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Introduction. GATEKEEPING AND WORLD LITERATURE

Writers do not get published without help—often a great deal of help—from other people. The older, romantic notion of authorship, of isolated genius, has been chipped away by studies showing that collaboration, copyright law, and changes in media have contributed much to literary invention.1 Friends, family, editors, agents, lawyers, bookstore owners, other artists, patrons, partners, and publishers play an important role in the creative process. Even rivals may help by pushing writers toward new aesthetic paths or by re-dimensioning the creative field or its rules, the doxa as Pierre Bourdieu termed them. We see the value of such aid when we look at writers around us, who are helped by numerous people, not to mention tenure and grants, prizes, and sinecures.

But we have yet to extend this understanding to World Literature, where publication and success are much more difficult. Outside of the United States there are few tenured positions for MFAs (Masters of Fine Arts), fewer foundations, agents, or patrons, and small reading circuits. In order to reach foreign readers, it is essential for writers of World Literature to be discovered, translated, promoted, and reviewed. How does one become a writer of World Literature? Do writers even conceive of such a thing? One might reply that writers have to achieve success in a home culture or language before this possibility even arises and that commerce then takes care of the rest. But as I will show in the following chapters, local failure is not limiting and local success guarantees little. Success in World Literature is about gatekeeping.

To judge from the poverty of scholarship about the gatekeepers, one might think they were beneath notice, as if their practices were too obvious, or simply small favors to authors, sometimes even self-interested.2 But if we now understand that creativity occurs in concentric circles of nurture, then nowhere is this flowering more intriguing, I will argue, than in writing that travels across languages and cultures to find new readers. Yet the people who facilitate this, their motives, and the processes they employ have gone mostly unexamined. “It took Max Brod twenty years and enormous effort to force Kafka on the world’s awareness,” writes Milan Kundera.3 But the phrases that scholars use to describe Brod’s gatekeeping—“lifelong devoted friend,” “refused to follow the writer’s instructions”—do not illuminate his tactics or his motives: in fact they recur to the romantic drama of authorship.

The fact that Johann Wolfgang Goethe coined the phrase “World Literature” (Weltliteratur) would not be known to us except for one of his gatekeepers, Johann Eckermann. He was part of what Germans call the Sichtungsapparat, which is akin to a sifting mechanism. This etymology suggests that gatekeeping is a filtering process, and it anticipates mechanistic explanations like those provided by communications theory, which I try to avoid here.4 In this book I am interested in something very different—agency. I mean scouts and literary entrepreneurs, some of whom are translators. I mean small publishers and agents. I ask, “What about the Brods and Eckermanns?” Modern World Literature authors need them, often in foreign countries, as well as foreign publishers and foreign reviewers. How are they discovered, how does this process develop? To what extent does it depend on individual agency as opposed to a/historic forces? What is its sociology? Who makes World Literature circulate and how?

Fifty years ago the answers to such questions would have fallen under the purview of the sociology of literature, but that field ossified in the process of negotiating with Marxism, structuralism, and subsequent theoretical developments. Gyorgy Lukacs and Lucien Goldmann could be seen as paradigmatic of the decline, their brilliant early instincts and insights becoming blinkered by ideology.5 Analyses based on neo-Marxian and dependency (center/periphery) models that were popular in the 1960s and 1970s could not begin to capture the complexity of transnational literary or economic systems emerging at the same time, so the field was eclipsed. On its other flank, the sociology of literature thought itself to be in battle against both the Frankfurt School and New Criticism.6 More recent work by Wendy Griswold and Manuel Castells suggests paths and explanations that I have found suggestive, building as they do on the foundational work of Gerald Graff, John Guillory, Mark McGurl, and others in historicizing the institutionalization of literature. James F. English covered the field’s old and new problems in a special issue of New Literary History in 2010.7 But as English’s work suggests, it is the turn to Pierre Bourdieu that has offered the most hope. This study adds to Bourdieu the resources of interaction ritual theory, translation theory, prospect theory, and behavioral economics, not to mention new opportunities in archival research.

 
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