The emergence of a major writer in a culture is an uncomfortable event. A highly original writer may be a creator of memorable phrases or characters, but before all else he releases his private demons into his society, insisting that his surroundings are as he perceives them to be. The distinguishing feature of the major writer, in contrast to one whose work leaves a less enduring mark on the mind, is that she makes her version of the world stick. For a certain slice of the society she writes about, her imaginative rendering becomes reality, to the aggravation of those who hold a conflicting vision of the same social territory.
Great literature is always national in essence, generating its most profound artistic resonances from the history of a community that defines itself as a nation (regardless of whether it is a legal nation at the time the author writes about it). Features that are later praised as “universal”—portraits of loving couples, dutiful sons, feisty grandmothers, plucky heroes—may popularize the author’s work elsewhere; yet for the national reader these features meld into the shadow of the writer’s statement about her society: by how her work understands what it means to be from this place. Tourists who stumble around Dublin, tipsy from Guinness, in search of the bronze James Joyce statue at the corner of O’Connell and North Earl Streets, do not perceive Joyce as the Irish do. Informed visitors may be aware of the nationalist anger that propels Joyce’s fiction, just as they know that in the center of Dublin today one is as likely to hear conversation in Polish or Yoruba as in Irish-accented English; yet in neither case is this what the visitor goes to Ireland to experience. In neither case does the foreigner’s perception match that of the local reader. The view from afar obscures the fact that Joyce never wrote a book in which the 19th-century Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell, the “uncrowned king of Ireland,” did not appear. Parnell is there at the beginning of Joyce’s work, in the opening chapter of his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and he is there at the end, as one of the models for the central character in Finnegans Wake (1939). Parnell is discussed by characters in the short story collection Dubliners (1914) and in the novel Ulysses (1922), in which his brother is a walk-on character. For the reader brought up in Ireland, it’s impossible to read Joyce without being beset by debates about Irish history. The international reader who turns to Joyce to study Modernism may view the Irish history as local color, yet for the author’s compatriots (as for the author himself) history is a book’s emotional core and the facilitator of Modernist pyrotechnics. The way in which the history is depicted shapes the national reader’s reaction to the author and his fiction.
Even when a significant writer is riding a populist tide—even if every reader in Ireland agreed with Joyce’s assessment of the significance of Parnell—with time the tide will turn, leaving the writer’s creative vision vulnerable to attack from old or new enemies. The Nobel Prize-winning Guatemalan novelist Miguel Ángel Asturias played a significant role in the liberal, democratic governments that tried to reform Guatemala between 1944 and 1954. His major novels, The President (1946) and Men of Maize (1949), published during these years, employed avant-garde techniques to forge a national mythology, integrating the indigenous Mayan people into Guatemala’s national fabric. For many years after 1954, when the liberal government was overthrown by a U.S.-organized military coup that burned his books in the streets, Asturias was a hero in Latin America, where Men of Maize was regarded as the Ulysses of the Maya; to his own country’s racist oligarchy, he was a villain. By the 1980s, elite views on Asturias were softening, while young Mayan intellectuals began to object to the fact that in order to make the Maya fit into his vision of an integrated nation, Asturias, an upper-class Spanish-speaking ladino of mixed racial background, had smothered the indigenous people’s cultural distinctness. Today, mention of Asturias’s name is capable of angering Guatemalans of all political persuasions and cultural backgrounds. His novels are an ongoing provocation. They remain the prism through which much of the literate foreign world understands Guatemala, yet every Guatemalan reader will find something in them to object to. Long after his death, in 1974, Asturias continues to be the target of attacks.
Like Asturias, the Nobel Prize-winning Australian novelist Patrick White, who died in 1990, is criticized by progressive opinion today for having elided the cultural differences of Aboriginal peoples in order to enshrine his vision of national coherence. Yet White’s shimmering Modernism, which in his later novels haloes both post-colonial nationality and gay male relationships in glowing images, still rankles conservatives. The response stirred up by the work of novelists such as Asturias and White is mirrored in national reactions to other significant figures. Mention any internationally renowned writer in her country of origin and grumbled complaints pour forth. (In South Africa, where I’m writing this, the internationally admired works of Nadine Gordimer, André Brink and J.M. Coetzee elicit this response.) Good books are unsettling, not reassuring. Literature is a declaration of what the world, as viewed from the author’s national sphere, is. The writer who is loved by all, by definition, neglects literature’s prime responsibility. Major writers’ statements irritate more readers (and even non-readers, who learn a writer’s views second hand) than do those of minor literary figures. But this is no excuse for the minor writer to abstain from the obligation to offend. In fact, the failure to offend is one of the central lapses that limits a minor writer’s achievement. The hesitation in projecting one’s inner world out into the public sphere for fear of being criticized or contradicted is a telltale weakness: a defining trait of those who lack the audacity to realize their creative vision in words. Offense alone is not artistic achievement; but without offense, no serious art can flourish.
Stephen Henighan is the author of a dozen books of fiction and non-fiction. Read more of his work at StephenHenighan.com. Reprinted from Geist (Summer 2014), a quarterly literary magazine of fact, fiction, poetry and the best new writing in Canada and North America.