Does literature serve any higher purpose beyond entertainment? Mario Vargas Llosa argues that, unlike television or cinema, it has a special ability and responsibility to address itself to the problems of its timeby Mario Vargas Llosa / May 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in May 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
Mario Vargas Llosa speaking in 1985
My vocation as a writer grew out of the idea that literature does not exist in a closed artistic sphere but embraces a larger moral and civic universe. This is what has motivated everything I have written. It is also, alas, now turning me into a dinosaur in trousers, surrounded by computers.
Statistics tell us that never before have so many books been published and sold. The trouble is that hardly anybody I come across believes any longer that literature serves any great purpose beyond alleviating boredom on the bus or the underground, or has any higher ambition beyond being transformed into telly- or cine-scripts. Literature has gone for light. That is why critics such as George Steiner have come to believe that literature is already dead, and how novelists such as VS Naipaul have come to proclaim that they will not write another novel because the genre now fills them with disgust.
But amid this pessimism about literature, we should remember that many people still fear the writer. Look at the criminal clique which governs Nigeria and executed Ken Saro-Wiwa; at those who persecuted Taslima Nasreen in Bangladesh; at the imams who declared a fatwa on Salman Rushdie; at the Muslim fundamentalists in Algeria who have cut the throats of dozens of journalists, writers and thespians; at those in Cairo who financed the attack which could have cost the life of Naguib Mahfouz; and at all those regimes in North Korea, Cuba, China, Laos, Burma and elsewhere where censorship prevails and prisons are full of writers.
So in those countries which are supposed to be cultivated—and which are the most free and democratic—literature is becoming a hobby without real value, while in those countries where freedom is restricted, literature is considered dangerous, the vehicle of subversive ideas. Novelists and poets in free countries, who view their profession with disillusionment, should open their eyes to this vast part of the globe which is not yet free. It might give them courage.
I have an old-fashioned view: I believe that literature must address itself to the problems of its time. An author must write with the conviction that what he is writing can help others become more free, more sensitive, more clear-sighted; yet without the self-righteous illusion of many intellectuals that their work helps contain violence, reduce injustice or promote liberty. I have erred too often myself, and I have seen too many writers I admired err—even put their talents at the service of ideological lies and state crimes—to delude myself. But without ceasing to be entertaining, literature should immerse itself in the life of the streets, in the unravelling of history, as it did in the best of times. This is the only way in which a writer can help his contemporaries and save literature from the flimsy state to which it sometimes seems condemned.