Anyway, it was an immense and slightly mortifying honor to get to correspond with him. The interview takes a little while to get going - mostly because of my stammering attempts to impress him with my questions - but eventually gets interesting. I hope everyone enjoys it. Here is a favorite exchange:
AA: You mentioned earlier that some of these inflated literary reputations might have to do with America’s economic power. How do you see these two things affecting each other?
TP: Akshay, you hardly need me to clarify that for you… Do you? It isn’t obvious?
AA: Not entirely. I can see how America’s economic power might help spread the English language, but why would it compel praise for so-so art from people in other countries?
TP: This is rather extraordinary to me. It seems such an obvious equation. The world, certainly my part of the world, looks to America and the Anglo-Saxon culture in general as a model of the future, a motor of new fashion, the new thing. This despite all the hostility to American foreign policy. Books that are best sellers or much admired in the US are more or less automatically translated in Europe and other countries, because offering insight into the culture that drives the world. A best seller in Serbia, or Norway, or Kenya simply does not draw this attention. A brilliant writer in Croatia might easily be completely ignored, unless some political aspect of his work intersects with international interest. And reputation travels. Nobody needs to “compel praise”. It takes an extremely independent mind to read an author who comes on a tidal wave of hype and assess the material for what it is. Most people really do accept celebrity for quality. They do not question it. Add to this that very few countries have a tradition of independent criticism and the picture is complete. In Italy education does not train kids to imagine the majority might be wrong. It’s bad taste to scorn something universally admired. It’s unpleasant. Newspapers and publishers are owned by the same companies and work together and a journalist simply doesn’t set about taking to pieces a book that has been highly praised elsewhere and for which a great deal of money has been paid. At most they might choose not to talk about them.
Note, it is not a question of spreading the English language. Hardly anyone is reading Delillo or Franzen in English here. They are simply automatic exports the way our cinemas are automatically filled with the top ten Hollywood film, dubbed. But this was ever the way with the dominant power in the world. The Roman empire at its height was not admiring works coming out of Carthage or Londinium, nor was the British empire at its height paying much attention to anything from elsewhere, while all the world was reading Byron… To imagine that the success of books really depends on a large number of independent critical minds arriving at a positive judgment is simply not to pay attention to what’s going on. Obviously, certain qualities are required, but once the tidal wave of received opinion has begun to roll, success is guaranteed.