22 March 2009
Writers vs. critics
“Why does the literature of so multilingual a world give so imperfect a portrait of that world’s linguistic complexity?” asks Lawrence Rosenwald in “American Anglophone Literature and Multilingual America” (in Multilingual America: Transnationalism, Ethnicity, and the Languages of American Literature, edited by Werner Sollors, 1998, p. 327). The question applies not only to the United States (with its glaring denial that not all Americans write or even speak English), but to the rest of the world, which has become mostly multilingual or at least bilingual. In the area of literature, writers around the world have increasingly become multilingual, not only with macaronic texts, but with many mainly monolingual texts with other-language passages. It is in the area of literary criticism that intellectuals have lagged behind; literary critics still read poems as though they were written by linguistically-challenged poets. Why is this so? We can perhaps glean an answer from postcolonial theory: it is intellectuals that have always tried to maintain the status quo (we call that hegemony or ideology) by marginalizing or suppressing minority languages, texts, things, ideas, and persons. Another way of putting it is this: artists always try to go against the grain, critics always try to keep the artists in check. As a playwright and critic, I am as schizophrenic or hyphenated as can be: as a playwright, I hate it when a critic says I do not follow the Aristotelian structure or that my plays lack plot, conflict, character, etc., but as a critic, I love putting down playwrights that do not worry about Aristotelian structure and that ignore plot, conflict, character, etc. There is a moral lesson there somewhere, but I haven't learned it yet.