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Is American literature ‘massively overrated’?

British-Chinese author Xiaolu Guo, who was selected by Granta Magazine as one of Britain's best young novelists and was recently shortlisted for the Orange Prize, criticized American literature and also expressed concern that literature has become too ‘storytelling-driven.’ 'All the poetry, all the alternative things, have been pushed away by mainstream society,' she said.

By Bruna LobatoContributor / January 23, 2014

Pulitzer Prize-winning US author Jhumpa Lahiri also criticized America's literary culture, calling the lack of translated works 'shameful.'

Dima Gavrysh/AP

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British-Chinese author Xiaolu Guo recently commented on the dominance of Anglophone novels in the international book market during the Jaipur Literature Festival in India this weekend. The session on “the global novel” featured six international panelists, including American writers Maaza Mengiste, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Jonathan Franzen.

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Guo, who was selected by Granta Magazine as one of the best young British novelists and was recently shortlisted for the Orange Prize, criticized the way "our reading habit has totally been transformed by the mainstream."

"Our reading habit has been stolen and changed," she said. "For example, I think Asian literature is much less narrative … but our reading habit is more Anglo-Saxon, more American.… Nowadays all this narrative [literature is] very similar, it's so realism, so story-telling driven … so all the poetry, all the alternative things, have been pushed away by mainstream society."

"I love your work, Jonathan," she told Franzen, "but in a way you are smeared by English-American literature.… I think certain American literature is overrated, massively overrated, and I really hate to read them."

Guo, who was the only author on the panel who writes in multiple languages, said that her experience in writing in Chinese is charged with personal and ideological baggage, which is not always the case when writing in a non-native language. “When I write in English, I feel freer,” she said. However, she added, "In a way the easiest and laziest way is to write in English. What a struggle to write in any other language than English." She said it is a struggle to do so because one might have to wait for years for the book to be translated as a way to reach a larger audience. The most widely translated language in the world is English.

"If you write in Japanese or Vietnamese or Portuguese you have to wait … to be translated, and translated literature never really works immediately as English literature unless it wins the Nobel or some big prize," Guo told the Jaipur audience. "I'm saying language is a passport. A dubious, dangerous passport too.”

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