«Anything but flat», is the promise of this year’s Leipziger Buchmesse with The Netherlands and Flanders as its guests of honor. Yet one of the problems of today’s literary production is that it takes place within an increasingly flattened landscape, marked as it is by Anglo-American hegemony. If this is a global phenomenon, it affects Dutch literary production with particular force. Sure, the resulting porosity of cultures has some advantages, affording freedoms and possibilities that a rigidly national tradition precludes. At the same time, it has created a vastly inflated bubble in which a handful of titles – mostly novels recognizable as realist – float around, unmoored from each other and the contexts that give them meaning.

Much like literary awards, bookfairs – Buchmessen – are prone to blow even more hot air into these bubbles, highlighting blockbuster narratives from a given area for their commercial potential in today’s global literary market. In a recent episode of the publisher’s in-house podcast Hanser Rauschen, Hanser Verleger Jo Lendle pointed out a remarkable truth when he implied that the Scandinavian and Dutch book markets were practically dead because people either watch Netflix (in English, of course) and don’t read, while those that do have become too good at reading English translations.

What seems to be in danger is a sense of culture immune to commercialization and lopsided internationalization, a force resistant to the cultural gentrification that swallows up local traditions and crowds out influences from non-English language sources. German and French literatures used to be well known to Dutch writers who have always been keen to adopt major currents from the bigger linguistic centers. Today, however, adaptation and transfer occurs mainly at a remove, once major currents have passed through the publishing centers of New York and London. Annie Ernaux is a prominent example: translations had appeared continuously throughout the eighties and nineties, but her breakthrough in The Netherlands came only after she excelled in Anglophone markets. Pace Pascale Casanova, even Paris now seems demoted.

Book fair spotlights such as this one in Leipzig or 1993 in Frankfurt may have spiked interest in The Low Countries and sparked a moment of dialogue across borders. In most other respects, however, the gulf between The Netherlands and Germany has never been wider. Knowledge of German among the Dutch has withered, with universities struggling to attract new students or slotting German into European Studies programs – a fate that had already befallen smaller languages long ago. The situation is a bit different in trilingual Belgium, a country composed of linguistic minorities. If the Netherlands could afford to internationalize (read: Americanize) at breakneck speed, Belgium’s notoriously complex linguistic and political situation helped to fend off the tabula rasa approach so dear to Dutch elites. As a result, the Humanities in Belgium are less orphaned than outre-Moerdijk.

It Is Warm in the Hivemind

Anglo-American cultural production not only holds sway over commercial publishing, it also affects the more explicitly intellectual and avant-garde circles. Dissenting voices can be sensed, at times ambiguously, in unexpected places. Maxime Garcia Diaz’ 2021 poetry collection Het is warm in the hivemind [It is warm in the hivemind] is one of the first poetry books to come out in Dutch that betrays an author’s origins as a woman who grew up (very much) online. Far from being an internet gimmick, the volume encapsulates a complicated promise of both personal and collective liberation. Unlike a normative biography, Diaz’ book is laid layed out as a digital, lateral exploration of possibilities, or as the writer – borrowing from Audrey Wollen’s Sad Girl Theory – puts it, as «Non-linear girl-history».

Sad Girl Theory is, perhaps, one of the few floating references that a relatively large portion of the younger, internet-educated literary crowd around the globe might have in common – or perhaps not. The book spans the whole gamut of internet culture from the 2010s – xenofeminism, inchoate tumblr politics, the ravishing density of meme culture – and accounts for the fluid subjectivities of myriad aesthetical microcurrents that are, potentially, already passé. These days, the life-span of generations is akin to those of fireflies. Despite rampant cognitive overload (or rather because of it), they have little information about themselves, no shared culture, and no access to a generalized form of experience other than the infinite succession of internet singularities.

er was niets om je ledematen bij elkaar te houden
je vroeg aan het duister wil je me knuffelen
het duister probeerde je te knuffelen
het duister probeerde je te knuffelen het lukte niet
het duister was ook van te weinig gemaakt
jullie zweefden samen & verlangden naar meer substantie
jullie wilden dingen zijn je wilde niet meer deze rotzooi
van huid & haar & chemicaliën

extract from «Aan de rand van de dode ruimte» by Maxime Garcia Diaz from Het is warm in the hivemind (2022)

A product of such conditions, Diaz’ poems enact and analyze them without trying to outdo or undo their giddy affective kernel. We are reading a digitally native auto-ethnography wrapped in verse. Still, there is something ambivalent about this book and its treatment of subjectivity. Diaz’ poems both dramatize and cohere into a narrative of becoming a commodified girl. At the same time, they dissolve said subject by pushing against the materiality (in)to which it turns, only to match the disembodied flows of the internet. The result is a display of ravishing fantasy worlds that feel oddly immobile, as if seen from the outside by a new master signifier: the countercultural, young and critical poet, a figure devoid of actual subjectivity.

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