- Gatekeepers: The Emergence of World Literature & the 1960s by William Marling
“Success in World Literature is about gatekeeping”(1). This is the simple thesis voiced on the first page by William Marling, echoing the title of his book. Marling provides eight study examples involving four different languages (English, French, Japanese, and Spanish). The eight examples consist of four pairs of authors, one of whom can be considered a world literature success, the other much less so. These pairs are Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Rigoberta Menchú Tum; Charles Bukowski and Diane di Prima; Paul Auster and Lydia Davis; and Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto. Marling’s “Big Four” had their formative years during the 1960s, and the author briefly sketches the Zeitgeist on pages 8 and 9. (Those hoping for a more in-depth grappling with the decade will be disappointed.) More gatekeepers for world literature were created through a combination of increased travel and rejection of establishment careers, but these writers kept equal distance both from the Radical Left and the Establishment. One notices an ominous gender asymmetry in these pairings, and the brief sections on the “have-less’s” of world literature would have been more informative if they had included a range of examples. The first and last of the main authors depended mainly on the translation of [End Page e-33] his work into English, whereas Bukowski entered world literature with the help of German and Paul Auster with the help of French.
So, what is a gatekeeper? Marling uses the term as a substitute for Pascale Casanova’s “mediator,” that is, someone other than the author who facilitates the cultural transfer from source to target, and the acceptance of the newly created text in the target literary culture. Marling, however, cites Casanova’s teacher Pierre Bourdieu more often than he does the pupil who applied the master’s ideas to world literature. Randall Collins’ notion of “interaction rituals” also plays a key role. Gatekeepers can be fellow authors, agents, translators, reviewers, and academics who determine textbook adoption. (Interestingly, in my experience of academic jargon, gatekeeper has a mostly negative connotation, referring to a species of “Dr. No” bureaucrats whose goal is to turn proposals back, quash legislation, and generally stop things from happening.) The proliferating catalog of various gatekeeper types makes Marling’s account of the creation of world literature in the 1960s seem like a series of Proppian fairy tales: the authors are the heroes—young, naïve, lacking a plan for their quest—and the gatekeepers are the “helper” figures who provide magic gifts. Marling pauses quite often to ask “what was in it for [insert gatekeeper here]?”, bringing the heroic narrative still closer to fairy tales, which usually lack such explanations.
Marling’s first example is Gabriel Garcia Márquez. As in all chapters, Marling follows the author’s career chronologically, highlighting the various gatekeepers who play a role. A fellow costeño plays the role of First Reader for Márquez while the latter was still a student. The author follows the writer in his various career choices, leading up to his choice of the right translator for his work: Gregory Rabassa, who was young, ambitious, and relatively well-known after winning the first National Book Award for translation.
In one of the rare close readings in the book, Marling shows that a key element of the magic in Rabassa’s translation of Cienaños de soledad was literalism (33–34). Reviewers of the novel probably did even less comparison of Spanish with English; instead, Rabassa as translator worked like a brand name for the novel and propelled it to bestseller status with glowing reviews. A mere two pages are devoted to Rigoberta Menchú, who, as Marling notes, shares with Márquez only the fact of being a “Latin American writer inside the World Literature tent” (17). While the accuracy of both authors has been questioned, for Menchú the questioning has been more persistent and damaging, and her work has found—beyond the...