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.