas Llosa.  And I think, you know, to a large extent that’s… well, I wouldn’t say it’s vanished, but there’s really been a diminishment of the number of foreign works that are published here and published with the kind of fanfare and sense of occasion that used to happen.

Question: Is literature valued in American culture?

Perrotta: I just don’t think reading is the central activity that it used to be and, obviously, you know, for a cultural form to thrive it’s got to succeed within a cultural context and it’s got to be able to compete for people’s attention with film, with video games, with the Internet.  You know, reading’s [in an influx].  It’s, you know, it’s not like there’s some eternal human condition where people are going to have the time and focus to read a 600-page novel every week.  You know, it’s not the 19th century.  It’s so much busier, you know, there’s just so many claims on people’s attention and I do think that literature is being displaced.  I don’t think it’s going to disappear but I think that it’s becoming a little more peripheral and a little, you know… I would hate to say it, but I’ve seen it with poetry in my own life.  You know, poetry seemed like a pretty major central thing in the ‘60s, you know, people like Sylvia Plath and Robert [Lowe] were cultural heroes and it’s really hard to say that there’s a figure that’s equivalent right now.  You know, poetry has become a kind of cult practice, you know, you go to a poetry reading and most of the people in the audience are poets.  It’s a very small audience that is mostly speaking to itself rather than speaking to a broad culture, and that hasn’t happened yet with fiction and non-fiction.  But I know a lot of literary novelists are really struggling to find an audience and I’m, you know, not sure that that audience will be around in another generation or two.  I hope that’s not the case and I don’t want to be, you know, too gloomy about it, but I do think there’s some… When I look at kids I know who are high school age, I don’t know that they see literature as some totally crucial area of cultural transmission to put it in, you know, in grand terms.

Tom Perrotta on whether literature is dead.

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