Who do you write for? That is the question
Copyright by The New York Times Syndicate
Published: July 28, 2006
ISTANBUL That is the question
For the last 30 years - since I first became a writer - this is the question I've heard most often from both readers and journalists. Their motives depend on the time and the place, as do the things they wish to know. But they all use the same suspicious, supercilious tone of voice.
In the mid-'70s, when I first decided to become a novelist, the question reflected the widely held philistine view that art and literature were luxuries in a poor non-Western country troubled by premodern problems.
There was also the suggestion that someone "as educated and cultivated as yourself" might serve the nation more usefully as a doctor fighting epidemics or an engineer building bridges.
The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre gave credence to this view in the early 1970s when he said that he would not be in the business of writing novels if he were a Biafran intellectual.
In later years, those asking, "Who do you write for?" were more interested in finding out which part of society I hoped might read and love my work.
I knew this question to be a trap, for if I did not answer, "I write for the poorest and most downtrodden members of society" I would be accused of protecting the interests of Turkey's landowners and its bourgeoisie.
This despite the fact that any goodhearted writer who was so naïve as to claim to be writing for peasants and workers would be quickly reminded that his books were unlikely to be read by people who were barely literate.
In the 1970s, when my mother asked, "Who are you writing for?" her mournful and compassionate tone told me she was really asking, "How are you planning to support yourself?"
When friends asked me who I wrote for, they were mockingly suggesting that no one would ever want to read a book by someone like me.
Thirty years on, I hear this question more than ever. The question has more to do with the fact that my novels are now translated into more than 40 languages.
Especially during the past 10 years, my ever-more-numerous interrogators seem worried that I might take their words the wrong way, so they are inclined to add: "You write in Turkish; so do you write just for Turks, or do you now also have in mind the wider audience you reach through your translations?"
Whether we are speaking inside Turkey or outside it, the question is always accompanied by that same suspicious, supercilious smile, leaving me to conclude that if I want to ensure the authenticity of my work, I must answer: "I write only for Turks."
To understand the significance of this question, we must remember that the rise of the novel as an art form coincided with the emergence of the nation state. When the great novels of the 19th century were being written, the art of the novel was in every sense a national art.
Balzac, Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy wrote for the emerging middle classes of their nations, who could open their books and recognize every city, street, house, room and chair; they could share in the same tastes as they did in the real world and discuss the same ideas.
In the 19th century, novels by these great authors appeared first in the art and culture supplements of national newspapers, for their authors were speaking to the nation.
Behind their narrative voices one can sense an observer troubled by the nation's state of health. By the end of the 19th century, to read and write novels was to join a national discussion that was closed to the outside.
But today the writing of novels carries an entirely different meaning, as does the reading of literary novels. The first change came in the first half of the 20th century, when the literary novel's engagement with modernism won it the status of high art.
Just as significant are the changes in communication that we've seen over the past 30 years: In the age of global media, literary writers are no longer people who need address only the middle classes in their own countries, but people who can address - and address immediately - readers of "literary novels" all the world over.
Today's literary readers await a new book by Gabriel García Márquez, J.M. Coetzee or Paul Auster the same way their predecessors awaited the new Dickens novel - as the latest news. The world readership for literary novelists such as these is far larger than the readership their books reach in their countries of origin.
Writers write for their ideal reader, for their loved ones, for themselves or for no one. All this is true. But it is also true that today's literary writers also write for those who read them. From this we might infer that today's literary writers are gradually writing less for their own national majorities (who do not read them) than for the small minority of literary readers in the world who do.
So the needling questions, and the suspicions about these writers' true intentions, reflect a disquiet about this new cultural order that has come into being over the past 30 years.
The people who find it most disturbing are the representatives of non- Western nations and their cultural institutions. Crisis-ridden non-Western states that are anxious about national identity - and reluctant to face up to the black marks in their histories - are suspicious of creative novelists who view history and nationalism from a non-national perspective.
In their view, novelists who do not write for national audiences are exoticizing that country for foreign consumption and inventing problems that have no basis in reality.
There is a parallel suspicion in the West, where many readers believe that local literatures should remain local, pure and true to their national roots: Their secret fear is that a writer who addresses an international readership and draws from traditions outside his own culture will lose his authenticity.
Behind this fear is a reader who longs to enter a foreign country that has severed its ties with the world, and to listen in while it argues with itself - much as one might overhear a family argument next door. If a writer is addressing an audience that includes readers living other cultures and speaking other languages, then this fantasy dies, too.
It is because all writers have a deep desire to be authentic that even after all these years I still love to be asked for whom I write. But while a writer's authenticity does depend on his ability to open his heart to the world in which he lives, it depends just as much on his ability to understand his own changing position in that world.
There is no such thing as an ideal reader, free of narrow-mindedness and unencumbered by social prohibitions or national myths, just as there is no such thing as an ideal novelist. But a novelist's search for the ideal reader - be he national or international - begins with the novelist's imagining him into being, and then by writing books with him in mind.
Orhan Pamuk is Turkey's best-known novelist. His most recent book, "Istanbul: Memories and the City," was published in English in 2005. This article was translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely.