Jan Steyn reviews 'Dispatches from the Republic of Letters'

Daniel Simon, ed. Dispatches from the Republic of Letters (Deep Vellum, 2020)

There is a narrative about world literature according to which it begins with Goethe’s Weltliteratur, is next mentioned by Marx, and is then all but forgotten until it is revived by Pascale Casanova, Franco Moretti, and David Damrosch in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It is a silly narrative, and no one quite believes it, not even the worst presentists. For while it is true that there has been more published in academia about world literature, and especially about world literature as a problem that calls for theorization, in the present millennium than ever before, it is also evidently true that world literature as a concept has been taken very seriously for much longer, especially in the twentieth century, and especially by the wide range of people who care about, follow, facilitate, or write about literary prizes. One can glean a particularly vivid picture of the range of, trends in, and debates about world literature over the past half a century by reading Dispatches from the Republic of Letters, a collection of essays, reviews, statements of support, and, of course, acceptance speeches tied to the Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

The mix of writers – authors, jurors, friends, critics – makes the volume feel significantly, and interestingly, different than, say, collections of Nobel Lectures: more than mere collections of various authors’ ideas about the world and about literature, Dispatches gives us a multifocal perspective on the making of world literature itself. We often get to read about why individual jurors championed certain authors, which rivals the winners consider especially worthy, or, particularly early on, how writers first learned about the prize’s existence. In adopting this choral approach – three or four voices for each biannual prize – the editor, Daniel Simon, the present editor in chief of World Literature Today (WLT), is capitalizing on the prize and WLT archives available to him, but is also making a virtue out of necessity: unlike the Nobel, the Neustadt never put any particular emphasis on the speech or lecture delivered by the winner, and these are consequently often quite short, casual, or entirely absent.

If there is a single mode that operates across all the Dispatches, it is praise: praise for the authors; praise for the Neustadt family; praise for Norman, Oklahoma, where the prize is based; praise for the University of Oklahoma and WLT, the auspices under which the prize is awarded; and praise for the world of letters as such, frequently cast as an oppositional force to more political world affairs, even for this most “apolitical” of prizes.  In his 2005 classic of prizes scholarship, The Economy of Prestige, James English points out that prizes frequently refer to other prizes in their official communications and promotional material, hoping both to distinguish themselves as somehow unique, occupying a niche different to all other prizes, and to siphon some reflected glory through association with these other prestigious prizes. Dispatches certainly confirms this. Each author is introduced by way of their collected laurels, and we see these rival prizes evoked with due respect: the French National Poetry Prize, the Grand Prix of the Société des Gens de Lettres, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Miguel de Cervantes Prize, the Swedish Academy Nordic Prize, the Camões Prize, the International Prize of Palmi, the Prix de l’Astrolabe, the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, among others, and of course, every time it is applicable, the Nobel Prize for Literature. James English quips that the Neustadt “calls itself” the American Nobel; whatever the relative prestige of the Neustadt Prize to the Nobel, in terms of substance, the Nobel is clearly the prize that the Neustadt most hopes to be associated with and measured against. Where Alfred Nobel’s infamous directive decreed the literary prize be accorded to the authors with “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction,” the Neustadt (initially named for WLT’s forerunner publication as the Books Abroad International Prize) is granted “solely on the basis of the literary value of the writer’s work.” Hence the Neustadt’s reputation as an “apolitical” prize, and hence Robert Con Davis-Undiano’s comment in the preface to Dispatches that “Neustadt juries famously ignore politics in any form or the political impact of one writer winning over a rival.” To illustrate his point, Davis-Undiano cites the 2016 laureate, Dubravka Ugrešić, giving her acceptance speech, using a passage also cited by Daniel Simon in his introduction, one that is perhaps worth again citing here:

The literary landscape that has greeted me in Norman has touched me so deeply that I, briefly, forgot the ruling political constellations. I forgot the processes underway in all the nooks and crannies of Europe, I forgot the people who are stubbornly taking us back to some distant century, the people who ban books or burn them, the moral and intellectual censors, the brutal rewriters of history, the latter-day inquisitors; I forgot for a moment the landscapes in which the infamous swastika has been cropping up with increasing frequency—as it does in the opening scenes of Bob Fosse's classic film Cabaret—and the rivers of refugees whose number, they say, is even greater than that of the Second World War.

Of course, Ugrešić forgets nothing, and she makes sure that her audience in the rural idyll of Norman, Oklahoma doesn’t forget either. One of the effects of reading Dispatches cover to cover – especially reading (about) laureates like Assia Djebar, Kamau Brathwaite, Nuruddin Farah, Edwidge Danticat, and Ugrešić herself, where the political force of the work can hardly be severed from its “literary value” – is that the myth of the “apolitical” Neustadt doesn’t hold up, gracious lip service to the founding statement notwithstanding. While praise is a politically conservative rhetorical mode by its nature, the praise gathered here is not always faint and rarely empty.

Often in this remarkable collection, praise morphs into critique and poetic making. We read it for moments such as this unlikely phrase from Kamau Brathwaite’s acceptance poem: “Here at least & at last are dedicated people putting our poems where their hearts are: Neustadt, WLT, Oklahoma!”


Jan Steyn is a scholar and translator of contemporary world literature. He is the editor of the volume, Translation: Crafts, Contexts, Consequences, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Cornell University and teaches Literary Translation and French at the University of Iowa.