The universal and the particular

Aminatta Forma has an article in the Guardian complaining about the tendency to divy literature up among national/racial lines:

I used to be a journalist and I know the limitations of the short form. Journalism does not on the whole embrace the idea of complexity. So when newspapers started to describe me as an “African writer” I was not greatly surprised. Literature is about nuance and understanding the intricacies of life. Journalism prefers simplicity, even at the price of reductionism. The idea of a person with two parents, two nationalities and two cultures is apparently just too much for the readers of newspapers to absorb. Though I was irritated at the way my British heritage was airbrushed out of the picture, I tried not to let it bother me too much.

The academic world surprised me more. I read law at university, so I came with unformed opinions about how the teaching of literature might be structured. Some years ago I was invited to speak at Oxford University, and I was perhaps naively surprised to find my book taught by the African studies department and nobody from the department of English literature in attendance at my talk. Everyone in the audience was an Africanist. That was when I first heard the words “the English canon”. Now, the English canon, like the British constitution, is tricky to discuss because it doesn’t actually exist: it is unwritten, yet at the same time everybody seems to know what it is, everybody in the world of English literature that is.


Forty years ago the great Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o argued against the idea of national canons. There should, he said, be a single department with a single word on the door and that word should be LITERATURE. A perfectly excellent idea, it seems to me, which naturally never came to pass. Instead, the study of literature became fragmented by the politics of university departments. Categories were added: American literature, post-colonial literature, comparative literature, women’s literature. The creative output of the world’s writers was hived off, territory was staked out and defended. In university departments no doubt this stuff mattered, because it came with opportunities for funding, career advancement and empire building. (In fact, it has been interesting to observe in recent times something of a reversal of fortunes, as English departments in British universities have their funding cut, while in the US a diverse student body has begun to insist on a range of subjects to reflect their interests. We will have to wait and see what long-term impact these changes will have.)

All this classifying, it seems to me, is the very antithesis of literature. The way of literature is to seek universality. Writers try to reach beyond those things that divide us: culture, class, gender, race. Given the chance, we would resist classification. I have never met a writer who wishes to be described as a female writer, gay writer, black writer, Asian writer or African writer. We hyphenated writers complain about the privilege accorded to the white male writer, he who dominates the western canon and is the only one called simply “writer”.

She goes on to discuss authors who write stories set in a different cultural/racial milieu than their own (which includes Forma herself) and how this idea is discouraged on the grounds of authenticity: you can only authentically write from your own experiences, and so, say, an attempt by me to write a novel set in Japan, or with a Japanese protagonist, would inevitably be a failure at some level.

“Write what you know,” is as terrible a piece of advice as it is ubiquitous, and I wonder if the cult of authenticity is one of the forces keeping genre fiction ghettoized. A casual acquaintance with literature is enough to indicate that a good author has the ability to produce convincing facsimiles of experiences they don’t “know” firsthand.

But the turn towards particular experiences has a long history behind it, and it’s not entirely a bad one. I’m reading Walter J. Ong’s Hopkins, the Self, and God for a paper. Ong makes the somewhat anodyne observation that pre-18th century literature tends to lack the exactness of description that we expect today; instead we find authors mining from a stock of “universal” descriptors, analogies, metaphors, etc. that they can assume their reader will understand. It is with the emergence of the novel and Romantic poetry that you have an increased willingness to move beyond this use of imagery to a more direct style of reporting.

While this shift has produced some of the best poetry and prose in the world, Ong notes that contemporary culture is a little too overtaken by the particular to the detriment of anything universal linking our experiences, and I think that academia’s current desire to culturally carve up literature can be seen as a symptom of that.

Anyway, what makes Ong’s analysis really interesting is that he claims this shift is fundamentally the result of technology: in particular, the development of communications tech. Most people simply did not have access to good information about distant events and locales, and so if they were described, it could only be in terms of the familiar. But an increased access gave writers a better opportunity to attempt to describe things as realistically as possible.

If we extrapolate that argument to our internet age (Ong’s book was published in the mid 80s), where the information that was a steady stream in the 19th century is now a deluge, two points seem to follow: on the one hand, the glut of information has the paradoxical tendency to encase us in our own postmodern solipsism, because the ability to discern what is salient and to order things into an accessible narrative. On the other hand, the accelerated ability to communicate makes it seem even less necessary for the cult of authenticity to survive. The mass of raw material to work from has never been this expansive; our literature should in theory be able to have the best of both worlds – and as usual I think good genre fiction is where you see this most displayed (though, of course, a rejoinder to this would be to say that most of us North Americans have grown up alienated from any traditional institutions that enable people to think of their lives in terms of narrative and so the opportunity is squandered by us, but that is a separate argument).

Wow. This post got bigger than I was anticipating. I’m just throwing things to the wall here…


About Josh W

A Catholic; an occasional writer.
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7 Responses to The universal and the particular

  1. They’ll never be an all-encompassing Literature Department. How disordered would a department filled with experts in English literature, professors of Russian Literature, masters of French Literature, etc. be? English itself is incredibly vast, and, to claim a professional understanding of other countries’ literature, one would also need to master the languages associated with them. For the sake of organization and clarity, it cannot be done!

    The most curious thing about the massive flow of information in the modern age is that, even though we have so much knowledge at our fingertips, people seem to retain less of it. Perhaps the drawn out descriptions in the modern age is the result of moderns needing to be shown something over and over again before it sticks.

  2. wgosline says:

    “I wonder if the cult of authenticity is one of the forces keeping genre fiction ghettoized.” Brilliant insight. I’ve often thought about this. Why is Kafka revered when one of his most famous character wakes up a bug one morning? Isn’t that a bit of fantasy/magical surrealism? How is Gabriel Garcia Marquez serious fiction when Remedios the Beauty floats off into the sky, never to be seen again.

    Additionally, I find your allusion to Ong extremely interesting. Perhaps prior to the 18th century, tropes and universals were just that. Think about Chaucer and his Canterbury characters: the monk, the knight, the friar. These characters are somewhat emblematic of all men and women of their type. Perhaps as the world has been shaken out of serfdom, Christian hierarchical orders, and even established roles in families or the workforce, the universals no longer applied so astringently.

    In any case, extremely interesting insights. Thank you for posting.

  3. jubilare says:

    ““Write what you know,” is as terrible a piece of advice as it is ubiquitous, and I wonder if the cult of authenticity is one of the forces keeping genre fiction ghettoized. A casual acquaintance with literature is enough to indicate that a good author has the ability to produce convincing facsimiles of experiences they don’t “know” firsthand.”

    I used to wonder how “write what you know” relates to genre fiction, but I understand it, now, I think, and I do not find it terrible advice. Quite the opposite.

    One has to start from one’s own experience, as that is the medium through which everything else is taken in. You can read about, or listen to someone relate, or watch a film about someone else’s life, but the only way it has any meaning at all is because you, also, have experiences, because you are alive.

    Therefore “write what you know” does not necessarily mean that one is limited to one’s own field of experience. It means that one has to start with oneself in order to interpret anything beyond. “what does X emotion feel like to me?” “what would X smell like to me?” “what do I see, when I see X?”

    I write fantasy fiction. In one sense, I “know” practically nothing that I am writing, but in a deeper sense, I know it all. If I do not use myself to relate to reality, I am writing about cardboard cutouts. If I take what I have learned from living, and apply it to what I write, then it comes alive. I may not know what it is like to face racial discrimination, but I do know frustration, pain, anger, and shame, and those emotions become my tools, the things which open a door for me to relate to the experiences of others.

    All that to say that I think the phrase “write what you know” is widely misused and misunderstood, even by scholars and some writers. It’s not a limiting thing, but rather the key to the whole world, and worlds unknown.

    Aaaand end rant/

    I find your speculation on the divisions in literature to be good food for thought, though.

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