Symposium Introduction

In 2006, Gloria Fisk was teaching world literature at Koç University in Istanbul when Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Pamuk’s groundbreaking achievement, as the first Turkish national to receive the prize, was attributed by many to his 2005 statement to a Swiss reporter about the Armenian genocide: a confession of national wrongdoing seen by the Turkish government and many Turkish citizens as a self-serving betrayal that fed into Western Orientalist stereotypes of Eastern backwardness. The glaringly divergent reactions to his award in the Anglophone world and in Turkey, as well as Fisk’s discussions with her Turkish students, prompted her to try to understand exactly what was at stake in this debate—for Western and Turkish audiences, for the Nobel Prize committee, and for academics, like her, who teach world literature for a living. Ultimately, this led her to investigate a different but related debate—the one between postcolonial theorists and comparative literature critics that has raged for decades now—over the merit of world literature as a category of analysis.

Thus while Fisk’s title suggests a single-author study, the scope of the book is much broader. Orhan Pamuk’s writing and his literary career are not so much the object of the book’s investigation as a case study in the service of the question begged by its title: What is the good of “world literature”? The “good” in the title, which at first glance scans awkwardly, in fact signals Fisk’s incisive analysis of the way this category has been used by academics and publishers. It reminds us that world literature circulates as a “good” in a global marketplace and that a large part of its commodity value derives from its alleged virtues. For the Nobel Prize committee, as for many in academia, world literature reflects Enlightenment values that the non-West, in particular, is in need of. World literature is good for the world, or valuable, because it does good: by championing human rights; representing the marginalized; bringing light to injustice; and producing empathy for the Other. Fisk doesn’t question whether world literature can perform these feats, but whether it can only be recognized as such if it does, and if performing them actually does any good for those it champions. Who profits from the idea of world literature’s do-gooding, she asks, and why does the burden of proving its virtue fall more heavily on non-Western writers?

Fisk structures her argument around a series of assumptions about the good world literature can do and a fiercely critical analysis of how and why these assumptions have taken shape. The book as a whole toggles effectively between theoretical arguments, historical context (Turkey’s relationship to genocide denial, for example), close readings of Pamuk’s work and of his reception in the West and in Turkey, and critical studies of two institutions crucial to the meaning of world literature: the Nobel Prize and the American academy. The first section of the book explains the assumptions about world literature that have developed since Goethe first used the term—but that have circulated more widely in this century when the acceleration of globalization made worldly knowledge, such as that imparted by world literature, particularly desirable. World literature is understood to serve as a “window on the world” (David Damrosch’s term) that helps turn readers into cosmopolitan citizens of a global economy. Writers in non-Western nations, whose literature has less global circulation, are celebrated in the West for providing windows onto lesser-known regions; those who write under repressive regimes are esteemed even more for contesting them by embodying key Western values, such as secular humanism.

The second section of the book focuses closely on Pamuk and his career to show how his success is related to the way that he suggests “in his work and his person an Islamic East with which the West can live in peace . . . he is received as a harbinger of greater reconciliation of the global North and South; secularity and religion; wealth and poverty; hegemony and its opposites” (14). Fisk’s readings of Pamuk’s novels demonstrate that he is well aware of his Western readers’ expectations and both meets and resists them: “His novels announce themselves as reliable narrators of Turkish history while they also identify themselves as liars, or as figments of somebody’s imagination—which, of course, is precisely what they are” (92). A particularly fascinating chapter looks at the way world literature has been associated with the figure of the exile by comparing the reception of Pamuk to the myths surrounding the “founding father” of comparative literature, Erich Auerbach. Within the discipline, the romanticized trope of the writer-as-exile has made exile increasingly metaphoric—a condition that embodies what Georg Lukacs called “transcendental homelessness”—in a way that supersedes and distracts from the historical and contemporary horrors of actual exile. The last third of the book, on the institutions that uphold world literature, draw out the implications of Pamuk’s career for other authors by showing how Western authors are commended for transcending the particular and depicting “the human condition” while “non-Western literary laureates have won their Nobel Prizes by embodying their particularity rather than transcending it” (140).

One of the pleasures of reading Fisk’s book is that it makes the real-world stakes of its argument very clear, early and often. If writers like Pamuk weren’t burdened by the demands placed on them by Western critics (to criticize their governments, for instance, even if it puts their lives in danger), they would have more intellectual and bodily freedom and face less pressure to choose between a national and global audience. Fisk’s critique of her own location—academia—is especially trenchant. Thanks to the gutting of the humanities, literature scholars are under increasing pressure to make their work relevant and tend to stake out large and indefensible claims about what literature, and literary criticism, can do to remediate neoliberalism. Too often, Fisk argues, critics equate “talk of revolution for revolution and ‘the world’ for the world” (170), while ignoring their own investment in the structures of power that support their livelihood.

Ultimately, though, Fisk is not arguing that world literature and the literary criticism that brings it into view is inconsequential but the opposite: that it is immensely consequential for the less globally powerful because of the disproportionate influence American companies and universities alike have on the success of authors around the world and the representation of the places they live. World literature, she brilliantly demonstrates, is both “a product of its institutional location and, at the same time . . . a producer of the globality it describes” (166). In the lively and engaged responses that follow, the authors consider their own institutional and historical locations alongside their responses to Pamuk: a testament to the effectiveness of Fisk’s book in making us more self-aware, and therefore better, critics.

Response

The Anxiety and the Authority of the (World) Literary Critic

So much of the task of the literary critic can feel, ultimately, semantic—how terms are defined, both in the sense of meanings themselves and the extent to which that meaning is fixed, and who gets to define them are critical in understanding the discipline and its capacities. Each capitalized word in the title of Gloria Fisk’s Orhan Pamuk and the Good of World Literature places great stakes on both its definition and definers, and whereas the dust jacket may refer to the book as a “polemic,” one of its strengths is in fact Fisk’s complication of what “world literature,” or perhaps any literature, can “do” at this political moment. This requires first defining “world literature” and its persistence, but it is no less decisive a charge to conscribe what might be a “good” associated with it, and even defining “Orhan Pamuk” is a far from uncontroversial task. I structure these reflections around a series of questions with which I am left in considering this thoughtful and rather dense—by which I mean at points bursting at the seams with ideas—work. I find it to be another strength of Fisk’s chapters that these questions continue to nag at me as I order my thoughts according to my own sense of what world literature means to me both professionally and intellectually, and the ways in which the twain in fact diverge. It is, finally, a rare book that is so upfront about the institutional realities of seemingly aesthetic and lofty concerns.

Working somewhat in reverse, from smaller considerations to those greater: I wonder the extent to which Orhan Pamuk is actually non-Western, and in fact all that unique or unusual in some of the ways Fisk cites. It seems important to her argument that he represent an ambassador from the “non-West” to the West, and Fisk goes to some lengths to describe the ways in which he might or might not be legible as such to his readership. She points to both the subject matter of some of his work and the perspectival shifts which would (or at least would likely) be lost on “Western” readers as evidence of his alien-ness, but I wonder how much of Pamuk’s stylistic nuance is all that separable from modernist (or contemporary) novelistic style more generally. For instance, Fisk writes: “By recognizing the intractable divisions that separate the characters within the novel and, by extension, their nonfictional referents and readers, Pamuk works at the level of novelistic form to generate ‘the compassionate response’ that Western readers want” (61–62). This citation is emblematic of the questions that continually arise in Fisk’s choice of Pamuk as (reluctant-but-not-unwitting) representative of the question of world literature: do non-Western readers not seek this response? Does any novelist seek to avoid generating this response? When Fisk suggests that Pamuk represents this contemporary epoch in which “identification ascends as a criterion for literary value,” I wonder: is this new? When did this ascension begin, and what did reading novels look like before that? Was/is it so very different for Western and non-Western readers? And even if Pamuk is indeed unique in his combination of journalistic authority and “fabulist” skill (though Rushdie, Marquez, Sebald, Cela, Celine, Foster Wallace, Esterhazy, and Bulgakov, some of whom appear in Fisk’s pages, would each throw a hat in that ring), what is the putative value of this distinction? And if he is so unique, how is he a “case study” for anything?

But perhaps I have fallen into the trap. These characteristic qualities of Pamuk (including also his “inversion of mimesis” and “aggregating fiction in sufficient volume to generate a semblance of fact” [70]) may only seem less unique to me because I have my own favored list of “world literary” authors against which to measure them. I have corollary questions which may be read as critical of the category of world literature as a whole, a criticism prompted by Fisk’s staging of Pamuk as exemplary figure thereof. Among these questions: how non-Western is Istanbul? And even if the answer is “very,” or at least “sufficiently,” why is it important that Pamuk, as an Istanbul writer, hails from (and often writes about) a non-Western place? How we define Orhan Pamuk as a producer of World Literature par excellence seems to matter a great deal, and the fact that I find myself continually attempting to find other examples of Fisk’s characterizations of his writing may say more about the variety of reader I am than her argument, which brings me to the next nexus of questions.

Is Orhan Pamuk really all that widely read in the Western (and, especially, American) academy? And, more central for Fisk’s work, who is the nebulous “we” of his Western readership? “We” speak “global English” and set literary tastes (63), “we” look for opposition to whatever “we” think neoliberalism is, “we” seek general political good in understanding other races/classes/genders via novels, “we” rely on the novelist for all requisite history, unquestioningly, in our station as the “blindly trusting reader.” Alongside this “we,” who seem to be misreading world literature and rendering unclear the actual good that it might do, are the critics who get it wrong, most notable Damrosch, Apter, and n+1 magazine, making “tenuous” claims that “political good follows directly from the act of reading the literary writers they like the best” (182): a cutting academic barb and a charge all too easy to (accurately) levy at many academics writing about literature. While Fisk makes a good case for the problems with both sides of this equation (generally that they limit or misappropriate (world) literature’s potential good in some way), it is not until the end of the book that it becomes clearer what the deeper stakes at hand are. We (or “we”?) should naturally have questions about the great phantoms hiding in the negative space of Fisk’s theorizing: the non-Western reader, the non-global novelist, the non-world literature. It becomes a question of how important it is for these to be robust categories with clear oppositions, a concern Fisk seems willing to leave open.

But, more specific questions now behind us, back to defining terms: What is world literature? What begins in the study as “a rhetorical place to stand outside” of “institutional logics” surrounding the Academy (11), by the end becomes a reading practice or method, a concept which is enormously attractive to me as Fisk begins to sketch it out. Both elements of the initial concept are, however, important to consider on their own terms. Beginning with the latter: what are the institutional logics at play? In short, the assumption that literature should (must?) oppose the boogie monster of neoliberalism. This seems totally accurate to me, right down to the hackneyed, pulpy muddle of what that term actually means. One summary of this logic might be “better human rights through capitalism,” but that may be too positive for this stripe of reader to oppose. Perhaps closer is something like “leveling difference for maximum profit,” but even this does not get at the full thrust of what Fisk suggests these readers of world literature require their fiction to combat. In any case, Fisk’s suspicion that this is neither a good way to build a canon (if indeed that remains a desirable aim) nor to teach a novel seems right on the money. The former consideration, that of a “rhetorical place to stand outside” is even more telling. This view of world literature is, in short, predicated on the assumption of epistemological or perspectival superiority, whether granted institutionally or otherwise. This is a place to discern what is really happening in the world, and perhaps the opportunity to separate oneself from the abovementioned, dreaded “we.” From here we can infer the persistence of the category itself: it keeps some people employed and makes others feel good about themselves. Does it matter? As Fisk asks us, “Now, What?”

Fisk’s closing chapter and coda shift the scope of the argument to the Academy more directly, an institution within which she considers her own, privileged position. If there is a polemic, this might be where it is clearest, and most satisfying. As humanities threaten to become (or be seen as, if there is any difference) ornamental and thus optional, there are parties interested in their survival (though perhaps not thriving or expanding; there need only be so many fish in that pond). The charge that academics only “win whenever we convince our audience of our contemporaneity, as evidenced in our ability to use the most current tools” (170) may be accurate, though it is also hardly at odds with Spivak’s “better” interpretation, that which is “more revelatory of the relationship between the text and the world that contains it.” I wonder here if there is a background presupposition that criticism ought to be viewed only (or even just primarily) in reference to its object. That is, can there not be a great/useful/revolutionary idea derived from a “mis”-reading? If so, it would certainly attenuate some of the anxiety around translation Fisk cites.

In any case, the next charge is equally damning, that critics want to claim victory against malign forces without leaving the field of the literary. This claim goes well beyond the responsibility of the author, whether real or imagined, and falls squarely on the reader and their own misapprehensions. So what is to be done is to reorient the debate, which for Fisk hinges on two premises. First, we must recognize that literature is written and read only by people who need money to live. I appreciate the recognition of material conditions of aesthetic production as much as the next revolutionary anarchist, but the precarity of existence in relation to capital varies so widely among both categories that I think this premise could use some qualification or refinement. That is to say, a tenured professor, Nobel winning novelist, struggling poet, and I walk into a bar: the first two need to be buying for the last two. The second, that no one has linguistic fluency sufficient to read most world literature in its language of authorship is a patent fact, and in my view leaves us with a similar choice to the first premise. Either we privilege the readings of those whose geographical, racial, gender-expressive, linguistic, and socioeconomic status uniquely attunes them to, or informs them of, the conditions of the fiction at hand, or . . . we accept and improve upon the metrics we have at hand? Fisk is again justified in her assertion that literary value threatens to become contingent on the renunciation of worldly attachments, which in turn become unavailable to analysis (192), greatly diminishing what remains. So, then, the big question: which analytical tools remain in the self-conscious acknowledgment of the critic’s professional relationship (or the reader’s subservient relationship) to the neoliberal state? Does “political” equal “stakes” in this context? Fisk suggests that recognizing US critics’ hegemonic position in these matters “requires standards for literary value that work in a relative sense—ethically, aesthetically, and politically—to negotiate the terms of literature’s circulation as a good on a global market” (201). The resultant, “better” questions are left entirely open from where I stand, inside or fictitiously outside of the world in question: “Under what conditions does literature get read in this world, at what cost, to whose benefit? How can those of us who are lucky enough to get paid to read make the balance better?” The first answers which suggest themselves to me can easily be read as defeatist or Pollyannaish. For the first—assuming we are still defining literature as the sort of literary fiction produced by Pamuk and every other author mentioned in this reflection and Fisk’s book—the conditions under which literature is read are generally within an academic setting, at the cost of other fiction they might be reading instead, and to the benefit of the institutional power of a canon. I appreciate that Orhan Pamuk makes a living as a writer of fiction and Gloria Fisk as a reader thereof, but obviously both are in a fairly small, arguably elite company. Which leads to the second question, to which I, and perhaps Fisk as well, judging by its position as the final words of the text, am left dumb—I truly cannot imagine a sufficiently meaningful way. My own position within the Academy may be showing, but perhaps the “balance” is best improved by advocating for lower tuition, better pay for adjuncts and non-tenure-track instruction, and further availability of humanities courses and texts? Essentially, every answer which occurs to me for the second question involves acting directly against class interest and professional security, and while my view might change in the annually-less-likely event I find myself in the tenured club, I have trouble imagining it in good conscience could. I’ll close by refining the question in a manner which suggests, to me at least, no substantial affirmative: How can those paid to read literature make the balance better from within the classroom, the peer-reviewed journal article, or the academic monograph?

  • Gloria Fisk

    Reply

    Response to Hammes

    “The Anxiety and the Authority of the (World) Literary Critic”: this title is perfect to me in ways Hammes couldn’t possibly have known. I appreciate it first in the most obvious way, because it captures a host of the theoretical questions that plagued me when I read Orhan Pamuk’s oeuvre, and I’m grateful for this chance to think with Hammes about them. I read Pamuk as an instance in the uneven globalization of literary culture and markets, honing particularly on the anxieties that Turkey’s first Nobel Laureate produces in his various publics within and beyond his nation, and on the ways those readers establish their authority in complicated relation to him. Hammes captures all of this so well.

    And he joins me in understanding Pamuk as an occasion to trace the processes that redistribute capital—cultural as well as economic—through literary institutions and markets on a global scale. Hammes comes to those processes with skepticism that I share, too, along with skepticism about the entity he calls the “nebulous ‘we’ of [Orhan Pamuk’s] Western readership.” For the sake of his argument, he locates that nebulous entity in one person, or, more precisely, one figure: “the (World) Literary Critic” of the title.

    That figure appears to Hammes as an abstraction—like the “implied reader,” as a theoretical concept that a critic can use rather than a person the critic might be. I see now I suggested that figuration of the critic, too, even as I delineated the institutional contexts where the critic might live and work, from the university to the Swedish Academy. In many ways, I consolidated Anglophone publics into an abstraction, a generality, a figure.

    But it’s plain to me now that the anxiety and authority that Hammes locates in this figure belong also quite literally to me—as a person who was writing from a specific institutional position that was at times exceedingly uncomfortable for me. I didn’t think that discomfort through in print then for reasons that were partly circumstantial, but they seem significant to me now, also because they have implications beyond my case. I’m really grateful for the chance to return to them here, now.

    Hammes hints at them indirectly when he suggests that I might have delineated more clearly the stratifications that let some Anglophone readers and writers live much easier lives than others. “I appreciate the recognition of material conditions of aesthetic production as much as the next revolutionary anarchist,” Hammes writes in agreement with me, “but the precarity of existence in relation to capital varies so widely among both categories that I think this premise could use some qualification or refinement. That is to say, a tenured professor, Nobel winning novelist, struggling poet, and I walk into a bar: the first two need to be buying for the last two.”

    I agree so strongly, I feel the need to say plainly: If I walk into a bar with you and you are a struggling poet or a graduate student, I’m buying. I can say that now because I got tenure in 2017 on the strength of this book. And there are a few other things I’d like to say on this topic that I couldn’t say in the book. To say them, I’m going to get narrative for a minute, bear with me, trusting that the material conditions for the publication of my book illuminate some conditions also for questions I take up in it: What counts as world literature, and what good can literature and its critics do?

    I started to write Orhan Pamuk and the Good of World Literature in 2006, when I was in my first few months of a tenure-track job in Istanbul. The academic job market was bad but not yet apocalyptic; George W. Bush was president of the United States, and Turkey was in relatively halcyon political days.

    I knew that I didn’t want to stay there forever, though, so I would eventually have to get a job back in the United States. And the best way to get one, it seemed, would be to write a book—not a revision of my dissertation, which was on prolepsis in contemporary world literature, but on something more specifically Turkish. It had to rationalize my departure from the university system in the United States that purports to be the center of the intellectual world. Any hiring committee would have to ask me: Why would you leave a postdoc at Princeton and go teach in Turkey unless you had no other choice?

    When I said I wanted to go, a mentor advised me that I should write a book like “an academic version of Reading Lolita in Tehran, but without the terrible politics.” I think he meant that I should write a book that would rationalize my CV by demonstrating why I had to live in Turkey to live my best life as a reader of world literature. I was perplexed at the thought.

    But then Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize. The Turkish people I knew responded to that event with fervency in varieties that perplexed me even more, so I started to write about it. My writing grew into a book that I wrote with a supreme absence of strategy. I hung onto the advice from my mentor to convince myself that the book I wanted to write might actually get me a job, but I had no idea how. This worked out for me, but it was very stupid. The book that I wrote is a career killer, categorically, and it is only by a thousand strokes of luck that my career isn’t dead.

    Even in 2006, no university was hiring tenure-track professors to teach contemporary literature in translation. That absence of interest in my subject intensified by the time I was back on the market in 2010. No candidates were getting jobs with monographs that were and were not single-author studies. On the MLA job list, some positions were posted in comparative literature, postcolonial studies, and Anglophone studies. My project fell between these fields, and I’m not sure why that didn’t freak me out more. You’d think I have a trust fund, but I don’t.

    What I do have is the ability to make myself useful to a university, because I always knew in my bones that research would never be necessary to any institution. Every English department needs a Shakespearean, a nineteenth-century Americanist, and a lot of other things, but they can live without me. This kind of scholarship is a luxury, an ornament, and now is not the time for such things.

    But universities always need somebody who can administer a writing program, who can mentor graduate students and adjuncts in writing pedagogy. I can do that.

    So, by what seems in retrospect like a miracle, I was hired in an English department at a university I love. CUNY would pay me to administer a writing program, and it tenured me to be what I am: a reader of contemporary world literature. It seems darkly comic to me in retrospect also that I got this position by writing a screed against the instrumentalization of literature, and I wrote it only by instrumentalizing myself.

    Please excuse me for this memoir-ish turn! I’m indulging it to tell a cautionary tale for graduate students and contingent scholars, and also to speak more directly about the effects—intellectual as well as material—of the stratification that Hammes mentions. I was a highly contingent laborer when I began this book, and I have tenure now, which is to say that Orhan Pamuk and the Good of World Literature helped me become a beneficiary of a viciously exploitative system. I think the least I can do is bring more transparency to the allocation of this scarce resource. Better, I can cede some privilege to agitate for greater equality with the contingent faculty who are my colleagues.

    As I do that, I want also to look for ways to foster the kinds of scholarship that tenure is meant to protect, or, more precisely, the kind of writing I like best: writing that is disciplinarily imprudent, institutionally foolhardy, and impolitic as necessary. I know this sounds far-fetched. But in a world that inclines to consolidate wealth where it currently resides, there is still enough money for this. It’s just in the wrong places. And as this moment of economic crisis is enlivening a socialist movement across the country, might we also seize this moment to enliven the economy of the university, too?

    But there are no jobs. Those of us who have seats when the music stops know we have to do something, and we don’t know what to do. We’re wringing our hands while an entire generation of scholars drops out one by one.

    It’s a crisis that tests our powers of imagination and organization, and we’re failing. That should not surprise us. Even before the university acculturated us to austerity, it trained us to be provincial, territorial, and timid. That timidity has constrained our fields and our thinking to the peril of us all. That’s how we got here.

    There must be a better way!

    • Aaron Hammes

      Reply

      A brief note on utility

      Thank you for the warmth and inclusion of your response, Professor Fisk. It is the nature of all academic beasts that I today respond to a response you likely wrote weeks ago, to a reaction I wrote months ago, to a book you began years ago. In this light, I am particularly grateful for and struck by your personal narrative, and only hope my initial piece did not feel like it necessitated it! In a certain sense, and perhaps I detect a bit of this in your offering it in this forum, I would have loved a secondary narrative in your book regarding the conditions of its production. Of course, the story was not complete at that point, but the calculus of your academic (and physical) re-migration is fascinating to me alongside the work itself. The comparisons to Auerbach are at once too obvious and not totally apt, but going to Turkey to write about and teach modern novels, and then to craft a monograph on world literature scaffolded by their Nobel laureate resonates somewhat with my own imaginary of the writing of his Mimesis.

      In any case, I wanted to note a lovely and apropos distinction you draw in your consideration of how this book came to be, and its role in your subsequent career trajectory. You suggest being disciplinarily between fields with your dissertation, but it is another crevasse which gave me pause: between necessity and usefulness. I trust we are not too far afield from the “good” of any literature or literary study in considering what is useful–what puts food on your table and, no less importantly, offers you space and resources to think, publish, and share those thoughts and publications with students–as opposed to what is necessary. Without striking the same notes of latent frustration and fear as my initial reaction to your book, are any of us necessary to the Academy? What does someone who finds themselves in the reverse of your professed position look like–they who are necessary but not useful (I certainly do not want to name names)? There is some poetry in finding institutional work in advising students and teaching writing on the back of a book about (in part, at least) what it means to write or study literature in this political moment. I wonder what, if any, paths to necessity exist in the humanities, and when (perhaps now, perhaps never) you/I/we register the transition from usefulness to necessity?

Response

Literary Hierarchies and Their Academic Parallels

In Orhan Pamuk and the Good of World Literature, Gloria Fisk answers the question “What does a non-Western writer have to do to be read as an author of world literature at the turn of the twenty-first century?” (1). through an investigation of Pamuk’s international career and a close reading of some of his later works, especially Snow, one of Pamuk’s most popular with Western audiences. Fisk starts her book with the observation that the category of “world literature” has come to mean “windows into foreign worlds” and what is demanded of “world literature” authors such as Pamuk is to act as a tour guide into those worlds for Western audiences while maintaining the fiction of writing “authentically,” for the people they are meant to represent. Pamuk—and other writers who are considered to be producing world literature—are held to different standards by the global literature community: their writing is read more instrumentally (to gain supposed insider knowledge about exotic settings), they are evaluated in a different way than are “Western writers” (purely aesthetic judgments are reserved only for the latter) and they are expected to take “appropriate” political positions vis-à-vis their home governments (in general conformity to liberal norms) before they can be internationally recognised.1

But Fisk does not train her critical eye only on literary award bodies or the Western consumers of world literature. Chapter 6 provides an incisive tour of the debates in (academic) literary criticism on world literature: here we learn that while the concept of “the world” has “rhetorically unmatched prestige in literary criticism” (167), there are also plenty of arguments against what is understood as world literature. Fisk sympathises to an extent with Spivak, who has observed that letting the United States define world literature is essentially letting “a parochial decanonization debate to stand in for the study of the world” (172). She has less patience, however, for critics who conflate all varieties of world literature to dismiss it wholesale as “the reduction of cultural complexities to ‘cosmo-kitsch’ that has all its edges sanded off [and is] easy to sell” (176). Fisk wants these critics to question how they themselves are implicated in the power structures that they assume they are weakening through their criticism of authors such as Pamuk: “As Western critics embrace Pamuk in the hierarchical terms that mark their difference from their more cosmopolitan neighbors, so do scholarly critics use polemics against world literature to establish their authority in the university. . . . The literary critic amasses power locally, in practice, by critiquing it globally, in theory” (185). Not only is this observation devastatingly accurate, but it is also an excellent example of what makes this book great, and its insights applicable beyond the confines of the world of literary criticism.

For though Fisk reads Pamuk more sympathetically than do most critics, and credits him (rightly, in my opinion) for having both the self-reflexiveness to know what is expected of him as a world literature author and creative ways of pushing against such expectations, this book is not just about Orhan Pamuk. Orhan Pamuk and the Good of World Literature is an exploration of the power dynamics and social hierarchies that permeate world politics through their projections in other spheres of life, including and especially literature, in its production and consumption. At least I read it as such, which may be because I am an international relations (IR) scholar who studies the political consequences of the social hierarchies between the West and the rest of the world that have shaped our modern international order since the nineteenth century. I was asked to contribute to this forum because I open my book on non-Western state responses to international stigmatisation—After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West,2 a comparative study of Turkey, Japan, and Russia in the twentieth century—with a discussion of the Turkish reception of Orhan Pamuk’s Nobel Prize (Fisk deftly meditates on all of the complicated layers to this episode in chapters 3–5). I also end After Defeat with an excerpt from Pamuk’s acceptance speech, in which Pamuk says: “The love and hate Dostoyevsky felt towards the West all his life—I have felt this too, on many occasions. But if I have grasped an essential truth, if I have cause for optimism, it is because I have travelled with this great writer through his love-hate relationship with the West, to behold the other world he has built on the other side.” Fisk shows us how difficult and bittersweet such a journey actually is, and how often it fails (even when it succeeds).

I must confess here—though I suspect doing so will lose me some intellectual cachet in Turkey—that I grew up as a fan of Orhan Pamuk, having encountered him first when I read his debut novel Cevdet Bey ve Oğulları3 (published in 1982, never translated into English) in a middle school literature class. At that time (the mid-1990s) Pamuk had only published a few other novels, and it was not difficult for an eager teenager to tackle his entire oeuvre, which I quickly devoured. Of the books I read in that period, The Black Book4 (published in Turkish in 1990), which weaves a personal mystery (the disappearance of the protagonist’s wife) with newspaper columns on Istanbul’s history and ultimately culminates in a postmodern meditation on the meaning of identity and narrative, was particularly transformative intellectually and personally, making me see the city in which I grew up (and my place in it) in a different light. After I moved to the United States for college, The Black Book became the book I would recommend to American boyfriends (and sometimes their families) who wanted to learn about “where I came from.” None of them took to it quite the same way I did because, as I now understand—thanks to Fisk’s analysis—The Black Book, though “worldly” enough to be translated (twice), is from a period when Pamuk was not yet writing primarily for a global audience of literary critics and world literature buyers. That turn came later, starting sometime around My Name Is Red5 (published in Turkish in 1998), and reached full maturation with Snow6 (published in Turkish in 2002), which happens to be the last Pamuk novel7 I have read (this is also the point at which Fisk’s analysis of Pamuk starts). I did enjoy Snow at the time but distinctly remember thinking that it was written for a non-Turkish audience. I had been to Kars, the novel’s setting, and the archetypes in the novel seemed familiar; the descriptions did not ring false so much as simplified so as to be intelligible to an audience to which I did not belong.

I do not intend this as a criticism of Pamuk at all: as an academic from Turkey who has lived in the West (first the US and now the UK) for more than half of her life, I am very familiar with such compromises and trade-offs.8 My own research career has been built—at least partly—on making theoretical interventions in existing IR debates by using Turkey (and other similar countries) as case studies, interventions that are necessary mostly because IR has elevated into universality certain assumptions derived from extremely historically contingent outcomes in the twentieth-century West. When I explain some of these theoretical interventions to friends back home (or even area specialists focused on Turkey) they often do not see the point, because for them what I am saying is obvious and does not need to be said. If IR does not acknowledge basic truths about the world, what kind of a parochial discipline is it, they think. They are right in the sense that it is only the social hierarchies of our modern international order that have labelled the experience of my Turkish friends (and the majority of the world) as parochial and bestowed universality instead on the assumptions of the privileged few. Yet we live in the world as is, and as a result, people with my background in Western academia find themselves with less-than-ideal choices.

For example, in IR, to engage with theoretical debates as they emanate from the American academy reaffirms their centrality, and at the same time it requires considerable amount of effort on my part to translate the extra things I know to existing concepts and frameworks so that my intervention can be heard. This translation process inevitably skews or reduces complex realities. To not engage, however, is not an option either, because it leaves intact those debates and the belief in the universality of the assumptions underwriting them. There is also the irony that even in a discipline such as mine, which puts a premium on generalisable theories, my contributions are taken more seriously when my starting point is something related to Turkey (or when Turkey is at least one of my cases). At the same time, I also know very well that I would not be taken as seriously (or get published in “top” journals) if I wrote only on Turkey. These are some examples of the unwritten challenges that those of us who inhabit this liminal space must always navigate, even if the shape of the challenges varies according to disciplinary norms. Academia is not free from the social hierarchies that shape world politics. We all settle on solutions that work for us professionally, at that given moment in time, solutions which are by definition imperfect and structurally overdetermined. Rarely have these structural dilemmas been so well articulated as in Fisk’s analysis of Pamuk.

By the way, one does not have to be an academic or a writer to be faced with these trade-offs. Just being immigrant is often enough. Imagine hailing from a place where very upsetting things happen routinely for very complicated reasons and interacting daily with people who are not necessarily uncaring but have their own politics to worry about.9 There is always an asymmetry to your interactions: they have their own political issues, whereas you have those plus whatever is worrying you about your home country. You know about their issues but they do not really know about yours. Their worries keep taking precedence over yours even if the problems are much simpler, just because they are immediate, knowable and shared. The immigrant seems to have two choices: process concerns about really worrying events from “back home” privately (because nobody here knows what exactly happened) or get into a convoluted historical (or procedural or sociological) explanation that even people who care will not be able to follow. Splitting the difference, you learn, like anybody who has spent some time living abroad, how to simplify your stories and to pitch them in a way that your audience will find interesting or relatable. If you want to share, you have to build most of the bridge. Having to frame your experiences in such a manner, i.e., mainly for the consumption of others who have only a fleeting grasp of what is happening “back home,” inevitably also starts shaping—like an Instagram filter—how you process those experiences. For better or worse.

A similar dynamic of simplification is at play when a novel such as Snow underwhelms me as someone who “knows” Turkey but excites Western audiences who wish they did. For a five-year period or so, almost every American I met in an academic setting seemed to have read Snow. This is no small feat and I am not sure it is something to sneer at either. Turkish connoisseurs of literature often accuse Pamuk of writing Turkish badly10 in a way that suggests that he is thinking in English. I remember a heated exchange with a dear friend, who is an award-winning translator of novels from English to Turkish, during a rakı-filled December night in Istanbul more than a decade ago. As someone with very exacting standards for both fiction and writing, she had a long list of grievances against Pamuk, but according to her what he was most guilty of were crimes against the Turkish language. Why doesn’t he just give up the pretense, she said, and just write in English to begin with?11 I countered that her problems with Pamuk stemmed not from a lack of linguistic ability on his part but from the fact that he was simultaneously writing for different audiences, and the translation high-wire act he was engaged in (not of words but of worlds) was distorting his language, at least as seen from her vantage point. As Fisk notes in the coda of her book, “Translation always entails compromise. To read Orhan Pamuk in this light means reading the incoherence between his statements to his domestic and global audiences not as evidence of hypocrisy but rather of his embeddedness in a world that makes contradictory demands of him” (201). This does not mean, of course, that my friend was wrong in her criticisms: explaining the reasons for a particular outcome does not excuse it. Yet as someone who, for both intellectual and personal reasons I described above, has thought a lot about the demands placed on liminal authors, I stand by my contention from that Cihangir night that Pamuk has acquitted himself better than many.

At the end of the day, I would rather live in a world where we attempt to traverse the gaps, however flawed the journey, than one where we are siloed from each other. For all of these reasons, I am glad that Gloria Fisk has written a book that gives Orhan Pamuk the credit he deserves as an author on the one hand, and cogently analyses the hierarchies of world literature and literary criticism on the other. May we all be so fortunate as to be read by such generous and incisive interlocutors.


  1. Mo Yan, the 2012 Nobel Laureate, is the exception discussed in chapter 5, though one would suppose, with what is going on in the United States and other Western countries, this criterion will either become laxer or start applying to Western authors as well.

  2. Ayşe Zarakol, After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

  3. Orhan Pamuk, Cevdet Bey ve Oğulları [Cevdet Bey and his sons] (Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 1982). For more on this book, see Merve Pehlivan, “Cevdet Bey and His Sons: A Pamuk Novel in Hiding,” Bosphorus Review of Books, January, 2019, https://bosphorusreview.com/cevdet-bey-and-his-sons-a-pamuk-novel-in-hiding.

  4. Orhan Pamuk, The Black Book, trans. Maureen Freely (London: Faber & Faber, 2006). For the first translation, see Orhan Pamuk, The Black Book, trans. Güneli Gün (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994).

  5. Orhan Pamuk, My Name Is Red, trans. Erdağ M. Göknar (New York: Knopf, 2001).

  6. Orhan Pamuk, Snow, trans. Maureen Freely (London: Faber & Faber, 2004).

  7. I have kept up better with his nonfiction and memoir writing.

  8. This should not be taken to imply any commensurability between Pamuk’s career and my own, but rather to say that regardless of our importance we all face similar challenges.

  9. It used to be that this description would only apply to people like me who come from places like Turkey, but increasingly it might be true for a British or American national living abroad as well. Nevertheless, Americans (and to some extent, Brits) still can presume much more knowledge on the part of others about their home systems than we can.

  10. That world literature is improved upon translation is a charge Fisk also discusses.

  11. Elif Shafak, who arguably fits the world literature mould much better than Pamuk, has written some of her books in English instead of Turkish.

  • Gloria Fisk

    Reply

    Response to Zarakol

    If I had known when I was writing Orhan Pamuk and the Good of World Literature that Ayşe Zarakol would write a response to it, that knowledge would have filled me to the brim with hope and dread, balanced perfectly. That’s not only because I admire Zarakol so much as a scholar. Like everybody else who writes an academic book, I hoped that the scholars I admire would find something useful in it, and I dreaded that they might not, but that’s so general. Ayşe Zarakol’s response to this book matters to me also for reasons that are more profound as well as more specific.

    I thought a lot about the position that she inhabits—culturally, institutionally, intellectually, and politically—while I was writing Orhan Pamuk and the Good of World Literature. The pressures that converge on her as a scholar matter for reasons far beyond her, because they limit the potential also for a more global literary studies, among many other things. Zarakol writes persuasively from and about that pressurized position, so she is uniquely qualified to know what I got right about it and what I got wrong. More importantly, she’s also able to describe in detail what it’s like to live there. That is what she does in her understated and—to me—quite moving response here. I can’t express how grateful I am.

    A reader in international relations at Cambridge University and formerly the associate editor of the Journal of Global Security Studies, Zarakol writes with precision and insight about the workings of state power in the geopolitical world. Her most recent book, Hierarchies in World Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2016), is a coedited volume that proposes “a framework for theorizing and empirically analyzing world politics as a global system rather than just an international one.”1

    That statement of purpose captures many of the highest aims I brought to Orhan Pamuk and the Good of World Literature, too, except for the word “empirically.” That word is unavailable to literary critics, who get left at the disciplinary gates that separate every theory of the political from politics with a capital P. This is to say that Ayşe Zarakol and I write about many of the same things, but she has methods that I lack to assess the geopolitical conditions for the literary globality I describe. And the disciplinary authority she has over Turkish politics extends for biographic reasons over Turkish language and culture, too, because she comes to them as a native speaker, while I am just their student. You can see why this situation might provoke hope and dread in me, a humanist.

    My training is reasonably interdisciplinary, but it stops at the field of international relations. I venture there rarely as a reader, and when I do, it’s generally because I want to learn something specific, and I have to work hard to learn it. Zarakol’s first book, After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West (Cambridge University Press, 2011), was a great exception to this. I read it avidly; I gobbled it up. That’s partly because it is so well written, but also because it explained a wide variety of conditions of everyday life in Turkey that confused me when I lived there. And it explained them with a unifying theory of the ways that nations and cultures respond to domination by Western powers, including the United States.

    In After Defeat, Zarakol identifies a common property among three nations that were defeated by Western powers at different moments in the twentieth century: Turkey after World War I; Japan after World War II; and Russia after the Cold War. All of them, Zarakol argues, managed the shame that attended their geopolitical subordination by asserting vociferously the modernity that was essential to their national identity. And Western observers misinterpret those assertions by failing to see the historical forces that animate them, as Zarakol suggests in a passage that spoke directly to me: “People who grow up in countries whose modernity has never fully been questioned may not fully understand how all-consuming the stigma of backwardness may become for a society, how tiring it is to conduct all affairs under the gaze of an imagined and imaginary West, which is simultaneously idealized and suspected of the worst kind of designs, or how scary it is to live continually on the brink of ‘Easternness,’ which is simultaneously denigrated and touted as the more authentic, the more realistic choice” (6).2

    This explained to me so much: why my neighbors in my apartment building in Istanbul gave me side-eye as they brought me gifts; why my colleagues at the university quailed at the thought of a student wearing a headscarf; and why I never met any Turkish people who had no opinion at all about Orhan Pamuk. I had some inkling of the causalities Zarakol provides to link these things together, but I had not put them into words, nor could I have. I see why they would seem obvious to the Turkish people Zarakol knows outside of her scholarly field. Her implied reader is an Anglophone reader, bir yabancı.

    I thought of this when I read Zarakol’s response to me, which made me sad for the world even as it made me happy for myself, because it shows so plainly how Anglophone cultures and institutions curtail the people who contribute the most to them. As Zarakol takes care to note her difference from the Nobel Laureate at the center of our discussion, she is right to observe the likeness between their subject positions. They have to foreground their Turkishness in order to become audible to Anglophone ears, but they can only talk about their Turkishness in the expository terms that non-Turkish people understand. It is a lonely position from which to speak. “Yet we live in the world as is,” as Zarakol attests, “and as a result, people with my background in Western academia find themselves with less than ideal choices.” I feel that.

    This feeling persists broadly in kinds and degrees that vary greatly, because it is the feeling that attends domination of any kind. That is Zarakol’s point: “Academia is not free from the social hierarchies that shape world politics,” as she reminds us, and “we all settle on solutions that work for us professionally, at that given moment in time, solutions which are by definition imperfect and structurally overdetermined.” If our scholarship is to do any good at all, it will expand the solutions we can see for ourselves and each other under these unequally straitened conditions.


    1. Ayşe Zarakol, Hierarchies in World Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

    2. Ayşe Zarakol, After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

Response

Cold War World Literature

Cold War World Literature: Orhan Pamuk’s White Castle

One of the most impressive and exciting things about Gloria Fisk’s book is that she truly marries the broader theoretical inquiries to the close readings, clearly demonstrating how a better reading of Orhan Pamuk’s Snow can help us understand the bigger questions about world literature, the study of the humanities, and its relationship to global capitalism, that the book negotiates. She argues, persuasively, that the field of world literature is precisely the space in which these different forces collide; where questions about interpretation are strongly harnessed to geopolitical power dynamics. Orhan Pamuk emerges as a figure whose works actively theorize these dilemmas: citing the observation of the poetic collective at Lana Turner Journal, that “there are a number of reasons to be hesitant around claims that literature or culture possess an intrinsic politics in the US right now. This is hardly to dismiss literature but to try to understand its precarious position and its difficult relation to precarious lives” (43). Fisk writes that this effort to understand is precisely her project, but also, that she believes that Pamuk is engaged in it as well.

I found myself wondering about the time frame encapsulated in this “right now,” and in the discussion of world literature more broadly. By my reckoning, and I think Fisk would agree, world literature studies in its present form emerged in the early 2000s—Pascale Casanova’s World Republic of Letters appeared in French in 1999; Debating World Literature, an edited collection of essays taking various approaches to the topic, in 2004. Key texts by Gayatri Spivak, David Damrosch, and Emily Apter appeared during this time as well. As Fisk notes, Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner was 2003; Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, 2004—two books whose massive success both stemmed from and illuminated the belief that the novel was a powerful form for revealing what life was like for “other” people, and the growing insistence that it was an ethical imperative to understand the works of those others who were being oppressed. The crucial backdrop of these conversations, of course, was 9/11, the War in Iraq, and a rapidly escalating sense of a “clash of civilizations” between the Islamic Middle East and the United States. The debates and theoretical problems of World Literature seem, in other words, to be strongly tied to the historic specificities of the 2000s. But what came before?1

I wondered about this, because as it happens, my favorite Pamuk novel is The White Castle, which takes up similar issues to the ones Fisk so compellingly analyzes in the later novels, and engages in the same sort of literary play. Fisk does not discuss The White Castle—she focuses on Pamuk’s later works, those published after 2001, when, she says, “Western publics turned their attention to the cultural and political conflicts that he thematizes in Snow” (24). The White Castle comes much earlier—it is Pamuk’s third novel, written in 1986, translated only in 1990. Thus, it seems almost untimely, as though it was written too early to be engaging the kinds of questions that seem so grounded in the context of the 2000s. Though describing the novel as emerging from the same constellation of interests as his later works, Pamuk himself seems to acknowledge that it is the product of a different time—in an interview with Z. Esra Mirze, when asked if his opinions have changed between The White Castle and Snow, Pamuk says that “many things have changed between The White Castle and Snow. My writing style has changed, and also I was more naïve then. I was already thinking about issues that have to do with East and West, and after I read Edward Said’s Orientalism—that must have been in the eighties—I was more invested in thinking about this.”2

As the reference to Said reminds us, there is, of course, a very long history of literature’s role in representing far-flung parts of the world, and its vexed relationship to structures of power. Fisk traces some of this longer arc within the twentieth century in her discussion of the politics of the Nobel Prize for Literature, noting the committee’s stated intention to seek out texts from “various parts of the world” in 1986 (138). Indeed, we intuitively locate the late 1980s and early ’90s as a turning point in these conversations (Fisk asserts that the canon wars of the American ’80s played a significant role, for instance [3]). But there was a different historical backdrop at work here, one that was a crucial source for Huntington’s famed thesis, namely, the end of the Cold War, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In what ways did that global conflict, and its aftermath, shape the world republic of letters? What continuities, or discontinuities, in ways of framing literary value can we trace to this period?

Cold War geopolitics almost certainly contributed to the sense of literature’s political efficacy, for instance, or to the construction of the figure of the author as spokesperson for an unheard group of oppressed people, as texts from behind the Iron Curtain were invariably encountered as dissident writings, banned books, etc. But the particular forms of otherness, the gaps in comprehension to be bridged, may have had a different quality. There are, of course, works of scholarship on American receptions of texts from Communist countries,3 or on ways that Central Europe has been framed as “Other,”4 but not, perhaps, in the specific terms of the world literature debates that Fisk sets out with such acuity. Pondering this prehistory led me back to The White Castle, to consider whether its apparent untimeliness could be, instead, an entry point into a better understanding of its time, and how it may have been different from what came after.

The White Castle takes up the question of East-West relations even more explicitly than Snow does, being the story of a found manuscript that describes the relationship between a Venetian youth who is captured by the Turks, and becomes the property, and companion, of a man referred to as Hoja. The novel, initially presented as the Venetian’s memoirs, chronicles their shifting intimacy. The two men bear a striking physical resemblance to each other, introducing the idea of mirroring in an almost overdetermined way. At first, they are joined by mutual disdain—“it was perhaps only in this way we understood each other: each of us looked down at the other” (25)—but as they begin to collaborate, first on a fireworks display, then on studies of astronomy, then on other projects, they form a bond that mingles desire for approval and contempt; familiarity and suspicion. “I wanted to feel both his need for me and his shame before me” (45), says the narrator, capturing the complex ambivalence of their relationship.

In a bizarre twist, the two begin writing together, sitting face to face (the Venetian tied to a chair), recording memories and stories under the heading “Why I am What I am.” This pursuit is fueled, ostensibly, by Hoja’s desire to understand why he is not like other Turks (fools, as he calls them), and from his apparent belief that writing provides direct access to a person’s interior—“he now talked about the insides of our heads with a strange and ominous conviction: it was as if he were talking about trunks with lids one could open and look inside, or about cupboards in a room” (53). But it rapidly becomes bound up in a complex web of confession and shame. The Venetian claims that Hoja lacks the courage to face his shortcomings, and gleefully exaggerates his own faults in his autobiographical writings so as to humiliate the other man, who beats him as punishment. Recalling those days, the narrator writes, “I must say that I brought Hoja to make a discovery without his realizing it, that I exposed to him his own weak points and those of people like him,” but also, tantalizingly, “I believe that those who read my story realize by now that I must have learned as much from Hoja as he learned from me!” (70). In a peculiar way, these episodes stage the scene of world literature: the complex power dynamic; the mixture of curiosity, sadism, and pity; the combination of dissembling and truth-telling; the illusion of direct access to another’s experience.

The masterful twist of the novel (with apologies to those who have not read it), is the suggestion, at the conclusion, that the two men have switched places and assumed each other’s identities. As the final chapter weaves its way to the end, it becomes impossible to determine who the ostensible author is: the Venetian, or Hoja, impersonating him. Flipping back through the book, the clues seem to be right before our eyes all along: “In those days I was a different person. . . . Once in awhile I still see in my dreams that person who used to be me, who I now believe was me” (14); “Now, as I recollect my memories and try to invent a past for myself” (41); “I felt like saying that this too could have been, my life could have been lived like this” (85). But it is impossible to determine, and upon deeper reflection, the question seems rather beside the point.5 The value of world literature is so often construed as giving us a privileged understanding of what life is like for others: with this masterful stroke, Pamuk forcefully reminds us that this labor is a fiction, one person assuming another’s identity.

As Erdağ Göknar has noted, these “postmodern” elements are what make the novel seem transnational. The White Castle thus engages in the same kinds of dynamics that Fisk so ably describes in Snow, staging the problem of empathy and relatability in (international) fiction, and accentuating the central paradox at its heart: the demand for “truthful” or transparent representation alongside the desire for a work of aesthetics whose constructedness is seen as antithetical to such transparency. As with Snow, however, there are aspects of the novel that speak very specifically to its Turkish audience, for whom the neo-Ottoman themes would have a very different meaning.6

One of the most intriguing aspects of Fisk’s discussion of Snow is when she shows us how Pamuk encodes meanings for Turkish readers that non-Turkish audiences would almost certainly miss through a willful misrepresentation of specific events in contemporary Turkish history. It was, perhaps, with this discussion in my mind that I noticed, returning to The White Castle, the historical setting of the novel—the reign of Mehmet IV, and the Polish-Ottoman War. The final battle, the siege of the white castle at Doppio, significantly, seems to be an invention—the various personages named (Hasan Pasha the Stout, Huseyin Pasha the Blond) are genuine historical figures, but from entirely different time periods, and a google search for Doppio turns up only references to the novel. The sense of significance, the scale of the loss, suggest, instead, the Battle of Vienna, but a few pages later we are told that the narrator gave up his position at court “before the sultan’s armies left for Vienna” (147). I would suggest, however, that this invented siege of the White Castle is a kind of double for that later battle, a fictional invention that both presages and mirrors it.

The Battle of Vienna was significant because it marked a major shift in power—following its defeat, the Ottoman Empire was gradually pushed back, losing holdings in what is now Ukraine, Hungary, and Transylvania. In the words of Wikipedia, it was the moment when the Ottoman Empire “ceased to be a menace to the Christian world.”7 Or, as many a Pole will tell you, it was when Poland saved Europe. Obviously, it is a site of rich significance for reflections on East-West relations, and neo-Ottoman nostalgia, which is to say, it clearly serves both the “transnational” aspects of the novel, and a more specifically Turkish one. But let us recall that this book is written in 1986, when Poland was not so obviously a part of Europe. To remember this is to reevaluate the ostensible East-West binary of the novel, reconstructing it, instead, as a triangle; and to observe that the defeat of the Ottoman Empire is being evoked at a moment of Soviet decline. This is one example, but it points to a broader line of inquiry. How does an awareness of this particular context, or a reconstruction of the politics of world literature at this specific moment, change our understanding of this text?

By providing a better framework for understanding them in the present, Fisk’s deft account of the political and epistemological entanglements of world literature’s fictions and theories awakened a new curiosity in me to understand them in the past. Rigorous and generative, Orhan Pamuk and the Good of World Literature exemplifies the best kind of scholarship.


  1. I hope that it is obvious that this is not a critique of Fisk’s book, but rather, a testament to its brilliance—what I am saying here is not, “But what about . . . ,” but rather, “Yes! Tell me more!”

  2. “Implementing Disform: An Interview with Orhan Pamuk,” Z. Esra Mirze and Orhan Pamuk, PMLA 123.1 (January 2008) 176–80; 178.

  3. Marla Zubel has discussed an important piece of this prehistory, the Penguin series entitled “Writers from the Other Europe,” edited by Phillip Roth, which published works from behind the Iron Curtain from the late 1970s to 1989. Brian K. Goodman argues that this series should be seen as an effort to instantiate a counter-realist canon, as an alternative to dominant literary trends. Marla Zubel, “Philip Roth’s ‘Other Europe’: The Author as Ambassador in the Cold War Republic of Letters,” talk given at the American Comparative Literature Association Annual Meeting, Boston, MA, March 18, 2016. Brian K. Goodman, “Philip Roth’s Other Europe: Counter-Realism and the Late Cold War,” American Literary History 27.4 (2015).

  4. See, for instance, Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans (Oxford University Press, 2009). Larry Wolff traces such representations back to the Enlightenment in Larry Wolff, Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994).

  5. Erdağ Göknar makes a similar claim, noting that many reviewers of the novel seem mistaken on this point. Göknar, Erdağ, “Orhan Pamuk and the ‘Ottoman’ Theme,” in World Literature Today, vol 80, no 6 (Nov-Dec, 2006), pg 34-38

  6. See Erdağ Göknar, “Secular Blasphemies: Orhan Pamuk and the Turkish Novel,” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 45.2 (Summer 2012) 301–26.

  7. Wikipedia, s.v. “Battle of Vienna,” accessed August 19, 2019. The citation actually comes from Walter Leitsch, “1683: The Siege of Vienna,” History Today 33.7 (July 1983).

  • Gloria Fisk

    Reply

    Response to Katarzyna Bartoszyńska

    Katarzyna Bartoszyńska and I have so much in common, not least as readers of Orhan Pamuk. For reasons that are personal as well as professional, we read his oeuvre as an index of forces that exceed him, working on the scale of the whole world. We describe this way of reading—transnationally, translinguistically, materially—in terms we get from our research, but it’s also traceable to specific features of our biographies. Both of us have taught at universities in Turkey, and we teach in the United States now. Neither of us is sufficiently fluent in Turkish to read literarily in it, but each of us is fluent in another language that teeters on the edges of the European Union—Polish in Bartoszyńska’s case, Swedish in mine. We know these languages because we’re products of the immigrant cultures in the United States that speak them, too.

    That experience of linguistic marginality makes us mindful of the costs and benefits of reading literature in translation—and, particularly, of reading novels that are translated from a language that is peripheral to Anglophone markets. We know how transformative it can be when a novelist gains access to the massive publics that read literature in the lingua franca of global capital, which is to say, in American English. And we know that this kind of transformation isn’t always or exclusively an improvement. We have seen valuable things get lost through those processes of translation and circulation, which are as overdetermined as everything else in the twenty-first century by global capitalism. But we see also the necessity of those processes to contemporary novelists who seek to find their publics wherever they live, so we work to maximize their benefits and minimize their costs.

    I haven’t talked to Katarzyna Bartoszyńska about any of this, so maybe I shouldn’t speak for her. But I feel comfortable speculating about the reasons why she reads as she does, because I feel so much kinship with her as a reader. I see in her a readerly orientation that I share with few of my friends and colleagues, who tend to confine their reading by habit and discipline to novels written in languages they can read fluently—American English, primarily. They may read Elena Ferrante, Karl Ove Knausgård, and Orhan Pamuk in translation, but they do not read Yuri Herrera, Fleur Jaggy, Fernanda Melchor, or Magda Szabó. They depart quickly from the literature of the United States and the UK to read the infinitesimally small fraction of non-Anglophone writers who get reviewed in the New York Times because they won big contracts with multinational publishing conglomerates, so they promise to become emblematic of world literature, writ large.1

    I started writing about Orhan Pamuk because I wanted to understand how he made it into that tiny, lucky bunch. I also wanted to understand what it would take to widen the path he took, to bring more writers like him to more readers around me. Katarzyna Bartoszyńska appears to me as my ally in this project as well as my internet friend.

    And, as friends, we read Orhan Pamuk so differently! Bartoszyńska focuses her thinking about Pamuk on his novel The White Castle, which was published in Turkish in 1985 and translated by Victoria Holbrooke into English in 1990. I didn’t discuss The White Castle at any length in my book, as Bartoszyńska observes, and—I can admit this now—the real reason is because I don’t like it very much.

    But that omission had reasons that I can state more objectively, too. Because the aim of my book is to read Pamuk as a case study in the globalization of literary markets and cultures, I concentrated purposefully on the novels he published in English later, after he had come to the attention of Anglophone literary publics. Writing under contract with multinational publishing companies, he wrote novels like Snow (2004; Kar, 2002) and even The Black Book (1994; Kara Kitap, 1990) with the assurance that they would have readers all over the world. I was interested in the ways those novels work to meet the needs of readers who lack familiarity with the Turkish characters, settings, and stories that he represents in such granular detail. The White Castle was written without that imperative to speak to audiences beyond Turkey as well as within it, so it wasn’t so useful to me.

    But it certainly could have been, as Bartoszyńska is right to observe. The White Castle forecasts the globalized literary sphere I study and reveals it in its early days. The literary globality I analyze has its “prehistory,” as Bartoszyńska describes it aptly, in novels that strain at the limits of the nation in their form and content as well as their patterns of translation and circulation. The White Castle achieves this effect by placing its implied reader in an imagined space of transnationality, and it dwells on the consequences of that act of imagination. The scene of doubling that concludes the novel provides an example of this, as Bartoszyńska shows so elegantly. But I liked her reading of this scene better than I like the scene itself.

    Reading it, I think of the complaint that a Turkish friend of mine lodges against Pamuk more generally. As my friend reads him, Pamuk exaggerates the gap between East and West in order to present himself as the writer who can bridge it. The gap, my friend says, is less a historical fact than a construction that is reinforced by ideologies that benefit from it. This is an argument that I considered at length in the book, where I considered it most directly with my analyses of my favorite novel by Pamuk: Snow.

    But Bartoszyńska shows me a new way to think about this problem by reading The White Castle in light of what she knows about contemporary Polish history, culture, and politics. I love this. When I read The White Castle, it did not occur to me to read the representation of the siege on the castle “as a kind of double” for the Battle of Vienna, as “a fictional invention that both presages and mirrors it.” By understanding this scene as it would read to a Polish reader, as a prismatic representation of “the moment when Poland saved Europe,” Bartoszyńska becomes able to place Pamuk in a geopolitical position that was invisible to me. She sees how “Cold War geopolitics almost certainly contributed to the sense of literature’s political efficacy,” which is a subject I take up at length, and also how those geopolitics advance “the construction of the figure of the author as spokesperson for an unheard group of oppressed people, as texts from behind the Iron Curtain were invariably encountered as dissident writings, banned books, etc.”

    As a sidenote, maybe, because I think it’s relevant, I want to also say that none of what I’ve said so far captures the real reason why I don’t like The White Castle. My main issue with this novel is aesthetic. In his early novels, Pamuk was enamored with the tropes of doubling and reversal that were ubiquitous in Anglophone fiction, too, of that period. These novels read to me like manuals for structuralist theory, illustrating how signifiers point toward signifieds to play games with the difference. Bartoszyńska alludes to this with reference to the critic Erdağ Göknar, citing his contention that “these ‘postmodern’ elements are what make the novel seem transnational.” I see the point, but I wouldn’t put it that way. It’s true that these elements appear in novels from many different national and linguistic traditions, but they also have a markedly insular quality for me as a reader.

    This purportedly transnational style is especially ubiquitous in the Anglophone tradition among novelists who invite recognition as authors of Big American Novels: Don Delillo, Jonathan Franzen, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace. White men all, they write with clear aspiration for bigness in the mode that I call privately the hypothetical spectacular: What if the author is also the protagonist; what if this character and that one are doppelgängers, what if I put a firecracker up my butt? I’m sorry for being rude, and some of my best friends like these novels, but we are not the same. For me, this style is repellent because it is so vacuous, and it is vacuous because it is so invested in demonstrating the cleverness of its author. He appears to me here in the figure of a giant boy who wants nothing more than to make another boy snicker and smile.

    The White Castle isn’t the worst in this way by a longshot, but it’s not the best, either. Unlike the North American novelists I mentioned, the younger Orhan Pamuk occupied a position—as a Turkish writer who aspired to reach a global audience—that compelled him to see his marginality, and that compelled him to imply a reader who was unlike him. It is the absence of that implication that makes so much American fiction so tedious. I think it’s what the secretary of the Nobel Prize committee meant when he said in 2008 that American writers were poorly disposed to win the world’s highest literary honor. “The US is too isolated, too insular,” Horace Engdahl lamented, populated by readers and writers who “don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. . . . That ignorance is restraining.” As a statement on a national literary culture, it is pugnacious, provocative, and excessively general, but it’s not altogether wrong.

    Following Bartoszyńska’s account of The White Castle, I would like to propose a more optimistic way to understand the insularity of the American novelists I mentioned—as evidence of a “prehistory” for an American literature that could be more cognizant of its place in the world. Pamuk maps a path for this in an interview that Bartozysńska quotes. Reflecting on the difference between The White Castle and Snow, he notes the development of his “writing style” as he also observes that “I was more naïve then. I was already thinking about issues that have to do with East and West, and after I read Edward Said’s Orientalism—that must have been in the eighties—I was more invested in thinking about this.”2

    The naivete he mentions is personal, no doubt, and a feature of his relative youth, but it’s also political. In midcareer, Pamuk developed a worldview and an ambition that was less myopic, less show-offy, more pliable in light of difference. He understood that the world doesn’t revolve around him. As I’m writing this now in the United States of 2020, it’s my fondest wish for the future that—in literature and life—my fellow citizens will similarly grow up.


    1. It is commonly said that 3 percent of the literature sold in the United States is literature in translation, and recent data suggests that number may be inflated. In 2016, a trade journal in publishing reported that translations comprised 3 percent of all publications in the United States and the UK in the preceding year, but less than 1 percent of those publications could be categorized as fiction of any kind. Margo Fitzpatrick, “Translation in the English-Speaking World,” Publishing Trendsetter, September 16, 2016, publishingtrendsetter.com/industryinsight/translation-englishspeaking-world/.

    2. “Implementing Disform: An Interview with Orhan Pamuk,” Z. Esra Mirze and Orhan Pamuk, PMLA 123.1 (January 2008) 176–80; 178.

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