ESSAY: Young Voices in Contemporary Turkish Literature:

Young Voices in Contemporary Turkish Literature: Defining Characteristics, Dominating Trends
by Behçet Çelik Translated from the Turkish by Amy Spangler This essay is adapted from a talk given at the 2nd International Symposium of Translators and Publishers of World Literature, held at Boğaziçi University, 29-30 May, 2009.

In Turkey, when we say ‘young authors’, we are generally referring to those in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. Although people in their 40s may not be considered particularly ‘young’ in daily life, they are considered young in the realm of literature. Of course it is hardly right to categorize authors who are in their early twenties together with those approaching forty, or in other words, to classify and compare those who have only newly begun to write and have their works published, with those who have more or less proven themselves as authors.

There is an important difference between these two groups of ‘young’ authors with respect to their ‘visibility’. It would not be wrong to describe authors approaching their forties as ‘visible young authors’ and those who are younger as ‘invisible young authors’. In order for authors to gain relative visibility, they have to have come a far way in their writing careers. It does not surprise us to read reviews in which the literary critic starts off by saying of an author who is nearing the end of his/her thirties, has had his/her writing published in various reputable journals, and has had several books published, ‘I’d never heard of him/her before’ or ‘I’d never read a book of his/hers before’. We are not surprised by this, nor do we consider it odd in any way. Seeing as this is a literary critic we’re talking about, then we can say that in order for an author to achieve ‘visibility’, he or she will have to have progressed beyond the years when s/he is considered young in biological terms. With the exception of very few particular cases, it is possible for authors to become part of anthologies, or to have their names mentioned in mainstream media pieces on the literary scene, only once they have reached their late thirties. And even then, they are mentioned on the condition that they have the description ‘young author’ preceding their names.

In Turkey, authors first become visible in literary journals; that is where they first achieve visibility. More so than bookstore windows, the measure of visibility in Turkey is the ‘contents’ page of literary journals. Or rather, perhaps we should say ‘was the measure’, for this situation has gradually changed in recent years. With the decrease in the influence of literary journals, and the increase in the number of authors preferring to begin their writing careers by writing novels, bookshop windows and/or newspaper book supplements have begun to replace journals as the measure of visibility. Also, in recent years publishers have come to prefer taking out ads in newspaper book supplements rather than literary journals, thus leading to the further demise of the role and importance of literary journals when it comes to author ‘visibility’. Yet the fact remains that with few exceptions, the literary world was introduced to contemporary young authors (sometimes referred to as ‘young masters’) thanks to the publication of their works in literary journals. This is true of a large number of authors of all age groups who are considered indispensable by Turkey’s most prominent publishing houses today.

Although this situation appears to be changing, that is to say, although journals appear to be less influential as bastions of visibility than they were in the past, they do continue to maintain a certain, important degree of influence in this respect. Looking at literary journals, we find that it is ‘young authors who have achieved visibility’ (the generation aged 30-40) who comprise their backbone. Because the diverging world views which once led to the emergence of particular literary movements have been largely erased in our post-1990s literary world, literary journals today have more diverse contents, as they include authors of all generations and of nearly all literary currents. Journals which are at the center of the literary system in Turkey, are open to young, new authors; however, they fail to allocate much space to such authors’ works. Therefore, younger authors (‘those in their 20s’), while occasionally seen in journals, are unable to achieve visibility in the sense mentioned above.

In the 1990s, many publishing houses in Turkey became eager to publish works by young authors, a practice which had not been so common in preceding decades. As a result, many young authors who had not been very visible in journals gained visibility via their books. However, when the publishing industry was hit by the economic downturns of 2001 and 2008, this had unfortunate repercussions for young authors, and that continues to be the case. Today publishing houses are not nearly as daring as they were ten or fifteen years ago when it comes to publishing works by young, unknown authors. In fact, one might even say that they are downright timid about it. This being the case, we can expect the authority of literary journals - at least insofar as young authors are concerned - to increase once again. One might also expect contraction of the market to result in greater selectivitity on the part of publishers; however, it should be noted that it is often a book’s ‘bestseller potential’ which takes priority over all other criteria in such situations.

Despite the challenges of considering at once today’s young authors who have already achieved a certain measure of visibility together with those who are just getting started, when we look at the characteristics which set them apart from their predecessors, we do find that they have some important points in common. We might roughly list, in my opinion, the characteristics which differentiate young authors from their predecessors as follows:

1) Young authors do not give importance to literary movements. Rather than forming a literary movement or liasing with other authors in one way or another, today’s young authors desire to act on their own. As a result, the polemics which are a source of liveliness in literature are extremely limited or remain only at the level of altercations between individuals. Young authors prefer to produce works rather than engage in discussion and debate about literature. Thus one might summarize the current trend as one in which authors simply prefer to claim that their stance or approach when it comes to literature exists in the works that she/he produces.

2) Young authors prefer to keep out of politics. There is a striking avoidance of social and political issues in Turkish literature by today’s young authors. This may be explained in part by the fact that a large portion of today’s young authors experienced their adolescence in the aftermath of the military coup of September 12th. They grew up in a cultural climate in which the youth were consciously and purposefully disconnected from politics and in which the idea that politics of all kinds were something objectionable was imposed upon them. Hence we find that in their writings and interviews, young authors often refer to an excessive politicization on the part of the previous generation, and that they do so in a negative tone. It is also striking, however, that the authors of the previous generation whom these same young authors refer to as their revered masters, produced at that time (1960s and 1970s) works that could by all means be deemed quite political. Important authors of the preceding generations did indeed focus on the matter of the individual; however, they did so with an eye to the social context in which the individual exists or the socio-political background of the period in which the work is set. Today’s young authors appear to give importance to the works of their predeccesors only in terms of the latter’s innovations when it comes to form and style and their focus upon the individual. Literature and man’s relationship with the socio-political context in which they - both the individual and literature - exist is a factor generally disregarded by today’s young authors. The predominant attitude seems to be that speaking of such associations would mean abandoning the field of true literature.

3) Today’s young authors are aware that their writing is a text and they like to emphasize this fact. Although today’s young authors write in a variety of different styles and genres, we find that most of them like to at least remind the reader that what they have written is a text, if not emphasize this fact. Yet there are also points which differentiate young authors from one another. Some young authors are very playful and their intertextual references can take priority over the relationship between text and real life. Though on the one hand exhibiting a proclivity for postmodern forms, they pen works which always keep in mind the idea that life itself can be a text, which are mind-opening, and which aim to subvert accepted values and trends. A second group of young authors emphasize the linguistic aspect of the text, so that it seems they consider how they tell something more important than what they are telling. They do not hesitate to use different linguistic forms in the same text. They write texts in which linguistic craftsmanship takes precedence, which gives importance to linguistic sophistication, and which seem to target a limited readership. In the writings of a third group we clearly sense that there is a connection between what they write and life, and that it is the issues they have with life itself which pushes them to write. In the works of these authors, the world of the text seems to be same world that we live in — but it only ‘seems’ to be so. Although we are easily swept away by such texts when reading them, the authors in this group do not exactly allow us to identify ourselves fully with the text. These authors do not allow us to establish a direct equation between literature in life, sometimes due to the very bare prose that they use, and sometimes due to the way in which they imply or give a sense of what they have not said, by purposefully leaving out certain elements in their minimalist prose.

4) They have a tendency to write outside of the mainstream. Today’s young authors do not hesitate to write in what are considered ‘the lower genres’ of literature, such as mystery, horror, humor, and fantasy. The fact that there is a an increasingly greater focus on sales and that works in these genres have always been considered candidates for the bestseller lists of course plays a role in this. However, because young authors have begun to produce high quality works in these genres, we find that the disctinction between high and low literature is gradually withering away. In fact, one might say that the distinction between good and bad literature has begun to surpass that of genre distinctions.

5) They are eager to write about the extraordinary. Young authors are more interested in writing about the extra- or unordinary than they are in writing about the common and mundane. There is an increasing interest in things like the mysterious, in history, and in extraordinary events. These authors want to see themselves as global authors, and they think that the way to do so is to produce works that are unique and extraordinary in themselves. Therefore, they prefer to write about uniquely extraordinary topics and characters rather than the ordinary.

In Turkish literature, Istanbul is undoubtedly the center. Rather than books sales, the measure of who comprises the center is twofold: on the one hand large are the prestigious publishing houses which have the ability to ensure the visibility of their titles and the strength to publish constantly on a regular basis, and on the other hand there are the literary journals which are held in high esteem by literary circles. One should keep in mind that, though few in number, those young authors who live outside the center and actively avoid the center, yet who are often mentioned by and held in high esteem by the center, are published by those relatively large houses.

Books and magazines published in Ankara and Izmir have little visibility to speak of in the center. Over the last decade, however, amongst those young authors who live outside but who have garnered attention in the center are some whose mother tongue is Kurdish but who write in Turkish. Yet the literary public becomes aware of these authors only once their writing has been published by magazines published in Istanbul or when their books are published by large publishing houses situated in the center of the system. Despite this hegemony of the center, there are a number of journals being published in a number of cities. Although very few authors have achieved visibility by writing in such journals or having their books published by houses outside of Istanbul, it has always been possible to move from such peripheries to the center.

We might recall that some authors whose names began to be heard with great frequency in the 1990s had seen their works published in little known but well-established journals hailing from Ankara, and even that their early books had again been published by houses in Ankara. These authors became visible due to the expansion of the publishing sector in the 1990s and the fact that major publishing houses began at this time to attribute greater importance to Turkish literature than they had in the past; however, this was due most especially to the fact that some critics or literary authorities at the center noticed and began to write about the works of these authors. Forced to shut down due to economic difficulties, most of the journals in which those authors first gained visibility are no longer with us; however, there are still a number of journals being published in Anatolia, and young authors whose works are published in these journals. Perhaps some of those authors will attract the attention of those in the center and achieve visibility.

The Internet has had an undeniable impact upon young authors. Because literary websites lack the ‘editorial oversight’ that is true of printed journals, Internet publishing is not yet held to be on the same par as print publishing. However, due to the lack of that very same editorial oversight, the Internet provides greater opportunity for publishing more avantgard work. Yet the definition of avantgarde remains limited, as Internet publishing continues to be perceived primarily as nothing more than the presentation of a written text on a computer screen rather than in book form. The limited number of authors seeking to enrich our literature by taking advantage of the visual-audial opportunities afforded by computers and the Internet are still in the initial stages of their quest. The truth is that the Internet remains a relatively very weak channel vis-a-vis the hegemony of printed literature. Yet there is something about the internet that emboldens young authors. The Internet satisfies young authors’ need to share their work with others. The fact that the names of websites are mentioned in the biographies of some young authors whose books have been published in recent years, can be seen as an indication that young authors prefer to publish their early works on websites.

When it comes to book sales, it is often said that women comprise a greater portion of the reading public than do men in Turkey, and the personal observations of many would seem to support this claim. Though mention is often made of the high ratio of female versus male readers, little mention is made of the ratio of female versus male authors, even though women make up a strikingly large portion of young authors in Turkey today. Compared to the male to female ratio of visible actors in other segments of society, literature appears to be fairly progressive insofar as the activity and influence of women is concerned.

In conclusion, although in 21st century Turkey, literature is a field in which only a relatively small portion of society is engaged, the truth remains that there has been a considerable increase in diversity in the sphere of literary activity. We have young authors who, through their literary pursuits, have infused new, dynamic energy into the literature of Turkey in recent years. They may not have forged a new literary movement or ecole, but the 1990 generation, that is, those who began to write in the 1990s or who were able to have their work disseminated to the masses during this decade, have done something even more important: Not only have they breathed new life into the literature of Turkey, but they have infused it with heretofore unseen diversity. And that is something to be celebrated and explored.

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