What is literature, exactly? Are we post-literate now? That was on my mind when I was the reviewer for my Santa Fe Book Club's book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, which has won all sorts of awards, including the Pulitzer in April 2008 and the National Book Critics Circle Award for best novel of 2007 (representing the finest books published in English). I looked up the previous winners of the latter award and three of the five winners have dual culture experiences --Vikram Chanda, (Indian writer, transferred to US as undergrad student -- Indian English Literature is only 150 years old) Sacred Games; Diaz; Hisham Matar (Libyan author, b. NYC of Libyan parents,went back to Libya at age 3, lives in London) In the Country of Men. Remember, too, the 2003 Booker Prize award went to DBC PIERRE of Australia/Mexico, for his book, Vernon God Little which I reviewed for my Atlanta book club. It, too, was about the duality of cultures with the book set in Mexico/US; other Booker prizes with dual cultural authors are: 1992, Michael Ondaatje, Sri Lanka/Canada;, The English Patient; 1999 J.M. Coetzee, South African/Australia, Disgrace.
The books we read on either side of this one were Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessi (cute new writing techniques - very clever) and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which has won all sorts of awards but was published in the U.s. as juvenile fiction (words are the major theme of this book).
We're at a liminal moment, past the threshhold of change, only in retrospect will we know where we've been; only the future will tell us how we've changed. With this author, Diaz, comes the question of the theme of literacy: what makes a good book, good literature? The book is seen as a reflection of our culture and that leads me to ask: what is the future of the book? I grew up rooted but moved as an adult... we are all transplants to Santa Fe, all aware of cultural dualities, mash-ups, fluidity of culture (hispanic, anglo, indian). Text in cultures is not set, but part of the variable and ever-changing narrative. That is literature, which means, interpreting our culture in a new frame, giving us a new way to look at our experience.
There are two links that are important if you want to delve deep into our transitions in literacy: 1) Literature, Media and Text: The New York Review of Books: The Library in the New Age, 2008 by Robert Darnton; and and 2) Text as an art form in the history of ideas.
Diaz's tale is one of dual cultures, the sense of the outsider. I wonder if this would be classified as immigrant literature? as Latin American literature? as post-modern literature? globalization literature? post-millennial literature? post-colonial literature? Postcolonial literature can be identified by its discussion of cultural identity which certainly Diaz does. The piece of literature, be it a novel, poem, short story etc. may be about the change that has taken place or question the current change. Postcolonial literature tends to ask the question: What now?
This sort of literature, like text itself, is ever-changing. I contend that we are at a fourth revolution (the first - writing; the second - reading; the third - printing) which I'll call Instant Communication Revolution IV. For the past 150 years new communication media have blurred geographical boundaries through the progression of the telegraph, telephone, movies, radio, television, each bringing a new peculiar mix of written, spoken and graphic languages. In the last stages, we entered a return to passive orality - the story with oral text with radio, and then with tv, orality with images. It is this last stage that we found the loss of the printed word related to our literacy.
Our next revolutionary stage, where we are now, is Post-Literacy, Stage V: In the flood of information, words are everywhere and narrative becomes unhinged, malleable, open to reinterpretation with the word as a symbol, fluid and at a place where there is loss of the tangible (no film, no original and even now new terminology for printed text is tangible as compared to digital). Information is not hard and fast, but is mutable. The majority of Americans didn't buy a book last year. So what is real literature? Nothing is fixed anymore. Literature is no longer a common experience, but a translatable cultural path, a story. With YouTube and forms for narrative creation, the book itself is at risk of becoming a relic. The fastest growing entity today is information, growing at a rate of 66% a year. The paradox of science is that every answer breeds at least two new questions; one online link goes to another. Nothing stays fixed, at least not for long.
The interpretation of place, experience, culture, society, history past, present and future is part of the novel experience of literature - the arts of culture via text. But now, we are moving to a post-literate society where it is the educated versus the uneducated and image and entertainment are more important than the individual experience, alone, of absorbing textual information.
So what is good literature? It should be more than a good story. And good literature is not always what wins the prizes. I always like to look at the last lines to see if there is profundity in the novel ending. Our next book is Three Cups of Tea. The author spoke to a sold-out audience last week in Santa Fe. And, I hear pomegranates are a new way of helping farmers in Afghanistan overcome the poppy cultivation. My brother-in-law, serving in Afghanistan, will share his thoughts over xmas. I'll pass this last book onto my sister-in-law.
Nothing, in our post-literate age, is fixed. Everthing is open to interpretation and reinterpretation. Oscar Wao fits that -- a new mutable, reinterpreted handle on experience.