In a recent set of articles, I made reference to the fact that American literature is crap, but I feel like I should further explain myself. After all, the general thrust of my bitterness was not really all that clear, so I should probably give a full accounting of why I think American literature sucks and the various manners in which it sucks.
The biggest problem I have with American authorship is the monumental lack of writing. That is not to say that there is a lack of actual content. Lord knows, it is delivered in the steaming shovel-fulls. However, the mere ability to put words onto a page is not writing. No, writing requires actual skill.
American writers are not writers at all. They are typists. However, I will use the phrase "American writer" simply for its convenience, as well as avoiding the general, stubborn usage of the term "American typist" throughout the rest of this essay. After all, I would probably forget to use American typist rather than American writer at a few points anyway, so why put myself through that agony of syntax?
Anyway, American writers are typists. They put down words as though the words themselves are enough. However, as any competent writer knows, merely putting words down in the correct order is not the essence of writing. In fact, writing is a skill that involves using words cunningly.
American writers have absolutely no appreciation for the English language. They throw anything onto a page in order to seem like they are somehow deep or interesting. They will work to put some sort of pseudo-philosophical message into their pointless blather as they congratulate themselves on their subtlety. However, the so-called Great American Writer has about as much subtlety as the message that was sent by the Enola Gay.
The English language is a remarkably rich mine of nuance, idiom, and potential beauty. It can bring across many different meanings with one single word. It can be lyrical, beautiful and awe-inspiring. However, American writers use it like some sort of sledgehammer. And not the impressive sort of sledgehammer work of a highly skilled worker. No, it is the sledgehammer work of a person who fights against the very tool that he or she is using.
Writing is, in its essence, the use of language. And if a writer does not appreciate the language, he or she or it does not appreciate writing. A good craftsman takes care of his tools, but American writers do not care about their most important tool, the English language. Instead, they just beat the language down onto the page until it is so contorted it is utterly worthless. Apparently, in America, words are cheap, so why bother using them so that they can be used again?
One of the big problems with the new, global literature is that people feel obligated to feel like they are part of it. They want to see the finery of the best that other nations have to offer and they will gladly show their ability to understand these foreign cultures and their best literature. That's nice, isn't it? Yes it is… in theory. In practice, however, everything is lost.
The problem with American letters is that everyone feels obligated to read the works of great, foreign writers and appreciate their work. In fact, I am all for that. It's an excellent goal to shoot for. Unfortunately, there is no way any American can understand foreign literature. There is an old Jewish saying, "Women are like translations of poetry. It it's true, it isn't beautiful. If it's beautiful, it isn't true." This is everything that you need to know about reading foreign literature.
Having read the Iliad and the Odyssey, I can appreciate the story-telling skills of Homer. The blind poet could spin a remarkable tale. He was truly remarkable in his ability to weave threads of myth into a full tale of gods, mortals, motivation, cause, effect, and understanding of the human condition. Unfortunately, I do not read ancient Greek, so I couldn't tell you the first thing about his skills as a linguist.
When we read foreign literature, be it Homer or Goethe, we read it in translation. Unfortunately, foreign translation leaves a lot to be desired, since we are missing many of the fine nuances that the vernacular provides. We can read The Iliad and appreciate its tale, structure, characters, and storyline, but we will never understand it for itself. For instance, in Greek the first word is "Rage" as in the rage of the gods. Unfortunately, we cannot read that in a translation of The Iliad, since the vast majority of Americans cannot read ancient Greek. As well, trying to construct a sentence that begins with "Rage" will often lead to some uncomfortable grammatical constructs. However, that does not mean that the average person is not willing to say that they understand The Iliad.
In fact, we can enjoy the Iliad, but we miss a great deal in the translation of it. That is not to say that we should all learn to read ancient Greek, nor is it to say that we should not read The Iliad. Instead, it is to say that we should understand that we cannot fully understand The Iliad in translation.
Imagine watching a football game on television. The ball moves around the field and the camera generally stays on the ball. Yes, this is the most important part of the game, since the actual ball designates the progress of the game. However, there are many things going on that are not clear from the movement of the ball. People are moving around downfield, affecting how the game is played. When we zoom in on the ball, we only see a portion of the actual game. It is like that with translations of literature.
If I watch a football game live, I see an entire field. When I watch a game on television, I see a lot of what is happening, but not everything. There is more to the game than the ball, just as there is more to a great work than the mere sequence of events and the meanings of words. Words can have double meanings, hidden meanings, interesting sounds, alliteration, rhyme, meter, and a host of other devices. To say that we can read and fully comprehend our example of The Iliad is conceited. We don't, but we like to pretend that we do.
The reason that this is a problem is that we then feel the need to imitate these structures that we do not comprehend. Perhaps we might read The Tale of Genji translated from Japanese and pretend we understand it completely, then work to make something of similar quality. Unfortunately, The Tale of Genji loses boatloads of meaning when it is translated from a different language, culture and time and turn it into something worthy of emulation. To emulate a translation of a one thousand year old text from an entirely different language and culture is to emulate an empty shell. Yet the American writer feels like he or she should do that.
With that said, let's go further into our discussion of the craptitude of American writers.