Literature has long been sounding the alarm about sexual violence in Hollywood

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For decades, novels have implored readers to look beyond the glamour and riches.
Trey Ratcliff, CC BY-NC-SA

Billy J. Stratton, University of Denver

Recent revelations about Hollywood’s culture of sexual harassment and violence might come as a surprise to many Americans.

After all, Los Angeles – home of what some call “the American image factory” – has long carried the allure of glamour, wealth and fame. Beckoned by the iconic Hollywood sign in the Santa Monica Mountains, the city, in many regards, has become synonymous with the American dream.

People familiar with the industry might tell a more complicated story. That group includes writers who have made Los Angeles and Hollywood their subjects: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathanael West, Evelyn Waugh, Gore Vidal, Joan Didion and Bret Easton Ellis. All have chronicled a seamier side of the California dream, a world awash with drugs, sex, violence and abuses of power.

So how did so many of us miss this? Could it have anything to do with the fact Americans who read literature recently fell to a three-decade low?

At the very least, the works of these writers show that literature can play an imperative role in our culture – that novels can give us a means of facing difficult issues that many of us may prefer to ignore, or don’t want to believe exist.

A city of vampires

In numerous novels since the 1930s, Hollywood’s underbelly has been revealed as a landscape rife with peril. And while many writers have explored the vice, corruption and disillusionment at the heart of Hollywood, few have gone deeper into the shadows than Nathanael West and Bret Easton Ellis.

West’s 1939 novel, “The Day of the Locust,” depicts the struggles of Faye Greener, an aspiring actress in pursuit of Hollywood fame and fortune – a dream laid waste by the men she meets along the way, who see her as little more than an object of their desires.

Pursued and stalked throughout the novel, Greener eventually turns to prostitution to make a living. Worse yet, to the novel’s protagonist, she’s the subject of disturbing rape fantasies. The story ends in a frenzy of violence at a Hollywood movie premiere – West’s ultimate denunciation of a culture and a city.

More than 40 years later, the characters of Bret Easton Ellis’s fiction are subjected to almost unspeakable forms of trauma and sexualized violence in “Less Than Zero” and “The Informers.”

In “Less Than Zero,” billboards emblazoned with the words “Disappear Here” loom over the landscape. They’re apparently advertisements that invite a blissful escape to some far-off resort. But for the novel’s main character, they become a menacing warning of a city that devours all who live and work there.

The novel’s main character, Clay, descends into the darkest recesses of this world – a journey to, as he puts it, “see the worst.” And indeed he does.

Although some of the horrors he witnesses occur in back alleys and basement clubs, the most shocking forms of violence – rapes, the viewing of snuff films – transpire at ritzy hotels and posh homes in Malibu, Bel Air and Beverly Hills. We are led to the realization that self-destruction, dehumanization and violence are built into the very fabric of Hollywood’s being.

Meanwhile, the young characters in “The Informers” live in a Los Angeles “swarming with vampires.” Many turn to alcohol, drugs and sex to cope with the depravity of lives that are hopelessly artificial and empty. For some, entertainment has devolved into watching videos of women being terrorized by “near-naked masked men.”

At one point, a main character, the son of a movie executive, meets a struggling actor.

“Unless you’re willing to do some pretty awful things,” the actor says, “it’s hard getting a job in this town.” The reader can almost anticipate the despairing surrender conveyed in his final words: “and I’m willing.”

Other novels, set outside of Hollywood, speak to what can be seen only as an epidemic of sexual violence: Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Louise Erdrich’s “The Round House,” Frances Washburn’s “Elsie’s Business,” Jessica Knoll’s “Luckiest Girl Alive.”

All hold a mirror to a world that many would prefer not to face.

Literature as ‘equipment for living’

Novels cannot replace the immediacy of the testimony offered by the courageous women who, in recent months, have publicly shared their experiences with sexual violence.

Nonetheless, such works can function as a vital corroboration for the heartbreaking truths that these women have revealed. They give a voice to perspectives that are marginalized and silenced.

The critic Kenneth Burke viewed literature not just as a form of amusement or intellectual reward, but as a way of addressing social problems by teaching, as he put it, “strategies for dealing with situations.”

An implicit element of all literature, he argued, is that it gives readers opportunities to imagine how they’d respond to complicated scenarios, from “what is promising” to “what is menacing” – all from the relative safety of our homes. He observed that readers can gain what he called an “equipment for living,” a means to help navigate our daily experiences.

Recent studies reveal other benefits. One found that deep reading makes us “smarter and nicer,” while another showed that reading literary fiction (as opposed to mass market fiction) helps people develop a greater sense of empathy.

The ConversationIn a country whose people have become increasingly isolated from and suspicious of one another, it’s something we need now more than ever.

Billy J. Stratton, Professor of American Literature and Culture; Native American Studies, University of Denver

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


British literature is richly tangled with other histories and cultures – so why is it sold as largely white and English?

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Brick Lane: popularised in a novel by British writer, Monica Ali.

Elleke Boehmer, University of Oxford and Erica Lombard, University of Oxford

Recent global developments have sharply polarised communities in many countries around the world. A new politics of exclusion has drawn urgent attention to the ways in which structural inequality has marginalised and silenced certain sectors of society. And yet, as a recent report shows, diversity and inclusion in fact “benefit the common good”. A more diverse group is a stronger, more creative and productive group.

In the world of literary writing, we find similar gaps and exclusions. But these are counterbalanced in some respects by new positive initiatives.

In 2015, a study revealed that literature by writers of colour had been consistently under-represented by the predominantly white British book industry. Statistics in The Bookseller show that out of thousands of books published in 2016 in the UK, fewer than 100 were by British authors of a non-white background. And out of 400 authors identified by the British public in a 2017 Royal Society of Literature survey, only 7% were black, Asian or of mixed race (compared to 13% of the population).

Colourful misrepresentation

A similar marginalisation takes place in the curricula in schools and universities, mirroring exclusions in wider society. In most English literature courses of whatever period, the writers taught are white, largely English and largely male.

A fundamental inequality arises in which, though British culture at large is diverse, syllabuses are not. Indeed, many British readers and students find little to recognise or to identify with when they read and study mainstream British literature.

But it’s not just a case of under-representation. It’s also a case of misrepresentation.

Black and Asian writers who have been published within the mainstream British system describe the pressure they have felt to conform to cultural stereotypes in their work. Their books are often packaged and presented in ways that focus on their ethnicity, regularly using cliches. At the same time, more universal aspects of their writing are overlooked. For example, the covers of novels by Asian British writers usually stick to a limited colour palette of yellows, reds, and purples, accented by “exotic” images.


These writers bristle at the sense that they are read not as crafters of words and worlds, but as spokespeople for their communities or cultures. At its worst, this process turns these writers and their books into objects of anthropological curiosity rather than works inviting serious literary study or simply pleasurable reading. The message is that black and Asian literature is other than or outside mainstream British writing.

Against these exclusions, leading British authors such as Bernardine Evaristo and others have urged for a broader, more inclusive approach. They recognise that what and how we read shapes our sense of ourselves, our communities and the world.

Reframing the narrative

The Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds research project, based in the Oxford English Faculty and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, set out to ask what it means to read contemporary fiction as British readers. Working with reading groups and in discussion with writers, we found that readers of all ages entered the relatively unfamiliar worlds created by BAME authors with interest.

For many, finding points of familiarity along gender, age, geographical or other lines was important for their ability to enjoy stories from communities different from their own. Identifying in this way gave some readers new perspectives on their own contexts. At the same time, unfamiliarity was not a barrier to identification. In some cases, universal human stories, like falling in love, acted as a bridge. This suggests that how literature is presented to readers, whether it is framed as other or not, can be as significant as what is represented.

Contemporary black and Asian writing from the UK is British writing. And this means that the work of writers such as Evaristo, Nadifa Mohamed and Daljit Nagra be placed on the same library shelf, reading list and section of the bookshop as work by Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Ali Smith – not exclusively in “world interest” or “global literature”.


Equally, much can be gained by thinking of white British writers like Alan Hollinghurst or Hilary Mantel as having as much of a cross-cultural or even postcolonial outlook as Aminatta Forna and Kamila Shamsie.

There are positive signs. A new EdExcel/Pearson A-level teaching resource on Contemporary Black British Literature has been developed. The Why is My Curriculum White? campaign continues to make inroads in university syllabuses. And the Jhalak Prize is raising the profile of BAME writing in Britain. Against this background, the Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds website offers a multimedia hub of resources on black and Asian British writing, providing points of departure for more inclusive, wide-ranging courses. Yet there is still much to be done.

The ConversationAll literature written in English in the British Isles is densely entangled with other histories, cultures, and pathways of experience both within the country and far beyond. Its syllabuses, publishing practices, and our conversations about books must reflect this.

Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literature in English, University of Oxford and Erica Lombard, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

New African literature is disrupting what Western presses prize

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Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie after a reading of her book ‘Americanah’ in Lagos in 2013.
Akintunde Akinleye /Reuters

Jeanne-Marie Jackson, Johns Hopkins University

African literature is the object of immense international interest across both academic and popular registers. Far from the field’s earlier, post-colonial association with marginality, a handful of star “Afropolitan” names are at the forefront of global trade publishing.

Books like Chimamanda Adichie’s “Americanah” and “Half of a Yellow Sun”, Teju Cole’s “Open City”, Taiye Selasi’s “Ghana Must Go” and Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing” have confounded neat divisions between Western and African literary traditions. The Cameroonian novelist Imbolo Mbue captured a million-dollar contract for her first book, “Behold the Dreamers”. That’s even before it joined the Oprah’s Book Club pantheon this year.

Such commercial prominence, though, has attracted considerable and unsurprising push back from Western and Africa-based critics alike. Far from advancing narratives with deep roots in local African realities, such critics fear, many of Africa’s most “successful” writers hawk a superficial, overly diasporic, or even Western-focused vision of the continent.

Noviolet Bulawayo was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2013 for her book
Olivia Harris/Reuters

The most visible of these critiques has been directed at the Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo’s “We Need New Names” (2013). The Nigerian novelist Helon Habila worried in a review in the London Guardian that it was “poverty-porn”. The popular Nigerian critic Ikhide Ikheloa (“Pa Ikhide”) frequently makes a similar point. Fellow Nigerian writer Adaobi Nwaubani critiqued the West’s hold on Africa’s book industry in a much-circulated New York Times piece called “African Books for Western Eyes”.

Such debates about African writing could, and likely will, go on forever. Questions about Africa’s place in the current global literary marketplace broaden some of the most urgent queries of the postcolonial era. Who gets to document African realities? Who are the “gatekeepers” of African publishing traditions?

It goes on: To what sort of audience does African writing cater? What is the role – and what should it be, if any – of Western institutions in brokering cultural prestige?

All these issues merit concern.

Between the default poles

Too often, though, African writing ends up volleyed between two default poles of “corporate global” and “activist local”. Some onlookers, as in a recent essay by the Canadian scholar Sarah Brouillette, go as far as to name the biases of even Africa-based print outlets. Kenya’s Kwani Trust is exposed as “Western-facing” due to a web of donor relations. “West” here is code for neoliberal. “Western-facing” is for complicity with a market that skews toward British and American interests.

Faced with a “world system” argument like Brouillette’s, African literature would seem trapped between a rock and a hard place.

But, in fact, this tells only a small part of the story of how African writing now makes its way through the world. It is incomplete to the point of being outdated, given the boom over the past five years in new, globally conscious small US literary presses collaborating with African writers.

A “West subsuming Africa” brand of critique works fine for scholars with no real skin in the game of literary publishing. It also denies real agency to a lot of African writers and other literary professionals. On the ground the literary field is far more forward-thinking and diverse.

There is an entire new body of African writing that escapes this closed circuit of damning truisms. A wave of new or recently galvanised independent literary presses in the US and the UK are working in tandem with some of Africa’s most generative outlets. Together they are publishing and promoting work by young and adventurous African writers.

Labours of love

Books published originally by presses like Umuzi (South Africa), amaBooks (Zimbabwe) and Kwani (Kenya) find second lives with international publishers working to defy the constraints of profitability. They’re mostly labours of love with skeleton staffs that speak to a transcontinental commitment to innovative African writing.

Here are a few key examples of African texts published by independent American outlets – “independent” here refers to presses beyond the “Big Five” US trade publishers (Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster.

These include Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Ugandan epic “Kintu” which was originally launched by Kwani. It was the first Anglophone novel put out by the brand-new Transit Books based in Oakland, California. The press seeks maximum visibility for translated fiction alongside texts originally written in English. They advocate for more ethical legal and financial dealings with translators, as well as international writers.

Congolese author Fiston Mwanza Mujila.
Marc de Gouvenain

A number of similarly tiny, ambitious ventures have published some of the most acclaimed recent African writing in translation. Deep Vellum Publishing was behind the English translation of Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Etisalat Prize-winning “Tram 83”.

Also dedicated exclusively to works in translation, LA-based Phoneme Media in 2016 published the first ever Burundian novel in English, Roland Rugero’s deeply contemplative “Baho!”. Phoneme’s tagline, fittingly, is “curious books for curious people”.

In a similar vein, Brooklyn’s Restless Books was founded to combat “parochial, inward-looking, and homogenised trends in American publishing”. Among their forthcoming titles, translated from the French is Naivo’s “Beyond the Rice Fields”. It’s the first novel from Madagascar to see its way to English.

Veteran nonprofit press Archipelago Books is also in Brooklyn. In 2015, it published the translation from the Portuguese of Angolan writer Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s “A General Theory of Oblivion”.

Every one of these throws a wrench in a clear, cynical sense of what kind of novel Western presses prize. That is not to mention the many African writers, publishers, and editors working in concert to promote these same texts.

Small, focused channels

It applies to the Anglosphere too. Books that offer a decidedly more locally textured experience than those of the “Afropolitan” rock stars have made their way abroad through small, focused channels.

These works might include Tendai Huchu’s “The Maestro, the Magistrate, and the Mathematician” (published originally by amaBooks, and in the US by Ohio University Press); Imraan Coovadia’s “Tales of the Metric System” (from Umuzi, and again by Ohio University Press); and Masande Ntshanga’s “The Reactive” (also Umuzi; in the US by family-run Two Dollar Radio.

Clearly, this collection just scratches the surface. But what these works have in common is an investment in stylistic and structural experimentation that confounds rather than caters to an international taste for “digestible” fiction, or to mostly Western points of cultural and institutional reference.

This counter-current of transnational African literary life complicates the equation of culture, geopolitics and economics in more useful ways than stale materialist critiques.

As such titles and presses continue to gain acclaim and recognition by an international readership that is aware of and hostile to shallow representations of Africa – and who crave engagement with challenging fiction, regardless of its origin – critics will need to rethink some of their orthodoxies.

The ConversationThere is more to both African literature and Western publishing than meets an eye too practised in its suspicion. If literature is doomed only to echo the failings of globalisation, then why bother? On the contrary, a new generation of writers and publishers deserve our awareness of the “global literary marketplace” as a meaningfully multidimensional space.

Jeanne-Marie Jackson, Assistant Professor of World Anglophone Literature, Johns Hopkins University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Millennial bashing in medieval times

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In Sir Thomas Malory’s ‘Le Morte d’Arthur,’ a character complains that young people are too sexually promiscuous.
The British Library

Eric Weiskott, Boston College

As a millennial and a teacher of millennials, I’m growing weary of think pieces blaming my generation for messing everything up.

The list of ideas, things and industries that millennials have ruined or are presently ruining is very long: cereal, department stores, the dinner date, gambling, gender equality, golf, lunch, marriage, movies, napkins, soap, the suit and weddings. In true millennial fashion, compiling lists like this has already become a meme.

A common thread in these hit pieces is the idea that millennials are lazy, shallow and disruptive. When I think of my friends, many of whom were born in the 1980s, and my undergraduate students, most of whom were born in the 1990s, I see something different. The millennials I know are driven and politically engaged. We came of age after the Iraq War, the Great Recession and the bank bailout – three bipartisan political disasters. These events were formative, to an extent that those who remember the Vietnam War might not realize.

The idea that young people are ruining society is nothing new. I teach medieval English literature, which gives ample opportunity to observe how far back the urge to blame younger generations goes.

The most famous medieval English author, Geoffrey Chaucer, lived and worked in London in the 1380s. His poetry could be deeply critical of the changing times. In the dream vision poem “The House of Fame,” he depicts a massive failure to communicate, a kind of 14th-century Twitter in which truths and falsehoods circulate indiscriminately in a whirling wicker house. The house is – among other things – a representation of medieval London, which was growing in size and political complexity at a then-astounding rate.

Geoffrey Chaucer.
Wikimedia Commons

In a different poem, “Troilus and Criseyde,” Chaucer worries that future generations will “miscopy” and “mismeter” his poetry because of language change. Millennials might be bankrupting the napkin industry, but Chaucer was concerned that younger readers would ruin language itself.

Winner and Waster,” an English alliterative poem probably composed in the 1350s, expresses similar anxieties. The poet complains that beardless young minstrels who never “put three words together” get praised. No one appreciates old-fashioned storytelling any more. Gone are the days when “there were lords in the land who in their hearts loved / To hear poets of mirth who could invent stories.”

William Langland, the elusive author of “Piers Plowman,” also believed that younger poets weren’t up to snuff. “Piers Plowman” is a psychedelic religious and political poem of the 1370s. At one point, Langland has a personification named Free Will describe the sorry state of contemporary education. Nowadays, says Free Will, the study of grammar confuses children, and there is no one left “who can make fine metered poetry” or “readily interpret what poets made.” Masters of divinity who should know the seven liberal arts inside and out “fail in philosophy,” and Free Will worries that hasty priests will “overleap” the text of the mass.

On a larger scale, people in 14th-century England began worrying that a new bureaucratic class was destroying the idea of truth itself. In his book “A Crisis of Truth,” literary scholar Richard Firth Green argues that the centralization of the English government changed truth from a person-to-person transaction to an objective reality located in documents.

Today we might see this shift as a natural evolution. But literary and legal records from the time reveal the loss of social cohesion felt by everyday people. They could no longer rely on verbal promises. These had to be checked against authoritative written documents. (Chaucer himself was part of the new bureaucracy in his roles as clerk of the king’s works and forester of North Petherton.)

In medieval England, young people were also ruining sex. Late in the 15th century, Thomas Malory compiled the “Morte d’Arthur,” an amalgam of stories about King Arthur and the Round Table. In one tale, Malory complains that young lovers are too quick to jump into bed.

“But the old love was not so,” he writes wistfully.

If these late medieval anxieties seem ridiculous now, it’s only because so much human accomplishment (we flatter ourselves) lies between us and them. Can you imagine the author of “Winner and Waster” wagging a finger at Chaucer, who was born into the next generation? The Middle Ages are misremembered as a dark age of torture and religious fanaticism. But for Chaucer, Langland and their contemporaries, it was the modern future that represented catastrophe.

These 14th- and 15th-century texts hold a lesson for the 21st century. Anxieties about “kids these days” are misguided, not because nothing changes, but because historical change cannot be predicted. Chaucer envisioned a linear decay of language and poetry stretching into the future, and Malory yearned to restore a (make-believe) past of courtly love.

But that’s not how history works. The status quo, for better or worse, is a moving target. What’s unthinkable to one era becomes so ubiquitous it’s invisible in the next.

Millennial bashers are responding to real tectonic shifts in culture. But their response is just a symptom of the changes they claim to diagnose. As millennials achieve more representation in the workforce, in politics and in media, the world will change in ways we can’t anticipate.

The ConversationBy then, there will be new problems and a new generation to take the blame for them.

Eric Weiskott, Assistant Professor of English, Boston College

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Once upon a time: a brief history of children’s literature

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Children’s books were historically moralising and instructive. What’s changed?

Susan Broomhall, University of Western Australia; Joanne McEwan, University of Western Australia, and Stephanie Tarbin, University of Western Australia

April 2 is International Children’s Book Day and the anniversary of the birth of one of the most famous contributors to this genre, Hans Christian Andersen. But when Andersen wrote his works, the genre of children’s literature was not an established field as we recognise today. The Conversation

Adults have been writing for children (a broad definition of what we might call children’s literature) in many forms for centuries. Little of it looks much fun to us now. Works aimed at children were primarily concerned with their moral and spiritual progress. Medieval children were taught to read on parchment-covered wooden tablets containing the alphabet and a basic prayer, usually the Pater Noster. Later versions are known as “hornbooks”, because they were covered by a protective sheet of transparent horn.

A 1630 horn book.
Folger Digital Image 3304., CC BY-SA

Spiritually-improving books aimed specifically at children were published in the 17th century. The Puritan minister John Cotton wrote a catechism for children, titled Milk for Babes in 1646 (republished in New England as Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes in 1656). It contained 64 questions and answers relating to religious doctrine, beliefs, morals and manners. James Janeway (also a Puritan minister) collected stories of the virtuous lives and deaths of pious children in A Token for Children (1671), and told parents, nurses and teachers to let their charges read the work “over a hundred times.”

These stories of children on their deathbeds may not hold much appeal for modern readers, but they were important tales about how to achieve salvation and put children in the leading role. Medieval legends about young Christian martyrs, like St Catherine and St Pelagius, did the same.

Other works were about manners and laid out how children should behave. Desiderius Erasmus famously produced a book of etiquette in Latin, On Civility in Children (1530), which gave much useful advice, including “don’t wipe your nose on your sleeve” and “To fidget around in your seat, and to settle first on one buttock and then the next, gives the impression that you are repeatedly farting, or trying to fart. So make sure your body remains upright and evenly balanced.” This advice shows how physical comportment was seen to reflect moral virtue.

Erasmus’s work was translated into English (by Robert Whittington in 1532) as A lytyll booke of good manners for children, where it joined a body of conduct literature aimed at wealthy adolescents.

In a society where reading aloud was common practice, children were also likely to have been among the audiences who listened to romances and secular poetry. Some medieval manuscripts, such as Bodleian Library Ashmole 61, included courtesy poems explicitly directed at “children yong”, alongside popular Middle English romances, saints’ lives and legends, and short moral and comic tales.

Do children have a history?

A lot of scholarly ink has been spilled in the debate over whether children in the past were understood to have distinct needs. Medievalist Philippe Ariès suggested in Centuries of Childhood that children were regarded as miniature adults because they were dressed to look like little adults and because their routines and learning were geared towards training them for their future roles.

But there is plenty of evidence that children’s social and emotional (as well as spiritual) development were the subject of adult attention in times past. The regulations of late medieval and early modern schools, for example, certainly indicate that children were understood to need time for play and imagination.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Children’s Games, 1560.
Wikimedia Commons

Archaeologists working on the sites of schools in The Netherlands have uncovered evidence of children’s games that they played without input from adults and without trying to emulate adult behaviour. Some writers on education suggested that learning needed to appeal to children. This “progressive” view of children’s development is often attributed to John Locke but it has a longer history if we look at theories about education from the 16th century and earlier.

Some of the most imaginative genres that we now associate with children did not start off that way. In Paris in the 1690s, the salon of Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baroness d’Aulnoy, brought together intellectuals and members of the nobility.

There, d’Aulnoy told “fairy tales”, which were satires about the royal court of France with a fair bit of commentary on the way society worked (or didn’t) for women at the time. These short stories blended folklore, current events, popular plays, contemporary novels and time-honoured tales of romance.

These were a way to present subversive ideas, but the claim that they were fiction protected their authors. A series of 19th-century novels that we now associate with children were also pointed commentaries about contemporary political and intellectual issues. One of the better known examples is Reverend Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby (1863), a satire against child labour and a critique of contemporary science.

The moral of the story

By the 18th century, children’s literature had become a commercially-viable aspect of London printing. The market was fuelled especially by London publisher John Newbery, the “father” of children’s literature. As literacy rates improved, there was continued demand for instructional works. It also became easier to print pictures that would attract young readers.

18th century Battledore printed by Newbery which adds pictures and a verse on the rewards of industry to the elements of the hornbook.

More and more texts for children were printed in the 19th century, and moralistic elements remained a strong focus. Katy’s development in patience and neatness in the “School of Pain” is key, for example, in Susan Coolidge’s enormously popular What Katy Did (1872), and feisty, outspoken Judy (spoiler alert!) is killed off in Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians (1894). Some authors managed to bridge the comic with important life lessons. Heinrich Hoffman’s memorable 1845 classic Struwwelpeter reads now like a kids’ version of dumb ways to die.

Struwwelpeter (‘Shock-headed Peter’) in a 1917 edition.
Wikimedia commons

By the turn of the 20th century, we see the emergence of a “kids’ first” literature, where children take on serious matters with (or often without) the help of adults and often within a fantasy context. The works of Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Francis Hodgson Burnett, Edith Nesbit, JM Barrie, Frank L Baum, Astrid Lindgren, Enid Blyton, CS Lewis, Roald Dahl and JK Rowling operate in this vein.

Children’s books still contain moral lessons – they continue to acculturate the next generation to society’s beliefs and values. That’s not to say that we want our children to be wizards, but we do want them to be brave, to stand up for each other and to develop a particular set of values.

We tend to see children’s literature as providing imaginative spaces for children, but are often short-sighted about the long and didactic history of the genre. And as historians, we continue to seek out more about the autonomy and agency of pre-modern children in order to understand how they might also have found spaces in which to exercise their imagination beyond books that taught them how to pray.

Susan Broomhall, Director, Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, University of Western Australia; Joanne McEwan, Researcher, University of Western Australia, and Stephanie Tarbin, Lecturer in medieval and early modern history, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Do art and literature cultivate empathy?

Nick Haslam, University of Melbourne

This article is part of our series on understanding others’ feelings. In it we examine empathy, including what it is, whether our doctors need more of it, and when too much may not be a good thing.

A common argument for the value of the arts is the claim they cultivate empathy. Reading literature, viewing quality cinema and listening to fine music refine our sensibilities and make us better and more humane – or so the argument goes.

By taking us out of ourselves, art and literature make us open to and mindful of others. As the novelist Barbara Kingsolver has written, “literature sucks you into another psyche”.

Whether the arts do in fact enhance empathy – whether they suck us into other minds or just deeper into our own – is moot. What is certain is that highly empathic people tend to have distinctive cultural preferences.

Empathic people may prefer drama and romantic movies.

Empathy’s dual character

Research by Cambridge University psychologists reveals five dimensions on which our preferences vary. People high on the “dark” dimension enjoy intense and edgy genres such as punk and metal music, horror movies and erotic fiction.

Those whose preferences are captured by the “thrilling” dimension enjoy action movies, adventure fiction and sci-fi. “Cerebral” people are drawn to news and current events, documentaries, educational programming and non-fiction.

And highly empathic people are most likely to have entertainment preferences that match the two remaining dimensions: “communal” and “aesthetic”.

Communal preferences focus on people and relationships, including a fondness for TV talk-shows, dramas and romantic movies, and popular music. Aesthetic preferences are more highbrow, running to classical music, arts and history programs and independent and subtitled movies.

The fact these two quite distinct sorts of cultural genres appeal to empathic individuals speaks to the dual character of empathy. On the one hand it leads people to take an interest in the familiar everyday dramas of social interaction. On the other, it draws us into an imaginative engagement with minds, experiences and worlds that are different from our own.

A study by Kidd and Castano found people who read literary fiction performed better on empathy tests.
Ben White/Unsplash, CC BY

Empathic people may not only prefer particular entertainment genres, but also have a distinctive response to the negative emotions conveyed by them.

There is some evidence empathic individuals are relatively averse to genres involving violence and horror, perhaps because they resonate acutely to the pain experienced by the bloodied fictional victims.

In contrast, empathic individuals revel in other negative emotions conveyed by the arts. For example, one study showed people who score high on absorption – a tendency to become deeply engaged with particular experiences that is strongly associated with empathy – are more likely to enjoy negative emotions conveyed by music.

Empathy may therefore make some negative emotions more unpleasant while making others paradoxically enjoyable.

Does art nurture empathy?

But while empathy is associated with being drawn to the arts, the question remains: do the arts actively promote it, or merely appeal to already sensitive souls? The causal arrow could point in two directions.

Exposure to literature and the sorts of movies that do not involve car chases might nurture our capacity to get inside the skins of other people. Alternatively, people who already have well developed empathic abilities might simply find the arts more engaging, even if their exposure to it does not hone those abilities.

In 2013, psychologists Evan Kidd and Emanuele Castano ran five experiments to test whether exposure to literary fiction enhances empathy.

Genres such as violence and horror may not appeal to empathic people.
John Flickr, CC BY

In each experiment, they randomly assigned one group of study participants to read short passages of literary fiction excerpted from National Book Award finalists.

One or more other groups were assigned to read passages of nonfiction, popular fiction (drawn from bestsellers) or nothing at all.

After reading the passages, participants completed tests measuring their Theory of Mind – the ability to detect and understand other people’s mental states, which is the foundation for empathy.

Theory of Mind was measured mostly using the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test. In this test, people must correctly guess a series of emotional expressions from photographs of the eyes.

In each of Kidd and Castano’s studies, people who had just read literary fiction performed better on the empathy measures. The researchers argued that any general empathy-promoting function of fiction could not explain this benefit, as it was restricted to literary rather than popular fiction. Instead, they argued, literary fiction facilitates empathy by inducing readers to take “an active writerly role” in understanding the mental lives of the characters.

In essence, Kidd and Castano argue literary fiction uniquely fosters the capacity to simulate the nuances of others’ experience.

This claim is supported by evidence the brain networks involved in making sense of other minds are activated strongly when people read literary depictions of other people.

Although the effects of reading literature on empathy might be short-lived, the researchers speculated it might build enduring empathy in avid readers. Indeed, there is ample evidence people who read more fiction perform better on tests of Theory of Mind.

Reading literary fiction may train up the neural networks that underpin empathy, with lasting benefits.

Reading a lot of fiction may train the neural networks that underpin empathy.
David Mulder/Flickr, CC BY

Jury still out

Will exposure to literature and the arts make you a better person? Perhaps, but the jury is still out. Several labs have failed to replicate the original finding of even fleeting effects of literary fiction on the capacity to step into another person’s shoes.

It is also increasingly clear that taking that step does not invariably lead to better behaviour. Taking another’s perspective in a competitive situation, for instance, makes people behave more unethically. And taking the perspective of people who we see as a threat can make us view them more negatively.

So we should not expect lovers of art and literature to be nicer people, just a little better at understanding the complexities of experience.

Empathy may not always make us more humane, but it may have other benefits. As Steve Martin said, “Before you criticise a man, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, when you do criticise him, you’ll be a mile away and have his shoes.”

Read yesterday’s introductory essay on empathy here.

The Conversation

Nick Haslam, Professor of Psychology, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Explainer: are Bob Dylan’s songs ‘Literature’?

David McCooey, Deakin University

Bob Dylan has won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. The media has reported on this surprising choice by asking musicians, poets, and writers if Dylan’s songs are indeed “literature”. Irvine Welsh, the author of Trainspotting (1993), made it clear on Twitter that he didn’t think they were:

If you’re a ‘music’ fan, look it up in the dictionary. Then ‘literature’. Then compare and contrast.

So are song lyrics a type of literature or, more specifically, poetry? The English poet Glyn Maxwell thinks not. In On Poetry (2011), he writes that “Songs are strung upon sounds, poems upon silence”. Inhabiting silence makes poetry the harder and more important art form. Music, Maxwell writes, makes lyrics seem better than when they appear on the whiteness of the page.

But many don’t share Maxwell’s position. The critic Christopher Ricks has long championed Dylan’s song lyrics as poetry. In Dylan’s Vision of Sin (2004), he places Dylan’s songs in a poetic tradition that includes Tennyson and Donne.

Bob Dylan: he belongs to the tradition of blues, country and Tin Pan Alley.
Ki Price/Reuters

Both Maxwell and Ricks, however, ignore an ancient link between poetry and music. Ancient Greek poetry, such as the epics of Homer or the lyric poems of Sappho, were accompanied by a stringed musical instrument called the lyre. It is from the lyre that we get the words “lyric” and “lyrics”.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Swedish Academy drew attention to this ancient link between poetry and music when announcing its decision. The permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, pointed out that Homer and Sappho were “meant to be performed, often together with [musical] instruments”.

There are more recent examples, of course. English lute songs of the 16th century set poetry to music. In the 19th century, Schubert and other composers wrote lieder (German “art songs”), which also set poetry to music.

But how accurate is it to compare Dylan with Sappho and composers of art song? Dylan belongs to the tradition of blues, country, and Tin Pan Alley (the commercial American songwriters of the first half of the 20th century). He was central in the rise of “Americana”, a mix of folk and popular American musical forms that have little to do with “elite” musical forms such as opera and lieder.

Bob Dylan took his stage name from Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
Wikimedia commons

Dylan has avoided taking on the mantle of “poet”. He once described himself as a “song ’n’ dance man”. Nevertheless, he famously took the name of a Welsh poet (Dylan Thomas) for his pseudonym. (Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman.) In addition, his songs, as Ricks and others have pointed out, take in numerous literary references, as seen in his many often-playful allusions to the Bible. And while his breakthrough in the early 1960s was as a “folk” singer, Dylan quickly became famous for the complexity and “poetic” quality of his lyrics.

So, do Dylan’s lyrics survive as poetry in the “silence” of the page? You can find out for yourself by reading the 960 pages of Dylan’s The Lyrics: 1961-2012 (2014). And you can compare his work with those of other song writers – such as Lou Reed, PJ Harvey, and Paul McCartney – whose lyrics have been published in book form.

Certainly, many people would argue that the lyrics of Dylan’s classic songs from the 1960s do survive as poetry. The strange, surreal, and often funny lyrics from Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde on Blonde (1966) arguably represent his peak as a lyricist.

Visions of Johanna, from Blonde on Blonde, is a good example of the “literary” Dylan.

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind

Visions of Johanna contains some of Dylan’s most celebrated lyrics, and you can see why. It clearly works on the page.

But should we make the printed page the standard of what counts as “literature”? Bob Dylan’s songs are multimedia things. Lyrics are to songs what scripts are to plays or films. We can read scripts for enjoyment, and to better understand the productions they come from. But to pretend that the play or film is somehow secondary is clearly a mistake. Equally, we can’t ignore the music and performances that accompany Dylan’s song lyrics.

Dylan’s Nobel Prize shows up what the Swedish Academy has so far ignored in their award system: film, popular music, and the emerging forms of digital storytelling.
Perhaps what this Nobel tells us more than anything is that “literature” or “poetry” are categories of our own making. To move beyond the page seems long overdue.

The Conversation

David McCooey, Professor of Writing and Literature, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Bah, humbug: the misery of Christmas in classic literature

Michelle Smith, Deakin University

Every festive season guarantees a television re-run of the National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, with the deflating turkey, incinerated tree, and extreme Griswold household lighting display that is now sufficiently commonplace for the joke to be compromised.

Most modern Christmas films angle for comedy with a touch of sentimental schmaltz. In contrast, literary Christmases frequently tap into the anxiety and sadness that often accompany the “happiest time of year”.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) is the quintessential Christmas tale. Even for those who have never read any Dickens, the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge has permeated our culture, from 1940s Scrooge McDuck cartoons to the Muppets adaptation of A Christmas Carol in 1992.

Scrooge (1935). The first sound version of A Christmas Carol.

Money-lender Scrooge’s greed extends to denying the pleasures of Christmas to himself and his employees. The ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come aid Scrooge in reconciling his pain at the loss of a past love and redeeming himself among the living, so that he can find a welcoming place in the world on Christmas day.

As Tara Moore explains, Dickens and other writers in the Victorian period shaped “a certain version of urban Christmas—plum pudding, mourning the lost, holly and hearth-love” that we continue to idealise and reproduce.

Truman Capote’s autobiographical short story A Christmas Memory (1956) transports the theme of mourning happier times and beloved people from the snowy cobblestone streets of London to small-town Alabama.

The seven-year-old narrator, Buddy, describes the pleasures of a poor – but loving and inventive – Christmas with his elderly cousin, complete with scandalous nips of whisky after baking fruitcakes.

This is Buddy’s last Christmas with her, as he subsequently moves to military school. As time passes, dementia erases the cousin’s memories of Buddy and a November finally arrives,

when she cannot rouse herself to exclaim: “Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather!”

Other literary Christmases struggle to even find a bittersweet strand to the holiday. Dostoyevsky’s A Christmas Tree and a Wedding (1848) is a disturbing story in which the narrator recalls a past Christmas party in which a male landowner watches a rich girl playing with a doll.

The landowner calculates that when the girl is old enough marry that her dowry will total half a million roubles; he attempts to kiss the girl and extract a promise of love from her. The wedding of the title, which the narrator has just attended, is revealed to be that of the landowner and the rich girl, held five years after their Christmas meeting.

Clement Clarke Moore’s poem ’Twas the Night Before Christmas (1823) popularised an idyllic children’s vision of Christmas rendered magical by Saint Nicholas and his flying reindeer. In several of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales with festive settings, however, he does not soften his trademark melancholy for the sake of Christmas cheer.

Stories of perfect Christmases are often tinged with sadness, as in Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Fir Tree’.
Author provided

In the little-known story The Fir Tree (1844), a tree is impatient for the day when it will be tall enough to take the exciting journey that other trees in the forest enjoy each December.

The fir tree is blissful when he is felled, transported, and decorated with candles and a gleaming star for a family’s Christmas Eve celebrations. He is then discarded in the household attic and eventually chopped to pieces and tossed on a fire. “Past! past!” the tree cries as he burns, realising that he should have taken pleasure during his lifetime in the forest, rather than eyeing an unknown future.

The Little Match Girl (1845) is similarly heart-rending, as a hungry, barefooted girl attempts to sell matches on snowy streets on New Year’s Eve.

She lights several matches to warm herself and is comforted by a series of visions, including a Christmas scene with a tree shining with “thousands of candles” and a stuffed goose that jumps from its dish,

and waddle[s] along the floor with a knife and fork in its breast, right over to the little girl.

The girl freezes to death on the street. As is typical of Andersen, her lonely death is intended to be a happy ending, as she will join with her grandmother and God in heaven.

Christmas is a backdrop for confronting feelings of isolation, strangeness and escalating family tensions in a range of fiction. Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda (1988), set in the 19th century, is a striking example of Christmas serving as a lightning rod for intergenerational conflict.

Oscar’s father, Theophilus, is a fundamentalist Christian preacher who shuns Christmas feasting and celebration as pagan in origin. The servants covertly cook a plum pudding for Oscar, but his father catches him eating the “fruit of Satan” after one life-changing spoonful.

Theophilus strikes his son, forcing him to spit out the forbidden pleasure. Oscar, seeking a divine sign, asks God “if it be Thy will that Thy people eat pudding, then smite him!”. His father is soon bleeding with an injury and Oscar’s rejection of his father’s religion is set in motion.

In literature, as in our lived experiences of Christmas, the expectations of family, togetherness, and plenitude can heighten a sense of loneliness, loss, and conflict.

While there are many cheerful stories of Christmas, for children in particular, a significant number of literary Christmases scratch away at its twinkling veneer of tinsel and goodwill.

There’s an element of humbug in the mythology of Christmas, as Scrooge would have it, after all.

The Conversation

Michelle Smith, Research fellow in English Literature, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

An introduction to the literature of Indonesia, 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair’s Guest of Honour

Manneke Budiman, University of Indonesia

Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country and among the most culturally diverse. Yet not many people are familiar with literary works by Indonesian writers. Why is that? Well …

Indonesian literature plunged into obscurity following an anti-communist massacre in 1965-1966 that brought Suharto’s repressive New Order regime to power.

As we enter the 50th year of the communist purge, this is about to change. Indonesia is the Guest of Honour in this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, taking place from October 14 to 16.

That means, for the first time, Indonesian literature is in the global spotlight at the world’s largest book festival.

Below, Manneke Budiman, of the University of Indonesia’s literature department, gives an introduction to Indonesian literature and explains how colonial legacy plays a part in determining “Third World” authors’ place on the international literary stage.

What is the state of Indonesian literature in translation globally?

Indonesian literature is not widely known compared to works from other countries. Writings of Indonesian authors do not get translated as much as works by other authors of “Third World” countries. Colonial legacy plays a part in this.


Authors from the former colonies of France and England have the attention of French or British publishers that own a large international market share. Big publishing houses such as Heinemann and Penguin have translated and published authors from India, Kenya, Senegal, Egypt, and Morocco.

In contrast, Dutch publishers rarely publish literary works from their former colonies, which includes Indonesia. Except for academic publishers, there are only few, if any, Dutch publishers with international access to global market.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet, published by Penguin, are the rare works that got translated into foreign languages during Suharto’s rule. His tetralogy eventually caught the attention of the Noble Prize Committee, which nominated him several times for the Noble Prize in Literature.

The Nobel Prize nominations show that Indonesian literature is not inferior to the literature of other countries. But there are questions as to whether it was his works or his status as political prisoner that made the Nobel Committee nominated Pramoedya. Some wondered whether the Committee nominated Pramoedya to pressure the Indonesian government to release him from prison.

How was the production of literature like following the communist purge?

Equinox Publishing Indonesia

Literary production remained consistently high even during the repressive era of Suharto.

In the 1970s and 1980s, works by women authors – such as Mira W., Marga T., La Rose, Ike Supomo, Titi Said, Nh. Dini, and Marianne Katoppo – dominated the scene. But many male critics tended to brush them aside as “women’s fiction”, which carries a negative connotation of having low literary quality.

After Suharto’s regime collapsed, the atmosphere changed dramatically. More women began to write. Very soon there was an “explosion” of titles by a new generation of female authors such as Ayu Utami, Linda Christanty, Nukila Amal, Fira Basuki, and Dewi Lestari. Ayu Utami’s Saman, for instance, has been translated into several Asian and European languages.

What are the characteristics of Indonesian literature?

The styles and characteristics of Indonesian literature change from time to time. They sometimes follow the political dynamics of the country and the region.

In the colonial era, local authors were heavily inspired by Western novels and poetry. Many writers produced adaptations of Western fiction in their local setting or even “plagiarised” works produced by their Western counterparts. Popular works such as Robinson Crusoe, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Sherlock Holmes were translated and adapted in Malay, Sundanese and Javanese languages in the late 19th century in the Netherlands Indies by Dutch, Chinese and indigenous translators.

In the 1920s and 1930s authors were preoccupied in finding the “right” language. Writers such as Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana and Sanusi Pane debated whether Indonesia had to abandon its traditional values and fully embraced Western modernity or vice versa.

Dalang Publishing

In the 1940s, as the nation struggled to free itself from colonial rule, authors became more straightforward and blunt. As the Japanese invaded and defeated the Dutch, a spirit of nationalism and militancy grew among authors. They also experimented with forms that were “borrowed” from the West – such as English war poems and works of fiction by European writers. Chairil Anwar and Idrus are examples par excellence of this instance.

Chairil’s poem, Antara Kerawang dan Bekasi (Between Kerawang and Bekasi) is suspected to be an adaptation of Sir Archibald Clark Kerr’s poem, whereas Idrus’ short-stories show striking similarities with works written by European writers in terms of the modernist ideas in his works, as discussed by Indonesian studies expert Keith Foulcher.

The Golden Age of Indonesian literature, according to many scholars, was the period between the 1950s and 1960s. Authors were working out how to connect traditions and local flavors with modern trends in literature.

In that period, the Cold War was raging. Many authors were fiercely involved in ideological tug of wars among themselves. Authors also began to seriously search for a distinct Indonesian identity through their works that could become part of the world culture. Unfortunately, that vibrancy had to abruptly end with the take over of power from Sukarno to Suharto.

After Suharto stepped down in 1998, there was a brief moment of euphoria among authors as freedom of speech and democratisation began to flourish. But the 32-year authoritarian rule seemed to have taught them not to be too optimistic. This is clearly reflected in the works of the post-Suharto writers, which are strongly marked by doubt and ambiguity about the future.

In those works, readers may sense a yearning for freedom from the haunting legacy of Suharto’s rule.

What are the main styles and themes?

Realism remains to be the dominant style, although sometimes it also blends with some kind of romanticism – a nostalgia for the lost past – and a sense of disillusionment that replaces it.

Dalang Publishing

There is also a trend of looking outward to what happens in other parts of the globe. Contemporary Indonesian writers are curious and adventurous in embracing cosmopolitanism and transcending national boundaries.

That’s particularly visible in the works of many current women authors. At the same time, their works also rebel against customary laws and traditions that marginalise women.

Young authors are not oblivious to the conditions of their country. They show genuine concern about what has happened in outer islands outside the primary island of Java.

Are there efforts to publish Indonesian literature in translation?

Amid the relatively meagre attention from big international publishers to Indonesian authors, a foundation and a small publishing house in the US are working to bring more English translations of Indonesian literature to international readers.

Lontar Foundation, founded by American John McGlynn, has done extraordinary work translating and publishing Indonesian literature in English. Lontar regularly publishes the Menageries Series containing translated works by Indonesian authors. It also published a collection of poems written by Indonesians about their American experience (On Foreign Shore) and a series of Indonesian classics.


California-based Dalang Publisher, owned by Lian Gouw, a Chinese-American who spent her childhood in Indonesia before her family migrated to the US, has published several works of contemporary Indonesian writers in high-quality translation.

Some of the works that have been published by Dalang in translation are Remy Silado’s My Name Is Mata Hari (Namaku Mata Hari), Lan Fang’s novel Potions and Paper Cranes (Perempuan Kembang Jepun), Erni Aladjai’s Kei, Anindita S. Thayf’s Daughters of Papua (Tanah Tabu), Ahmad Tohari’s The Red Bekisar (Bekisar Merah), and Hana Rambe’s Cloves for Kolosia (Aimuna dan Sobori).

That list is by no means exhaustive, and it keeps on growing. Gouw seems to have a sharp sense of knowing which works may appeal to non-Indonesian audience. Her choices include works that are concerned with pluralism, ethnic and religious conflicts, colonialism, and injustice.

McGlynn, meanwhile, prefers choosing works of established or well-known authors, such as the poet Sapardi Djoko Damono, short-story writer Seno Gumira Ajidarma, and novelist Oka Rusmini.

There are other small-scale publishers that have published Indonesian works in German, Dutch, and French. But in general those publishers do not have the requisite international stature to draw a significant attention.

For newcomers to Indonesian literature, what are the titles to start with?


Pramoedya’s tetralogy – The Earth of Mankind, The Child of All Nations, Glass House, and Footsteps – remain the most important books for foreign readership. Mangunwijaya’s The Weaverbirds is another classic that has become a must-read. These two senior authors are the best introduction to the dynamics and complexities of Indonesian society.

Oka Rusmini (Earth Dance), Seno Gumira Ajidarma (Jazz, Perfume & the Incident), Nukila Amal (Cala Ibi), Ayu Utami (Saman), belong to the generation that follows; and then young writers such as Erni Aladjai (Kei), Lan Fang (Potions and Paper Cranes), Anindita Thayf (Daughters of Papua), and Okky Madasari (Maryam).

The works of the new generation of writers works contain rich panorama of Indonesian social, cultural, and political dynamics viewed from different generational lenses.

The Frankfurt Book Fair runs until October 16. Details here.

The Conversation

Manneke Budiman, Lecturer at the Literature Department, University of Indonesia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Svetlana Alexievich exposes the deep contradictions of the literature Nobel

Peter Boxall, University of Sussex

The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2015 has been awarded to the Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich. Her writing, until now not well known in the Anglophone world, is difficult to categorise. In works such as Voices from Chernobyl and War’s Unwomanly Face, Alexievich develops a distinctive kind of documentary writing, drawn from large numbers of interviews, which gives an intimate picture of what it is like to be the victim of war, of state negligence, brutality or totalitarianism.

Neither fiction nor non-fiction, the work develops what the secretary to the Swedish Academy Sara Danius calls a “new literary genre”, which gives us “a history of human beings about whom we didn’t know that much”.

This is surely a welcome and brave award, for at least two reasons. The statement from the academy announces that the prize was awarded “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”.

Voices heard

The stress on the “polyphony” of her writing is significant; if it is the case that Alexievich is little known in the English-speaking world, this is partly because the financial pressures on contemporary publishers make it very difficult to publish work that does not conform to a very narrow set of generic and formal norms.

Alexievich’s work is difficult to categorise, and hence difficult to sell, and so nearly invisible. The prize will change this, and will at the same time do much to alert us to the growing importance of documentary writing elsewhere in Europe.

A new kind of writing is about to get a much bigger audience.
Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Equally significant is the assertion that Alexievich’s work represents a monument to a kind of experience – a kind of suffering – that ordinarily goes undocumented. In awarding Alexievich the prize, the academy has helped to ensure that the voices she records are heard on a much bigger stage.

With the award of this prize, the Academy is likely to bring an important body of writing to new audiences – something that is much harder to achieve with the better known contenders for the prize, such as Haruki Murakami or the perennial outsider Philip Roth.

Ideal directions

So this is a progressive and exciting choice. But it is also one that is mired in the contradictions that surround the prize – contradictions that are perhaps inherent in the concept of literary prizes in general, but which are sharpened by the terms of Alfred Nobel’s original bequest.

Nobel specified in his will that all five prizes were to be awarded to those who, in a given year, “have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind”. The prize for literature, he goes on, is to be awarded to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”.

The history of the prize has been the history of attempts to interpret this stipulation. How are we to quantify or to characterise the benefit that art confers on mankind, and what does it mean for literature to take an “ideal direction”? There has been a long tradition of awarding the prize to writers, such as Alexievich, whose work “benefits” us by drawing attention to the injustices which are perpetrated against the weak, the powerless or the dispossessed.

We might think that the award of the prize to Samuel Beckett in 1969 and to J M Coetzee in 2003 belongs to that tradition. These writers, like Alexievich, might be seen to erect a “monument to suffering”.

But in awarding the prize to writers who give us such naked and powerful accounts of the privations of human beings, the academy might appear to be in breach of that second stipulation: that recipients should travel in an “ideal direction”. In awarding the prize to Coetzee, the academy wrote that the value of his work lay in part in his principled refusal of ideals, his absolute commitment to depicting suffering as it is, rather than as we would like it to be.

“His intellectual honesty”, the academy wrote, “erodes the basis of all consolation, and distances itself from the tawdry drama of remorse and confession”. This is work that resists the consolations or ornament of lyricism; but in recognising the power of this kind of vision, the academy is led to betray its spirit, to transform a difficult, bleak vision, into a redemptive one, one which leads in an “ideal direction”.

Cui bono?

What did Nobel really have in mind?

In honouring Alexievich, the academy has done a great service to literature, giving new audiences to a writer who has dedicated her life to speaking for those who have few means of articulating their own experiences. But it has done so in a way that exposes, again, the contradictions in Nobel’s bequest – contradictions that are absolutely central to the idea that we should think of art as conferring a benefit to mankind.

The Nobel Prize seeks to weaponise art, to deploy it in a battle against social injustice. This is a noble aim, but it leads us again and again to make something consoling out of a picture of suffering, or to imagine that art is a kind of alchemy that can make of the terrors it witnesses something restorative, or palliative.

The impossible demand that art makes of us is perhaps to recognise that its benefits are not measurable by existing instruments, and are not “conferred” upon mankind by any reliable mechanism. But in the absence of any readily available means of meeting that demand, the Nobel’s recognition of Alexievich’s courageous work is welcome indeed.

The Conversation

Peter Boxall, Professor of English, University of Sussex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.