Can First World Literature Teach us Anything?

Can literature produced in the “First World” teach us anything that we don’t already know? Maybe I should put the matter in an even cruder way: can literature produced by white, bourgeois males teach us anything that hasn’t already been said by earlier generations of their elite brethren?

Do these sound like blunt and silly questions? Perhaps they are. But sometimes the sharp end of the analytical spear isn’t enough; only a battering ram can get us somewhere new.

Let me put forward a proposition: literature as a social force can only sustain itself if it constantly works to reveal new and searing insights about the societies in which we live. A piece of literature should wreck you and teach you. While literary works do function through aesthetic indirection and craft, they must still have a moral edge to them, a laceration of mind and heart, to be worthwhile. This is even more true now than it was a decade ago, as we confront a society over-saturated with digital content of all kinds.

Let me put forward one more proposition: the literary voices that truly resonate with us, that can both wreck and teach us, are writers who are either a) from the developing world outside of what we imagine to be “the West” or b) those within “the West” but members of its impoverished or discriminated constituencies: newly-arrived immigrants, the working class, members of the LGTB community, racialized subjects, and women.

What does this leave out? The bourgeois, college educated white male author. Quite frankly, after centuries of dominating access to cultural self-representation, I’m not sure he has anything left to tell us.

Certainly, one can claim that the notion of divided “worlds” (first, second, third) is an obsolete concept. Likewise, one could question whether there really is such a thing as “the West” and “the Rest” these days: aren’t we all interconnected through global free-market flows anyhow?

However, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has recently reminded us, there is still a “restricted permeability of global culture”(2003, 16) that defines the North-South divide. An example: Star Wars opened in major urban capitals throughout the world this December, and The Hunger Games series has been translated into languages the world over. Yet the same cannot be said for the latest Taiwanese best-seller or the most interesting contemporary work of Senegalese cinema. The culture of the non-West rarely flows back into the metropolitan dominant, accept for the small shelters it finds in university departments or art-house movie theaters. Hollywood, Coke, and the NBA, meanwhile, impress themselves with ease on every corner of the cultural globe.

And then there are the still massive economic disparities that exist between, say, an urban metropolis like Rome and the Libyan capital of Tripoli, located just across the Mediterranean Sea. All you need to do is turn on the television and watch coverage of the “refugee crisis” to see the scalding divisions that still exist between the wealthiest core nations on earth (Germany, France, England, Canada, USA) and the global South. While nations who are wealthy in the aggregate but still poor on a per-capita basis such as China confuse any simple binary classification of the world, there is no doubt that inequality in cultural and economic terms still exists across the North-South divide, and such division isn’t going away any time soon.

Global Inequality Map


I’m simply not sure that Western, bourgeois elites can tell us much about the poverty and suffering to be found in their own societies, to say nothing of those in the developing world around them. And if they cannot provide us with this sense of experience, then what good is their writing?

Would the task of literary education in the 21st century not be to empower more subaltern subjects- in racial, gendered, and class terms- to first read and then write their own narratives, so that our imaginations can be transformed by social visions we ourselves cannot yet countenance?

There is nothing salutary about a literary imagination that tells us what we already know.

This is what Spivak is getting at when she urges us to consider literary training as a careful entrance into another cultural idiom, a form of close-reading that can encourage us to hear the voice of the other, to be effected by the textual trace of her presence, and to work in poverty and obscurity on her behalf. This is not the rich helping the poor. It is working from below, in non-hierarchical conversation, for practical betterment. As Spivak puts it, this kind of learning is “preparation for a patient and provisional and forever deferred arrival into the performative of the other”(2003, 13). We stand as an outsider in relation to the other, but not as an anthropologist; we stand rather as a “reader with imagination ready for the effort of othering, however imperfectly, as an end in itself”(2003, 13).

I doubt greatly whether literature crafted by culturally dominant figures- white, educated, wealthy males- can provide us with the kind of imaginative training Spivak outlines here. Can the masters of historically exclusionary institutions- the school, the government, the church, the college, the military, the corporation- tell us much about those who have been shut out from those institutions for so long? In incorporating them into those institutions through a plural agenda of multicultural respect, would the old masters not simply speak of them through the dominant language they already know?

Where is the gap through which a new language for knowing the world can make its entrance?

Take, for example, Martin Amis’ Money (1984), a work that is consciously hoisted in English language criticism to a place of universal relevance for serious readers of literature. Praise is so high for the novel that it was named by The Guardian the second greatest piece of literature written in English outside of the United States in the last 25 years. It is celebrated for defining the zeitgeist of an entire decade, a rare work in which the history of the 80s is somehow crystallized for the reader in all of its complexity.

You can imagine my disappointment when over the holiday break I worked my way through this supposed classic to discover that it is nothing but a tired story that has been retold hundreds of times: a man in deep inner-turmoil, roiled by addictions to booze, drugs, sex, pornography, fast food, and (you guessed it) money, tells us his “rollicking and hilarious” life story as he shuttles from London to Manhattan repeatedly in a quest to make his first feature film.

money cover

Will John Self, our deliriously boozed up narrator, manage to kick his vices so that he can find personal absolution? Can he overcome his own sense of shame as he fucks and drinks and rages his way through the world?

The real question is: why should we care about this self-destructive, narcissistic, and worst of all repetitive narrator?

Amis’ narrative is monotonous (eat, booze, fuck, laugh, rinse and repeat, from New York to London and back again); his descriptive techniques are so over-written that they scream of stylistic desperation (look at me, I can create similes and alliterations…over and over and over again!); and the big reveal at the end of the book is telegraphed hundreds of pages in advance (oh the surprise!!! The money making scheme was…wait for it…a set-up!!).

Women figure here only has money-grubbing whores or culturally sophisticated humanists. Devil or angel, take your pick, they are out to either steal from John or show him the way to salvation. They simply do not exist as complex individuals, subjects in their own right, who are capable of speaking beyond the male narrator’s voice.

Brown and black characters are glimpsed only as cab drivers or deranged sex shop owners. Relentlessly objectified and denigrated, they stand as nothing more than the white male’s self-consolidating other.

One could find numerous passages over the course of Amis’ novel that exemplifies the traits listed here. For just one such example, let us examine the following glimpse into John’s nighttime activities:

The adult movie was a period piece and more thoughtfully plotted than usual, all about a black plenipotentiary (Otooman? Carthaginian?) and the appetites of his talented wife (Juanita del Pablo), who, with the help of her chambermaid (Diana Proletaria), puts out not only for her husband but for most his army too, as well as the odd handful of servants, slaves, eunuchs, acrobats and, finally, executioners. He catches Juanita at it in the end, and throws her into some stock footage, where the lions get her. As I shuffled down the aisle with my Orwell and my pint, and as an hysterical voice-over blurbed the coming attractions (…starring Diana Proletaria, the Princess of Pawwun. Iss whyuld. Iss hat!”), two black dudes climbed tiredly to their feet, rubbing their eyes.

“Man, I sure could use some of the BC. I wouldn’t want to go back too long.”

“Yeah. A couple of weeks, maybe.”

“Two, maybe three. I wouldn’t want to go back too long. But oh man I sure could use some of that BC.”

Five minutes later I was in a gogo bar on Broadway, discussing inflation with an off-duty stripper called Cindi. If you’d asked me how I felt, I would have told you that it was a big relief- to be back in civilization again. (201)

Hooker, porn, token black “dudes” present for laughs, etc. One could dismiss it as simply a bad novel if it weren’t hoisted by culturally prominent critics as some paragon of English literary excellence.

Of course a defender of the book would say that “this is not supposed to be a feminist text” or “the work is not about the third-world” or “the author isn’t trying to make some point about the black American experience.” These defenders would insist that the book is about misogyny, self-destruction, and the white male in crisis. In other words, it’s about the 80s as seen by a particularly privileged section of it. Shouldn’t Amis as an author be loyal to that historical experience, no matter how self-absorbed it was?

And yet here we must retort with an old but still true axiom: representation is not the same thing as critique. To revel in misogyny is to glorify it, not to work against it. There’s no doubt that the jouissance the novel seems to exert on its fans (both male and female) thirty years after its publication is due to the vicarious fuckfest, the hookers and the blow, and the domination and the power that one gets to enjoy as one reads it.

If fiction is nothing but a pale substitute for misogynistic jouissance, than the written word is in serious trouble.

So then what can the white, bourgeois male writer do, if he can’t tell us much about the racial and gendered disparities all around him? The novel of upper middle-class regret and mannered introspection seems to do quite well in the hands of some (Julian Barnes, James Salter, Paul Auster, Jonathan Franzen). Others will point to science-fiction and speculative narrative as places in which white men have truly blazed new paths (Philip K Dick, Thomas Pynchon). Phillip Roth at least tries to take into account the historical experience of marginalized peoples: Jewish-American, Black-American, and lower-class female characters populate his novels, even if the texts as a whole cannot move beyond a narrative voice that is decidedly white, mannered, and comfortable.

But know this: our time as as readers on this earth is very limited, and it does none of us any good to dwell in bourgeois waters, even those crafted ever so beautifully (Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe anyone?). Bourgeois life is full of muted disappointments: you will fall in love with a person who is not your partner; your kids will grow up to resent you; there will be things you will never accomplish; you will face death in a halogen-rimmed retirement home; at the end, you will not know where you are going.

Is there anything else I’ve missed?

Of course the gendered world, the working world, the domestic world, other worlds…all of these cannot be given to us by those who have not the empathy, the imaginative training, the linguistic skills, and the modesty to do so. The Western male, insulated in his monolingual privilege, cannot represent such difference, except in the most reductive and objectifying ways.

Amis, Hitchens, James Fenton by Angela Gorgas
Christopher Hitchens, James Fenton, and Martin Amis (photo by Angela Gorgas)

Of course,  I use the term white, bourgeois male rhetorically here: such a designation is not about the color of one’s skin or the biological constitution of one’s body.  Even the wealthiest, whitest, most privileged person in the world can provide us with the empathetic education we seek, just as the most marginal of racialized subjects is capable of astounding acts of racism, misogyny, and violence. Suffering does not impart proper cultural politics any more than years of higher education do.

The crux of the matter is not the color of your skin or the gender you affiliate with but whether or not you truly want to learn from below, while recognizing that learning itself is a privileged act that historically has been limited to a self-selecting elite. This entails a commitment to the hard cultural work of training for the other, to learn his or her language, his or her inherited cultural idiom, so as to open up a pathway between yourself and them. This is not speaking on behalf of the other, or representing her story when she cannot. It is a form of engagement with the other as fellow readers and writers: possessors of imaginative tools which can express the intractability of different social experiences. It is doggedly trying to listen, even when you do not like what you hear (especially when you do not like what you hear).

Of course the primary task of politics should be to give all social subjects access to the institutional resources that have been monoplized by so few for so long. But the primary task of cultural learning, which is related to politics but hardly identical, is nurturing the textured empathy that alone will save us from mutual hostility. We can be monolingual ignorants or we can be bilingual readers with imagination and curiosity.

I will give the last word to Spivak, who makes the point far more powerfully than I can: “Although some of these Western intellectuals express genuine concern about the ravages of contemporary neo-colonialism in their own nation-states, they are not knowledgeable in the history of imperialism, in the epistemic violence that constituted/effaced a subject that was obliged to cathect (occupy in response to a desire) the space of the Imperialists’ self-consolidating other. It is almost as if the force generated by their crisis is separated from its appropriate field by a sanctioned ignorance of that history”(1987, 209).

Let us refuse this sanctioned ignorance. Let us read literatures of difference. Let us wreck and teach one another, in empathy.

Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at The University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.


Amis, Martin. Money: A Suicide Note. New York: Penguin, 2010.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography,” in In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge, 1987.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Death of a Discipline. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003





One thought on “Can First World Literature Teach us Anything?

  1. “So then what can the white, bourgeois male writer do, if he can’t tell us much about the racial and gendered disparities all around him?” – Because maybe the discrimination people face isn’t the only thing there is to write about?

    I’m not doubting your premise. The caricature of an enemy, Straight White Male is dominant. That’s not a reason to pull a genetic fallacy and call their literarture not worthy because it doesn’t deal with discrimination or poverty.

    The world is full of issues and topics one can write about. You focus on such a narrow ones. You assume that being white, male and healthy is enough for a good life, as if these people don’t have any problems of their own. S a SWM writes a book about bullying and suicide. Is that unworthy because it’s by an SWM? An SWM writes about what it’s like being a manager, and shows us the psychological development and how it looks like from up there. Is it unworthy?

    Literature trumps politics. If you want politics, read essays. Great literature deals with the personal experience, how people experience the world. It’s about exploring viewpoints and give us a better understanding. The reason Chinua Achebe’s novel is so good is because we understand both the white and the black man. Margaret Atwood makes us understand both the discriminated women and the misogynistic males. Theodore Dreisser can write about a cold-hearted criminal and shows every single side of the story. This is great literature.

    Literature isn’t here to cater to you, no matter whether your group is a minority or a dominant one. It’s hear to expand our view of things. Once we shun a certain group, we’re limiting our scope.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s