Which part of the world is most underrated in literary terms?

I asked that question of Michael Orthofer, and his answer was this:

Underrated, I would absolutely think the regional language and literature of India. I think surprisingly, even though, perhaps, English is the main literary language of India and a great deal is locally translated, even there much of the vernacular literature still isn’t available in English.

What one can see of it and also in part hear about it — we’re missing an awful lot. There is a literary culture there, especially, for example, in Bengali, but we’ve had that since Tagore. One of the remarkable things is Tagore won his Nobel prize over a hundred years ago, and there are still novels by him which haven’t been translated into English. He is really a very good novelist.

It’s truly worthwhile, and this goes for many regions. The southern region of Kerala where they write in Malayalam — there’s remarkable literary production there, and we just see so little of it.

My inclination was to suggest Chile.  Here’s why this country of below 18 million people is nonetheless a fierce literary contender:

1. Pablo Neruda was one of the two or three best poets of the latter part of the twentieth century.   His Canto general is not his best poetic work but as a general statement of the history and underlying unity of the New World it is unparalleled.  Gabriela Mistral is noteworthy too.

2. José Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of the Night is one of the very best Latin novels, yet it is hardly read these days, I am not sure why.  I think it is clearly better than say One Hundred Years of Solitude.

3. Roberto Bolaño is probably the most important Latin author post-García Márquez, and he is from Chile, though he wrote much more about Mexico.

4. Antonio Skármeta isn’t even a top figure in this lineage yet he is still quite good, the same holds for Ariel Dorfman (born in Argentina, moved to Chile shortly afterwards), Alejandro Zambra, and yes Isabel Allende, who is the Chilean author most in the public eye in the United States.  She is usually too sentimental for my taste but some of it I enjoy nonetheless.

And why is Chile underrated?  Well, when you are there it feels fairly provincial — just ask a Porteño.  Bolaño didn’t stick around and more generally exile from Pinochet prevented the creation of any well-defined group or movement.  The Pinochet years also gave Chile a…shall we say…non-artistic reputation, and finally both Neruda and Doñoso don’t translate so well out of the Spanish.

Do you have an alternative choice?


'The Pinochet years also gave Chile a…shall we say…non-artistic reputation'

So coy. Just because the “Miracle of Chile” was brought about by the Chicago Boys is no reason for a proponent of a competing economics framework known as the Virginia School not to mention such a shining achievement in how economic freedom delivered its bounty during the Pinochet era, up to and quite likely including creating the conditions after 15 years of Pinochet's rule for him to lose power - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miracle_of_Chile

Since when did this web site stand back for proclaiming the benefits of free market policies?

The rise and fall of the Chilean economy in GDP coincides exactly with the rise and fall of copper prices, which are set internationally and have nothing to do with the Chicago Boys. The so-called Miracle of Chile just so happened when economic reform occurred during the resource-hungry 1970s, and before PVC pipes and fiber optics decimated the copper market. Even today Chile's GDP seems to rise and fall with the price of Dr. Copper, despite being better diversified than back then.

As for this blog, TC has not been a die hard Ayn Rand Libertarian for quite some time now. He's probably a Neo-Liberal. Times change, but you sir are a constant.

According to copper engineers I've spoken with, Bolivia and even Peru both almost certainly have significantly more ore than Chile, and also at good grade and not too deep.

What they lack is a legal or corporate framework trustworthy to spend several. billion of Capex (not to mention transit infrastructure, quality labor, qualified engineers, etc.).

@SB - thanks for that comment. It doesn't negate anything I said about Chile however. Africa too is resource rich, as I found out the hard way when I invested in the Congo's most promising gold junior, and lost most of my investment. So I guess you could say without the Chicago Boys "it could have been worse".

Ray - where do you get this from? I see copper prices as basically flat or falling since the late 1980's with a sudden increase in 2005. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copper#/media/File%3ACopper_Price_History_USD.png

But the Chilean economy as measured on a PPP GDP basis has been on a constant rise since the early 1980's; https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_Chile#/media/File%3AChile_GDP_per_capita_(PPP).svg

Chile now has the highest PPP in Latin America. Note that also most South American countries have large resource endowments.

Well if you ever read this, the period in question is the early 1970s until the mid-to-late-1980s, while Pinochet was in power.

"Pablo Neruda was one of the two or three best poets of the latter part of the twentieth century" - no, there are over 800 Bengali and Malayalam poets who were better poets. Also scores of Javanese poets were better. And a handful of Vietnamese ones.

Is what I'm saying really implausible?

Not at all implausible. I posit that the most underrated poets are the San Bushman using the Khoisan click language, example here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6WO5XabD-s

Bonus trivia: the Asians came from this part of the world, note how the Khoisan language sounds, except for the clicks, like Chinese, and the epicanthal folds (Asian eyes) in the people. Proof positive, no need for DNA typing, the phenotype tells all.

Bengalis and Mayalayees are Commie hacks. Trite.

Tamils far netter thnkers and writers. See Periyar.

It's possible to try to address this question without being as well-read as Tyler Cowen. Just presume that any sufficiently large civilization that is not in extremis likely produces a fair number of literary masterpieces, so any such civilization without a fair number of literary awards to its name is likely underrated.

Looking at countries that have earned only a single Nobel prize in literature, Turkey (population 75M), Mexico (population 125M), and India (population 1.2B) stand out as large civilizations that probably aren't getting their fair share. (Compare to France, population 65M with 15 literature Nobels; in my own experience French literature is pretty average.) You could argue that large countries with zero literature Nobels are getting even worse treatment, but in the Nobel committee's defense you could also argue that they aren't so much underrated as simply overlooked. The biggest with zero literature Nobels is China (population 1.3B), of course, but it wouldn't be indefensible to argue that the communist dictatorship counts as "in extremis" so we shouldn't expect too much from China on the literary front.

A global literary prize with more awards per year would produce better statistics. Can anyone suggest one?

China won literature Nobels in 2000 and 2012

On the basis of some of their awards, like the 2009 Peace Prize, the Nobel Prize is pretty low bar.

Aybe, but the winners are chosen by a whole different body.

I've always been impressed by Trinidad and Tobago.

From the indian literature I've read in translation (more interesting than Indian literature originally in English imho) I'd say Kannada has the most underrated literature.

Malayali was too socrealistic and Tamil too.... cynical. It's not a big sample size, but those are my impressions.

Michael is spot-on.

True about Kannada. A number of Kannada authors are well-recognized in India and have won the Jnanapith award, India's Nobel for literature.Don't discount Telugu , ranks second or third in number of people speaking it and has some very good literature.

The Jnanapith award winners are Kuvempu, Masti, Bendre, karanta, Ananthamurthy, Karnad, Kambara, Gokak. Except for Ananthamurthy and Karnad, they are probably not well known to non-Kannada speakers. There is a deep bench of non-Jnanapith winners (e.g. Adiga, Narasimhaswamy, Lankesh, Tejaswi) too. I think all the Gnanapith winners (with the possible exception of Gokak) and the bench would compare well with Nobel prize winners whose works I have read in English or English transalations.

And R. K. Narayan was probably a Kannada (or Tamil) writer who happened to write in English. Rajarao too. A Kannada insider who wrote in English also and is accessible is A. K. Ramanujan.

If they were really the most underrated... you wouldn't have heard of them.

Yep, Alfaguara - Penguin Random House is not your neighborhood publisher. http://cultura.elpais.com/cultura/2016/03/03/actualidad/1457035336_933547.html

What about Portugal? You did pick a Portuguese author in the video, maybe that will change your mind. Though Portuguese literature tends to include Angolan and Mozambican (e.g. Mia Couto) literature as well so that's probably cheating.

Which of "their" literature / writing would be most interesting for "us"? Where are we missing most? And how to discover that? And wouldn't the "market" have already discovered all interesting (= sales worthy) examples of Indian literature? Is the whole concept of "underrated" consistent with the efficient (cultural) market hypothesis? - Example1: I did some experiments by searching for relatively obscure Czech books by Karel Capek and Vaclav Cilek (great landscape philosopher). Surprise! They have already been translated! Seems that the market is working. - But maybe not always. Counter-example: I'm very much interested in WW-II and the Eastern Front. There is a lot of English literature by western writers but(too) little by Russian scholars.

Chile (actually Southwest Brazil) foolishly exchanged its cultural firstborn right for a economic mess of pottage. As tasty as pottage may be, it is no match for the living water of an authentic and thriving culture, it has not the importance of real ideals. Suffices to say that so-called Chileans need instructions on How to Read Donald Duck. Soon or later, "Chileans" will learn to see the error of their ways and recognize that they can not meaningfuly exist by itself, apart of the fatherland and its culture.

I agree. Soon or later, Southwest Brazil will be able to rejoin the Fatherland.

Didn't know Brazilian chauvinism extended beyond the Andes. Every treaty since Tordesillas extended the Lusosphere west, and yet, you want Chile, Chile!

But whatever, Brazil's contentment at being an Atlantic power is one of the more admirable things about it. You want to give up worldwide admiration for a few copper deposits, and salt flats?

No one has the right to demand that our fatherland remain divided forever! And we can use the salt.

Clearly, the United States has the most underrated literary output? No? I'll bet I could name a dozen American writers that you've never read but I would swear by, and vice versa.

I was going to say Japan. Only a tiny fraction of their books are translated into English. I have read some that are only in Korean (both fiction and non-fiction) and they are extremely well-written, better than the typical popular Korean book.

With so many literate consumers - still one of the highest newspaper subscription % or revenue per capita countries - and what feels like a high number of paper book stores, I think they certainly have the audience to support a quality literary culture. Amazon is also popular there in a way that no online bookseller is popular in Latin America. (Chile also has relatively few offline bookstores, though Santiago's newpapers are top-notch.)

I also think there's a valid argument for the US. Some stats say "only" 300k books are published per year but others estimate that if you include self published books the true figure is between 500k-1m. There's a LOT of trash in here but I have actually found some hidden gems in self-published Kindle books, mostly memoirs/auto-biographies/nonfiction of people who lived for years in SE Asia, Japan, China, Korea, Costa Rica, etc and learned the language and were able to integrate into the local culture.

On the above "volume" argument China also has a case, though according to a Chinese friend even popular Chinese nonfiction is often riddled with errors, and their 2nd-tier books suffer from poor editing.

we may not know a lot of japanese writers but it seems "japanese literature" seems to have a high status nonetheless. essentially the tip of the iceberg is good enough for it to be ranked highly

Agree on India as one underrated place, although the contemporary sub-continental authors best known outside the region (for example, Vikram Seth and Salman Rushdie) all seem to live elsewhere. But I would add Peru: Mario Vargas Llosa is an extraordinarily powerful writer and the first person one thinks of in connection with that country, but Peruvian journalism, especially high-level magazine journalism (e.g., the Lima weekly Caretas) offers some extremely subtle and insightful writing (plus reading it works wonders for one's Spanish vocabulary and usage). And how can one mention Chile and not name Isabel Allende?

All the underrated books from different languages suggests that the market for translators is not working.

Maybe the demand side, namely American readers, is not working. Can we pump some liquidity i to the system?

Interesting piece of trivia that suggests something about the local Kannada culture - Bangalore is one of the cities in which you can visit poets who live on streets that are named after them. And some local taxi and auto-rikhsaw drivers recognize the names and are impressed when you ask to go to their places. This Bangalore is very different from the image of it as a tech outsourcing city.

Not so much an "alternative" choice, because I do not have the knowledge to assess the choice of Chile, but, based on reliable information I have come across over the years, I would not to be surprised if 20th century Canada, England, and France, post-war Japan, and the region generally referred to as the Horn of Africa turn out to be spectacularly "underestimated in literary terms" - not at the level of underestimation Elizabethan England would be at if nobody had heard of Shakespeare, but maybe close.

I'll second Malayalam as a strong candidate (prejudiced by a long-term friend being a native speaker.)

It's a millenia-old language, with its own literary tradition; it's from a traditional trading area.

India - Ditto whats said about Kannada writers! among the best with Bengali, Malayalam and Tamil writers. South is more culturally vibrant as compared to the North. Most Hindi works are quite forgettable.
Apart from South Indian, Bengali and Marathis are happening literary languages. Marathi novels plays and poetry.
New trend is powerful expression by Indian outcastes from Dalit community. Fandry and Sairaat are two movies by Dalits about Dalit-non Dalit romance which is taboo!

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