In Praise of Belated Reading
In this hyper-speed era, I’m consistently late to the party. Or maybe the more appropriate idiom would be behind the curve: unable (and often unwilling) to keep up with the times. Unlike most others in my generation, I feel stymied by technological “progress” more often than I feel liberated by it. Even more than just the dubious notion of progress, though, I resent contemporary society’s obsession with its own contemporaneity, its need to fetishize the NOW and to commodify NOWness.
If I’m behind the curve when it comes to technology and the ever-hastening present it helps shape, then this goes double for literature. I’m a slow reader in an era of fast publishing. Even though today’s readership may be down, more books are being published now than ever. Small presses continue to proliferate, as do opportunities for authors to self-publish. As such, publishing has begun to Balkanize in the digital age, at once threatening the dominance of big corporate presses and enabling the rise of many boutique and nonprofit establishments. The increased production of books that results from this state of affairs provides yet more grist for the publishing review mills, which churn ceaselessly, mowing through the field of contemporary literature and attempting to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff. In this way, both established and upstart lit-review forums, whether in print or online, remain caught up in fetishizing NOWness. This is but one manifestation of how the literary arts, just like everything (and everyone) else, are subject to the dictates of capitalism.
But my purpose here isn’t to offer a pseudo-Marxist manifesto for twenty-first-century bibliophiles; many far more capable grumblers have said their peace on this issue, and anyway it doesn’t feel productive to obsess over these negative aspects. If I’ve learned one thing from finishing a doctorate in the humanities, it’s that no critique can succeed without an equal measure of creativity. Thus, instead of grousing about the modern world and contemporary publishing, I wish to elaborate on my delinquent relationship to them. I therefore write in praise of belatedness.
The word praise has an ambiguous status in literary history. Writing “in praise of” something rarely involves a purely celebratory tone. Indeed, writers frequently invoke praise as a provocation, ironically lauding that which a given society typically disparages. Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly provides a touchstone example, a satirical allegory in which Folly praises herself along with self-deception, madness, various superstitions, and numerous facets of Catholic doctrine. On the other hand, writers also invoke praise elegiacally, drawing attention to traditionally underrepresented, unappreciated, or disappearing subjects or values. The three-volume series titled In Praise of Black Women offers an example of this decidedly unironic use of praise. As Paula M. Varsano writes, “Clearly, the rhetorical tenor of the praise depends on the perceived status of its object.”
This last quotation comes from Varsano’s introduction to her translation of François Jullien’s In Praise of Blandness, a slim volume whose author examines the traditional value of blandness within Chinese thought and aesthetics. Varsano reflects that Jullien’s use of the French term éloge (“praise”) is not exactly ironic or elegiac:
Potential readers unacquainted with Chinese culture[,] . . . intrigued by the link of the vaguely repellant “blandness” with another, unfamiliar tradition of thought and aesthetics, will then suspend their judgment that the “praise” is necessarily ironic. Instead, they will rightly consider it an invitation to reexamine a basic assumption, a conventional, native value, in the more global and relativizing framework of cross-cultural comparison.
I find Varsano’s take on praise via Jullien’s éloge intriguing. In this understanding, praise becomes a critical tool, one that cuts a narrow path between irony and elegy in search of more complex appreciation. What seems crucial about Varsano’s reading of Jullien is its emphasis on how a play of familiar and unfamiliar elements contributes to a suspension of judgment. Such a suspension has the potential to keep us engaged and open, making observations rather than just dispensing opinions. And indeed, Jullien’s investigation of Chinese art and philosophy is an open enterprise, having lasted for some decades. For him, praise is a subtle tool that marks a gap between the Western philosophical tradition, which is deeply familiar to him, and the Chinese philosophical tradition, which, despite years of research, still isn’t second nature. To write in praise of blandness means, in Jullien’s case, to strive for rigorous cross-cultural understanding made possible by sustained engagement.
The term “cross-cultural” may strike some modern cynics as passé, a holdover from outdated ideologies of multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism. As a literary scholar who spent his formative years in the field of postcolonial studies, I’m well aware of both the promises and pitfalls of multiculturalism and associated concepts. With respect to hybridity, for instance, it never seems clear whether the concept indicates successful resistance to prevailing power structures or simple the continued dominance of said structures. The notion of hybridization has the disadvantage of making multicultural engagement seem far easier than it has proven to be.
I’m not interested in thinking about the world as some massive ideological melting pot. Although globalization threatens to homogenize the world, it has not yet succeeded in doing so. It therefore seems important to remain attentive to difference without necessarily fetishizing it, which is often what overemphasizing the discourse of the “Other” does. By contrast, emphasizing difference (a relationship) over otherness (a distancing gesture) leads to an alternative understanding of the world at large. Instead of a unified and homogenous space, the world reveals itself as a interconnected assemblage of discrete yet evolving and constantly creolizing cultures. In this context, the usefulness of cross-cultural work avails itself; the term’s prefix suggests a way of moving between that sustains a relationship of difference between distinct entities without trying to collapse them into some new unity.
I’ll come back to the issue of cross-cultural work later, but for now I want to return to belatedness and belated reading. Trite as it is to say, good books, like good wines, grow more complex with age. This may account for why critics so often lament the apparent muddiness of contemporary literature. It takes time for the cream to rise to the top, for the dregs to settle at the bottom. For this reason, the publishing world always seems to be awash in turbid waters. Years, even decades, may need to pass for the frenzy to settle, revealing the work that can stand the proverbial test of time. The best books thus tend to emerge as such only belatedly. They become at once deeper and wider as they mature and become objects of belated reading.
In addition to this temporal aspect of belatedness, there is also a less obvious spatial aspect. Good books don’t just age well; they also travel well. When books travel, their influence spreads. Thus, the “magical realism” of Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez and other Latin American writers became a resource for numerous novelists as far afield as Toni Morrison (United States) and Ben Okri (Nigeria), both of whom transformed the genre (or, if you prefer, “mode”) for local storytelling purposes. In its “globalized” form, then, magical realism is a decidedly belated phenomenon.
Something similar is at work in what some scholars have termed the “belated modernism” that emerged in postcolonial writing of the 1950s, ’60s, and ‘70s, half a century after literary modernism’s European heyday. Admittedly, the term belated has troubling connotations in this context: it suggests that colonized peoples were latecomers to modernity rather than co-creators of it. (Naturally, so-called civility required so-called savagery to define itself.) But in a purely temporal sense, African and Caribbean writers did adopt the techniques and preoccupations of literary modernism much later, in that strange “after” time/space of the postcolony, when disenchantment reigned. As with magical realism, modernism became a resource for writers like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (Kenya), whose 1967 novel A Grain of Wheat rewrites Joseph Conrad’s 1911 novel Under Western Eyes, adopting its techniques only to reject its politics. In such a cross-cultural context, belatedness once again becomes a critical tool rather than a sign of stunted development. Ngũgĩ is not late to modernity. Instead, he is using his belated relationship to modernism to examine, complicate, and ultimately transform modernity.
Being able to see these kinds of interconnections requires historical perspective and a wide literary and cultural purview. I therefore find myself much more intrigued by older works, mainly because of the wider sense of context I’m able to conjure for them. It’s hard to get a sense for the field of contemporary fiction because it’s constantly emerging. The difficulty here is only partly a matter of not being able to read fast enough. It’s also an issue of writers constantly reading and being influenced by each other. The proliferation of MFA programs in creative writing has certainly contributed to this state of affairs, producing a generation of writers with a similar notion of what constitutes “good” writing. This may be why the work of so many contemporary writers seems (and not just to me) stylistically flat and emotionally vacant.
But my real point here isn’t to dismiss contemporary writing. Instead, my point is that aesthetic value always emerges from within a given context of cultural production. When the literary establishment validates certain types of writing, it facilitates the production of more of the same. And as the cycle repeats, it inculcates a certain literary taste that is replicated as much by fiction writers as by literary reviewers. This is why literary reviewers usually don’t tell us very much; they are much too invested in the literary NOWness I spoke of earlier.
As a scholar, I work a bit differently. Unlike reviewers, scholars depend on a certain distance from their object(s) of study. This distance often allows for a wider and richer sense of context, whether that context be historical, sociocultural, economic, or otherwise. Of course, we scholars are just as beholden as reviewers to our own sense of literary value. We are also limited by scholarly conventions. But one thing I like about being a scholar is that I’m not required to limit my research to the current literary market. That is, I have much more freedom to choose my objects of study. This freedom enables me to pursue interests that go beyond the narrow sphere of the contemporary and allow me to discover fascinating, even bizarre connections across time and space. So instead of evaluating the relative merits and demerits of the latest novel, I might look to the way that work speaks both to and from the long and widespread tradition of the novel. Doing so opens up a much broader field of possible inquiry, one that stretches across both centuries and continents.
Such is the vast and enticing horizon enabled by belated reading.
* * *
This blog provides a space for me to continue my practice of belated reading, and to do so with a greater sense of intention and purpose. In particular, I want to use The Exploded View as a forum for expanding my belated reading practice beyond the usual anglophone context I’ve found myself in as an English Ph.D. student. Sadly, the American publishing industry is overwhelmingly anglocentric. According to Archipelago Books, a nonprofit press devoted to literary translation, “less than three percent of new literature published in the United States originates outside the Anglosphere.”
I said earlier that good books travel, and translation makes travel possible. Translation also inevitably involves a certain time delay, such that translated texts, which must travel through both geographical and cultural space, always have a belated reception in their target languages. To complicate things, translation also often exists in the plural. Since the seventeenth century, some seventy English-language translations of Homer’s Odyssey have appeared, either in part or in full. The language of each translation speaks to the readers of its own time, so the work’s reception in English continues to change, even as we charge through the twenty-first century. Every new translation does different work, communicates different information, captures different nuances. Every new translation also complicates the way the text travels through time and space. And when we extrapolate this state of affairs to the larger field of literary translation, something curious happens. What we haphazardly call “world literature” turns out to be an incredibly warped space–time continuum, a fascinating universe where all texts become belated travelers in strange lands.
Which finally brings me back to the issue of cross-cultural comparison. I long to move within the wonderfully disorienting zodiac of constellated texts that constitutes our world’s diverse literary inheritance. Doing so requires a devotion to the kind of cross-cultural work implicit in François Jullien’s use of the term éloge, where “praise” becomes a tool for critical engagement rather than mere evaluation. The Exploded View pursues this mode of critical engagement through belated reading in the archives of the world’s literatures.
As I want to support publishers that are committed to expanding the archive of world literature in English translation, part of my work on this blog will be to engage with the ongoing catalogs of presses like Archipelago, mentioned above. Although I might quibble some with the language of universality, I fundamentally agree with Archipelago’s mission statement: “Artistic exchange between cultures is a crucial aspect of global understanding: literature can act as a catalyst to dissolve stereotypes and to reveal a common humanity between people of different nationalities, cultures, and backgrounds. It has never been more important for voices from around the world to be heard in this country [the United States].” Likewise, I am in full support of Open Letter Books, a nonprofit publisher of literary translations based at the University of Rochester. As Open Letter’s editors claim, “Making world literature available in English is crucial to opening our cultural borders, and its availability plays a vital role in maintaining a healthy and vibrant culture.”
Through the practice of belated reading I plan to explore in The Exploded View, I labor in support of these visions.
Conrad, Joseph. Under Western Eyes. Penguin, 2002.
Erasmus, Desiderius. In Praise of Folly. Translated by Betty Radice. Penguin, 1994.
Jullien, François. In Praise of Blandness: Proceeding from Chinese Thought and Aesthetics. Translated by Paula M. Varsano. Zone Books, 2007.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. A Grain of Wheat. Heinemann, 2008.
Schwarz-Bart, Simone (ed.). In Praise of Black Women. University of Wisconsin Press, 2001–2003. 3 vols.