Tim Parks on why literature is not a global sport

The interesting thing about the English refusal to participate in the early World Cups is that, although there was no real obstacle to measuring themselves against teams from far away, they did not feel that this competition for notional world supremacy was what the sport was for. What mattered was familiar communities confronting each other in the stadium—that would give meaning to the game.

Vice versa, what is fascinating about international literary prizes is that the obstacles to choosing between writers coming from different cultures and working in different languages are so evident and daunting as to render the task almost futile; yet such is the appetite for international prizes and for winners that people do everything possible to overlook this. So what is the underlying purpose of these prizes?

Photo: London’s Wembley Stadium, 1954 (Marc Riboud/Magnum Photos)

Tim Parks on why literature is not a global sport

The interesting thing about the English refusal to participate in the early World Cups is that, although there was no real obstacle to measuring themselves against teams from far away, they did not feel that this competition for notional world supremacy was what the sport was for. What mattered was familiar communities confronting each other in the stadium—that would give meaning to the game.

Vice versa, what is fascinating about international literary prizes is that the obstacles to choosing between writers coming from different cultures and working in different languages are so evident and daunting as to render the task almost futile; yet such is the appetite for international prizes and for winners that people do everything possible to overlook this. So what is the underlying purpose of these prizes?

Photo: London’s Wembley Stadium, 1954 (Marc Riboud/Magnum Photos)

Tim Parks: Does Copyright Matter?

Copyright is part of a mass of legislation that governs the relationship between individual and collective, for the most part defending the former against the latter. You will only have copyright in a society that places a very high value on the individual, the individual intellect, the products of individual intellect.…

Officially the idea is that the writer, artist, or musician should be allowed to reap the just rewards for his effort. This is quaint. There is very little justice in the returns artists receive. Works of equal value and quality produce quite different incomes or no income at all. Somebody becomes a millionaire overnight and someone else cannot even publish. It is perfectly possible that the quality of work of these two writers is very similar. The same book may have a quite different fate in different countries. Any notion of justice in the incomes of artists is naive.

Photo: Raymond Carver signing books, New York City, 1988 (Bob Adelman/Magnum Photos)

Tim Parks: Does Copyright Matter?

Copyright is part of a mass of legislation that governs the relationship between individual and collective, for the most part defending the former against the latter. You will only have copyright in a society that places a very high value on the individual, the individual intellect, the products of individual intellect.…

Officially the idea is that the writer, artist, or musician should be allowed to reap the just rewards for his effort. This is quaint. There is very little justice in the returns artists receive. Works of equal value and quality produce quite different incomes or no income at all. Somebody becomes a millionaire overnight and someone else cannot even publish. It is perfectly possible that the quality of work of these two writers is very similar. The same book may have a quite different fate in different countries. Any notion of justice in the incomes of artists is naive.

Photo: Raymond Carver signing books, New York City, 1988 (Bob Adelman/Magnum Photos)

Tim Parks, The Mind Outside My Head

Riccardo Manzotti is what they call a radical externalist: for him consciousness is not safely confined within a brain whose neurons select and store information received from a separate world, appropriating, segmenting, and manipulating various forms of input. Instead, he offers a model he calls Spread Mind: consciousness is a process shared between various otherwise distinct processes which, for convenience’s sake we have separated out and stabilized in the words subject and object. Language, or at least our modern language, thus encourages a false account of experience.

His favorite example is the rainbow. For the rainbow experience to happen we need sunshine, raindrops, and a spectator. It is not that the sun and the raindrops cease to exist if there is no one there to see them. Manzotti is not a Bishop Berkeley. But unless someone is present at a particular point no colored arch can appear. The rainbow is hence a process requiring various elements, one of which happens to be an instrument of sense perception.

Photo: Lighthouse at Dungeness, coast of Kent, Great Britain, 2006 (Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos)

Tim Parks, The Mind Outside My Head

Riccardo Manzotti is what they call a radical externalist: for him consciousness is not safely confined within a brain whose neurons select and store information received from a separate world, appropriating, segmenting, and manipulating various forms of input. Instead, he offers a model he calls Spread Mind: consciousness is a process shared between various otherwise distinct processes which, for convenience’s sake we have separated out and stabilized in the words subject and object. Language, or at least our modern language, thus encourages a false account of experience.

His favorite example is the rainbow. For the rainbow experience to happen we need sunshine, raindrops, and a spectator. It is not that the sun and the raindrops cease to exist if there is no one there to see them. Manzotti is not a Bishop Berkeley. But unless someone is present at a particular point no colored arch can appear. The rainbow is hence a process requiring various elements, one of which happens to be an instrument of sense perception.

Photo: Lighthouse at Dungeness, coast of Kent, Great Britain, 2006 (Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos)

Let’s tackle one of the literary set’s favorite orthodoxies head on: that the world “needs stories.” There is an enormous need,” Jonathan Franzen declares in an interview with Corriere della Sera (there’s no escape these days), “for long, elaborate, complex stories, such as can only be written by an author concentrating alone, free from the deafening chatter of Twitter.” What is the nature of this need? What would happen if it wasn’t met? We might also ask: why does Franzen refer to complex stories? And why is it important not to be interrupted by Twitter and Facebook? Are such interruptions any worse than an old land line phone call, or simply friends and family buzzing around your writing table? Jane Austen, we recall, loved to write in domestic spaces where she was open to constant interruption.
Do we need to finish books? Is a good book by definition one that we did finish? Or are there occasions when we might choose to leave off a book before the end, or even only half way through, and nevertheless feel that it was good, even excellent, that we were glad we read what we read, but don’t feel the need to finish it? I ask the question because this is happening to me more and more often. Is it age, wisdom, senility? I start a book. I’m enjoying it thoroughly, and then the moment comes when I just know I’ve had enough. It’s not that I’ve stopped enjoying it. I’m not bored, I don’t even think it’s too long. I just have no desire to go on enjoying it. Can I say then that I’ve read it? Can I recommend it to others and speak of it as a fine book?
Creative writing schools are frequently blamed for a growing standardization and flattening in contemporary narrative. This is unfair. It is the anxiety of the writers about being excluded from their chosen career, together with a shared belief that we know what literature is and can learn how to produce it that encourages people to write similar books. Nobody is actually expecting anything very new. Just new versions of the old. Again and again when reading for review, or doing jury service perhaps for a prize, I come across carefully written novels that “do literature” as it is known. Literary fiction has become a genre like any other, with a certain trajectory, a predictable pay off, and a fairly limited and well-charted body of liberal Western wisdom to purvey.
Tim Parks, E-books Can’t Burn

The e-book, by eliminating all variations in the appearance and weight of the material object we hold in our hand and by discouraging anything but our focus on where we are in the sequence of words (the page once read disappears, the page to come has yet to appear) would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience. Certainly it offers a more austere, direct engagement with the words appearing before us and disappearing behind us than the traditional paper book offers, giving no fetishistic gratification as we cover our walls with famous names. It is as if one had been freed from everything extraneous and distracting surrounding the text to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves. In this sense the passage from paper to e-book is not unlike the moment when we passed from illustrated children’s books to the adult version of the page that is only text. This is a medium for grown-ups.

Photo: Jacqueline Rush Lee, Little Red Book (Devotion Series), 2008

Tim Parks, E-books Can’t Burn

The e-book, by eliminating all variations in the appearance and weight of the material object we hold in our hand and by discouraging anything but our focus on where we are in the sequence of words (the page once read disappears, the page to come has yet to appear) would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience. Certainly it offers a more austere, direct engagement with the words appearing before us and disappearing behind us than the traditional paper book offers, giving no fetishistic gratification as we cover our walls with famous names. It is as if one had been freed from everything extraneous and distracting surrounding the text to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves. In this sense the passage from paper to e-book is not unlike the moment when we passed from illustrated children’s books to the adult version of the page that is only text. This is a medium for grown-ups.

Photo: Jacqueline Rush Lee, Little Red Book (Devotion Series), 2008

Let’s imagine that we have been condemned for life to making, year in year out a burdensome and near impossible decision to which the world increasingly and inexplicably ascribes a crazy importance. How do we go about it? We look for some simple, rapid and broadly acceptable criteria that will help us get this pain out of the way. And since, as Borges himself noted, aesthetics are difficult and require a special sensibility and long reflection, while political affiliations are easier and quickly grasped, we begin to identify those areas of the world that have grabbed public attention, perhaps because of political turmoil or abuses of human rights, we find those authors who have already won a huge level of respect and possibly major prizes in the literary communities of these countries and who are outspokenly committed on the right side of whatever political divide we’re talking about, and we select them.
Tim Parks, Your English Is Showing

If one suggests that the international literary market is also a power game where different nations set their cultural and political might against each other in bestseller lists and international prizes, one inevitably arouses a certain amount of hostility from those who like to think of literature as operating in a more idealized world of noble aspiration and expression. The hostility intensifies if one seeks to exemplify one’s ideas with reference to individual writers, to the point that I fear that my recent piece on Jonathan Franzen and the Swiss writer Peter Stamm may have generated more heat than light. At the risk, then, of turning down the heat without exactly achieving a blaze of illumination, let me offer a more general word about present developments in the international spaces where contemporary novels from different countries vie for attention.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Tower of Babel, c. 1563 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Tim Parks, Your English Is Showing

If one suggests that the international literary market is also a power game where different nations set their cultural and political might against each other in bestseller lists and international prizes, one inevitably arouses a certain amount of hostility from those who like to think of literature as operating in a more idealized world of noble aspiration and expression. The hostility intensifies if one seeks to exemplify one’s ideas with reference to individual writers, to the point that I fear that my recent piece on Jonathan Franzen and the Swiss writer Peter Stamm may have generated more heat than light. At the risk, then, of turning down the heat without exactly achieving a blaze of illumination, let me offer a more general word about present developments in the international spaces where contemporary novels from different countries vie for attention.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Tower of Babel, c. 1563 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)