Essay:

Literary vs. Commercial Writing:

a false dilemma

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Ze drem vil finali kum tru. In all probability, all, or at least the majority of you present here have seen the joke in question. But, as the old saying goes, every successful joke is based to some extent on truth. And the truth of the matter here is twofold: on one side, there is, of course, the reaction to Euro-regulation of everything. Although getting a bit stale, this argument is still valid. If sausages and road signs can get unified, why not language? On the other hand, the problem of the so-called "Euro-English", the kind of English spoken by the majority of inhabitants of Europe, is equally, if not more important for the joke, and for our purposes here today.

One of the reasons for this is the fact that, despite efforts made by various countries to preserve their languages among the select few that will, hopefully, see the moment when the world's collection of languages dwindles down to some 300, Europe is rapidly moving towards an, on average, bilingual population. If anyone feels that proof is needed for this statement, it is enough to look around this table. All native English speakers please raise a hand.

Thank you very much. (None of the participants at that year's Pontes were native English speakers.)

There are many reasons for this. For one, English is one of the most linguistically developed languages of the world, i.e. its basics are very easy to learn. The basics, however, act here as an opposite from learning properly; many native speakers feel, one must admit rather justly, that English is getting an undeserved treatment, mauled and mutilated as it is by innumberable "quick learners" who pass a one-year course and feel that they have done enough. They can communicate in English, indeed. But bare ability to make one understood is not enough, especially not for literature. The mastery of language, the nuance of expression, the refinement of the sentence structure, all of these things get lost in the kind of reduction which English is undergoing nowadays. And very little can be done to prevent that.

English is, as some researchers put it, too accessible for its own good. You don't know the verb for something? Just use the noun. It is almost enough to watch a few sub-titled films in English to catch on to the basics. And it is quite impossible, short of living on a desert island in the middle of nowhere, to avoid seeing films in English. With methods of communication growing as quickly as they do, not even desert islands are safe any more: the satellites will find you wherever you hide, bringing you TV, radio and the Internet and bombarding you with English-language products. This, if you will excuse a strong word, cultural imperialism, coming from the US, is present in may other segments of the society as well, but those other segments are not our main concern today. What is, however, is the impact this "anglicization" of Europe has on literature.

Because not even literature is spared. The enormous amount of production in English-—both from English-speaking countries and elsewhere-—further strengthens the position of English as a sort of ligua franca of today. In small countries especially, the cheaper imported books are already making significant inroads in the production and sales of translations. The print-runs and facilities accessible for English-language books alone make it impossible for local-language editions to compete with imported ones even with big names and sure-fire hits. Local authors and names slightly away from the mainstream can't even enter the race. The same situation applies to all cultural areas where import is remotely possible: cinema and TV, but also music, software, comics. So not only is European literature today cornered in an English-language world; it is also cornered in an English-referrenced, English-referrencing world, which makes it even less likely that the situation would change significantly in the future.

One wonders, inevitably, what can be done to rectify this situation. And, if one is willing to look on the controversial side of things, should anything be done to rectify it at all? Let us start from that.

The concept of a lingua franca, a common language uniting all educated people, is not a new one in Europe. Works in Latin abunded in European literature for centuries. Did the fact that those works were written in a non-local languge make, for example, Dante's work any less valuable? Is the probably most famous example of macaroni Latin, the Carmina Burana collection, less strong because it was put together by half-finished students with less-than-perfect knowledge of their chosen language? The answer to this is obvious: of course not. But-and there always is one, isn't there-it is also true that Dante's Italian writings are more revered today. An analysis far surpassing anything we've got room for here would be needed to assess what this difference of attitude is really based on. However, the sheer number of works written in Latin indicates that Europe has long felt the need for a common language. After all, in a region where many countries already share a common language, while others operate with two or more languages at the same time, the matter of communication, and finding appropriate means for it, is extremely important.

So if we could have done it once, why not do it again? Why bother with expensive language-preservation projects when we could just create EuroEnglish and chatter merrily away? Many people, in fact, do perceive the situation as such: the phrase "English is the most important language in the world" or something along those lines can be heard in any language-related discussion. From personal experience, I can vouch that at least 50% of potential English language students decide on English as their chosen field not because they like English or linguistics (or, God forbid, culture) but simply because they feel English is the most useful. Whether they are right or wrong, only time will tell. However, one cannot help but wonder what are going to be the final effects of this unification.

Because, whether we like it or not, language is much more than just a simple means of communication: it creates ideas as much as it helps translate them. And unlike Latin, which had no source-nation when it was used as lingua franca, English has a very active source-nation. A number of them. However, it can be said with relative certainty that even with the new interconnectivity, the influence of Canada, Australia and even UK remains all but negligible on a wider scale. And that fact brings us back to the first question.

How can European literature, and European culture, defend itself from the all-pervasive influence of American culture at the beginning of the new milennium? The answer is, it can't. As we have established earlier, the elements of American culture are far too ingrained in our everyday environment to be avoided. So what is to be done? Are we to ban all American movies, avoid American music, refuse to import American books? Or should we try to fight back, producing European films, music and literature of the kind that is more American than the original product? Both approaches have been tried, and met with relatively little success. Closing to outward influences is not really a viable option any more, as it wasn't in pre-post-industrial days. And only very rare authors manage to create the balance between the "American" element and the "European" spirit so as to satisfy their audiences.

That leaves only administrative measures. Unifying and codifying sausages and road signs is a long, tedious and slightly ridiculous process. In some cases it is inevitable if any kind of unity is to be maintained. But in the case of culture, it is not only inadvisable, it can be downright damaging. European culture, with all its quirks, with all its richness and diverisity, is not fertile ground for administrative measures, as has recently been admitted even by the stauchest supporters of the hard-line-European approach in the WTO. So it seems that European culture is left with no defences. As it was for centuries before.

And it's still alive and kicking. With Europe's long history of influences and counter-influences, adding one more into the mixture isn't really a problem. True, some languages are getting less exposure than others. True, some cultural concepts are changing. But it is only natural that they should change. It is, after all, the beginning of a new milennium. So that, just as Europe is adapting its adopted universal language to the individual needs and habits of particular cultures and nations, it can be expected that the same process will happen with the imported values, if only they are allowed to mix freely with the existing ones.

Or, in other words, ze drem vil alvais kum tru.