It is ironic but also fitting that World Literature Today should be published in Norman, Okla. Ironic that Norman rather than New York should produce what may be the most cosmopolitan magazine in the United States. And fitting that an international book review that tracks literature in even ``minor'' regions should itself emerge from a ``minor'' region. World Literature Today reviews books from 72 languages, from Afrikaans to Tagalog to Yiddish. A first encounter with this magazine may leave the reader somewhat bemused. Most of the books discussed have not been translated into English; even if we could purchase them, we couldn't read them. This is not a ``practical'' book review aimed to help us select what to read.
Yet after a short time with this unusual magazine, its usefulness -- and fascination -- become apparent. True, we may never read much of the literature we read about in World Literature Today. But through its commentary we find out how writers are approaching issues artistically and intellectually in countries throughout the world and, indirectly, what issues are of concern to people in those countries.
In recent years, a heightened awareness of the connectedness of all countries has led to an increase in the international political and economic news in our press. But we still receive little international cultural news, especially from small countries.
``We tend to take it for granted that, in order to have a literature worthy of notice, a country should have at least some thirty million inhabitants,'' wrote Henri Peyre in World Literature Today in 1976. ``As if no poet of any greatness could arise in Hungary or in Serbia, no outstanding novelist in Iran or in Holland or in Estonia, no powerful dramatist among the compatriots of Ibsen or Strindberg!''
World Literature Today has been mapping out the world's literary output since 1927. Founded as Books Abroad at the University of Oklahoma, the quarterly was initially a mere 32 pages. Today, issues run about 175 pages, with one section devoted to essays -- often focused around a theme -- and one section comprised of some 300 evaluative reviews.
Determined to be international not merely in scope but also in influence, World Literature Today established the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1969. Editor Ivar Ivask sees the $25,000 award, which is drawn from a permanent endowment established by the Neustadt family, as an alternative to the controversial Nobel Prize.
Neither politics nor geography plays a role in determining the winner, Mr. Ivask emphasizes; the prize is given solely for literary merit. Recipients have included Gabriel Garc'ia M'arquez (1972) and Elizabeth Bishop (1976).
Why is such a valuable publication so little known? In part, the reason is financial. Although subsidized by the university, World Literature Today has no budget for promotion or distribution.
In addition, Ivask feels the magazine's location has not been an asset. ``No one is interested in Oklahoma,'' he says. ``Norman is not New York.'' And finally, people have tended -- incorrectly -- to view the magazine as academic, a publication for specialists.
Undoubtedly, critics may find fault with what is included in or omitted from World Literature Today, but the magazine is a remarkable enterprise. ``I realize more and more that poetry is the common good of mankind. I therefore like to look around at other nations, and I advise everyone else to do likewise.'' It was Goethe who said that -- and he is quoted fondly in World Literature Today, a magazine that has taken his injunction to heart.
A regular monthly column in the Book Review.