The Need for a National Writer?

In countries all over the world there is a person or people who represent the collective conscious or Zeitgeist of the nation. S/he is a national figure, a symbol, an icon who is a great source of pride for her/his people. In these countries or cultures, the writer serves a different purpose, than writers usually found here in the U.S. The role of these writers is to create works that are much more than stories of dysfunctional relationships, romance, or barely-disguised memoirs: s/he voices an opinion of the masses, articulates the ideas of the whole. Sometimes the writer is not currently living, but rather a long-revered figure in the nation’s history. Her or his works are read and studied at school or at university; s/he is immortalized in a statue in a great public square or in a museum; or, s/he is a heroic figure that dares to speak out against the authorities—-and sadly pays the price.

Very often these writers are not the product of a literature department nor do they hold a degree in writing. They have not drawn upon a lot of conventional fiction writing techniques, and they probably haven’t attended book discussion groups (in the American sense), though they have most likely sat for hours on end in cafes discussing literature and their favorite writers and philosophers with their peers. Very often, they are individuals who have been involved in fields outside literature—-politics, diplomacy, labor, comparative linguistics, philosophy, journalism, activism, medicine, et cetera. Vaclav Havel, is just one such example: a renowned playwright who was politically active, he peacefully led the Velvet Revolution that separated the Czech Republic and Slovakia when he was President. Octavio Paz was a Mexican diplomat who served in India (his marvelous In Light of India serves as a testament to his time there). And the heroic Chokri Belaid led the Arab Spring movement in Tunisia before his untimely death: he was a lawyer and a poet.

Often, the work of these great writers takes on a political tone or is highly allegorical. I once had the great fortune to see Salman Rushdie speak, and what impressed me so much about him was the clear aim of his art to serve as the intersection between literature and society. One need only read his brilliant (and underrated) Shalimar the Clown to appreciate the political history of India and the Partition (with British and American involvement) cleverly disguised as a love story. In the same breath, one could naturally include Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, which is a love story set in the backdrop of modern Turkey and its issues of fundamentalism vs. secularism.

In short—-the Great Writer in other countries and cultures is more than a writer who has trained in writing and (perhaps) literature. S/he has a broader perspective on life that filters into her/his works. S/he is a (wo)man of letters.

Shrewd readers would immediately note that these are the types of writers who are awarded the Nobel Prize. This is absolutely correct, though there are many writers of this ilk who are not Nobel Laureates, such as Isak Dinesen or George Orwell, or Bulgarian/Macedonian writer and revolutionary Georgi Pulevski who wrote before the advent of the prize. And those same readers might raise the issue that, to define a culture by a writer, to use a writer as an icon or symbol of a culture, there must be a strong sense of nationalism. A sense of nationalism that harkens back to the 18th and 19th Centuries, when many European nations emerged and defined themselves culturally and politically. This is impossible to do, they might say, in a country like America, which is based on pluralism, diversity, multiculturalism, and a multitude of viewpoints ranging from class to race to gender to sexual orientation to region. We can barely agree on whom to elect as President; do we really think we can find a writer who represents all 315 million of us?!

All of this is true and well said. Can we actually have a National Writer who speaks for all (or many) of us? Is this actually plausible? We do have a Poet Laureate, but this is a relatively new phenomenon, and the sad truth is that only a tiny handful could name him or her (it is currently Natasha Trethewey, and I confess I had to look it up!) Literature is not necessarily a part of our culture, though we have countless excellent writers, scholars, poets, and the like. There are few American Nobel Laureates in Literature. If I had a dollar for every time someone lamented that Philip Roth has been neglected by the Nobel Academy, I would be wealthy: Roth’s tremendously prolific output and intelligence do not mean that he is a global, socially-conscious writer with a vision for humanity. We generally do not sit together outside of academic/scholastic or formal settings discussing Emerson and Thoreau, Zora Neale Hurston, or Mark Twain. So why even try to unite ourselves by the word?

Perhaps there is another reason why we do not seem to have national literary figures who cross disciplines and serve as more than entertainment (other than those who are interested in literature): our culture is very individualistic—-writers are not often encouraged to speak out for causes beyond themselves—-and insular, unaware of what happens elsewhere in the world. We do not have a sense of scope. Our literary culture does not draw upon other traditions, does not take frequently into account what is happening with writers elsewhere in the world. Our curriculum does not heavily feature literature from other countries, though we do have great diversity in our own tradition. We are a monolingual culture in terms of the common culture, and being a polyglot is a rare thing in the United States. It does not encourage (as a whole, there are always numerous exceptions) the plumber to become a playwright, an economist to write free verse, the housewife to write political theater.

But let our individualism and enterprising spirit serve to educate us, then. Let it lead us to explore writers (either in the original language or translation) from other nations and cultures. Let it allow us to form groups (such as the wonderful Stanford Alumni Book Discussion Group of San Diego) where people discuss fiction and non-fiction with an astounding range of viewpoints and knowledge of history, geography, and politics. Let it lead us to hear talks with visiting writers from overseas, or, if we are in a more isolated part of the country, to watch them online. It is time we really involve ourselves in the literary cultures and sensibilities of other nations.