“Le multiculturel est renvoyé à la case ghetto”

A few weeks ago, Liesl Schillinger wrote an amazingly annoying and smug little article about the NBA shortlist (link here), which closed with these words

On Nov. 18, only one of the five authors that the National Book Awards selected will get the laurels. Will it be the Dubliner turned New Yorker? The Ugandan-British Yank? The Pakistani-American? The Michigander? The West Virginian? Whoever it is, he or she will be a writer who expands the versatile adjective “American,” enriching the world’s understanding of itself.

Francois Monti at the Fric Frac Club has the correct response in a good but saddening article about the same shortlist. Link here and here’s an except that kinda addresses Schillinger’s main point:

Superbe représentation de la diversité et du cosmopolitisme de la littérature et de la société américaine, très multiculturelle. Tout ça n’est que façade : si on regarde les blurbs, on se rend compte que loin d’être une célébration de la différence, tout ça n’est que cases, cases, cases. Le plus bel exemple, c’est Daniyal Mueenuddin : cinq des six blurbs ont été rédigés par des Pakistanais ou des Indiens, le sixième par un Ecossais qui mentionne, en guise de comparaison, deux auteurs indiens. Le message, sans doute inconscient, est clair : il y a de la bonne fiction écrite dans cette région, mais seuls les locaux sont capables d’en rendre compte. Le multiculturel est renvoyé à la case ghetto. Pire : les auteurs du sous-continent indien sont les seuls capables de parler du livre d’un des « leurs », mais ils sont incapables de parler du livre de quelqu’un d’ailleurs : sur les quatre autres livres de la shortlist, ils sont complètement absents. Le livre de Bonnie Jo Campbell, lui, est de toute évidence écrit par une femme : les prénoms des auteurs de trois des quatre blurbs sont Carolyn, Rachael et Laura… Même un auteur aussi connu que Colum McCann échappe à peine moins cette règle : il est de nationalité irlandaise, tout comme quatre des neuf blurbers. Plus mesurée, Jayne Anne Philips n’a que trois petites notes, et elles sont variées (on y retouve d’ailleurs Junot Diaz qui dit qu’il s’agit du meilleur livre qu’il a lu cette année – Diaz est membre du jury du NBA… Pour Marcel Theroux, c’est encore plus simple : un seul blurb.

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One thought on ““Le multiculturel est renvoyé à la case ghetto”

  1. I disagree with François on his interpretation of the significance of blurbs. “Blurbs” are those little nuggets of praise printed on the cover or in the first pages of a book. They are solely and exclusively the work of the publisher’s marketing department. The author may be asked to contribute some names of other authors who may be willing to blurb his book, but it is the publisher who contacts them and has the final say. Some authors gladly blurb their friends’ books. Others refuse to blurb at all, no matter who asks. Does the selection of Pakistani writers to blurb a book by a Pakistani mean that the people in the marketing department of that department assume it will carry more weight with the prospective buyer? Perhaps they do think that. From that to conclude that it is true and that the selection of blurbs proves that the palette of American literature is monochromatic is an unfounded leap. In fact, let me suggest this: take any ten novels published in the US within the last fifteen years. Find the blurbs. Now count how many times the word “funny,” or “hilarious,” or “raucous,” or any other word that suggests that the book is humorous appears. Does it mean the book is funny? No. Does it mean that the American public is more likely to buy a book that is touted as funny? Maybe. Does it mean that the marketing departments of the major publishers think the public needs to have their books sugar-coated, described that way, to sell them. Definitely. You can argue that some sectors of American literature are repetitive, even insular. But with 75,000 or more novels published every year in the US by large houses and small, I can’t imagine a more “diverse” (using the word in its original, nonpolitical sense) body of work. You can reach certain conclusions about the marketing of a product, even sociological ones, but you need to be careful not to overreach.

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