Even if we do not often say it, fans of literature often behave as though universality were the ultimate virtue. In part, this is a trick of perspective. Almost by definition, the books that win international recognition are those that speak to the most broadly recognizable themes. Even when they deal with the local and specific, they put us in mind of the international or ideal. Chinua Achebe’s novels, for example, often focus on political disputes that are quite remote from the daily lives of his American and European audiences. That those audiences have nonetheless embraced him speaks as much to their ability to abstract universal themes from those specifics, as to his own intention to cast a light on anything so broad as the human condition, per se.
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that we should hold in such high regard the books that transcend their origins in a specific time and place, wrong-minded though it may be. In some ways, to award a book with an international prize is to justify that opinion to ourselves — to say, in effect, that a book we considered great must clearly deserve that title, since how otherwise would it have caught the attention of an international audience?
Tim Parks, writing at the New York Review of Books blog, provides a wry restatement of that theme. One advantage of the point of view, he tells a director of the Edinburgh Book Festival, is that,
… we never need feel anxious or frustrated that we might be missing out on some truly great work of art because we don’t really know the culture that produced it: if the work were really great, it would, by definition, reach out to us; if it doesn’t, it’s not worth our, nor anyone else’s attention.
Parks is being arch, of course; he has in mind the pleasures of the stubbornly local. To invert (though not controvert) his argument, we might likewise ask what we have really missed with a work of art that relies so heavily on the context of an alien culture. If it is enough that Henry Green speaks truly to English readers, then why should anyone else feel anxious that they have somehow missed out on Green? Isn’t that a bit like cursing your phone for receiving only the calls intended for you?
But though the anxiety may be slightly misplaced, it speaks to an underlying concern with truth. There are those for whom any sort of epistemic relativism is deeply unsettling. Relativism is precisely the specter invoked by the idea that a work of art can be both great, in the sense of striking at the heart of something true, as well as intimately bound to a particular cultural context. It short-changes that concern to present is as the worry that “we might be missing out on some truly great work of art because we don’t really know the culture that produced it.” The deeper concern is that there could be important truths that may only be revealed within the context of someone else’s culture. Or, put another way, that our own culture has failed us — has failed to put us in within reach of something important.
If art is especially prone to provoke that concern, it may be because the most basic trick of art is to speak through culture. As it happens, Chinua Achebe does manage to illuminate themes of some import to Americans and Europeans, but he does so by cleverly reflecting African culture. Truly general works of art — those with no nationality, no face, no character — rarely affect us so strongly. The more opportunity that a work gives us to find in the foreign something that is also meaningful in the context of our own culture, the more likely we are to call it great. This consoles us, our recognition of its greatness serving to assure us that we are, after all, capable of recognizing truth.