HELEN DEWITT'S FIRST NOVEL, The Last Samurai, was published in 2000 to almost universally rapturous praise. It sold a hundred thousand copies in English. If literary publishing were a rational enterprise, even along narrowly capitalistic lines, DeWitt would have no trouble finding a permanent home at a major house. After all, whatever else we might say about her excellence as a writer, DeWitt sells.
But publishing is far from rational, and so we have had to wait eleven years for her second novel, Lightning Rods. Adding to the absurdity of this long wait, DeWitt completed a draft of this book in 1999, before she even sold The Last Samurai, but was unable to publish it until it was released from its contract with Miramax Books, which had the option to publish it, chose not to, and yet would not allow the book to be released elsewhere.
DeWitt's third novel, co-authored with the journalist Ilya Gridneff, Your Name Here, was under no such contractual prohibition but also had difficulty finding a home. When eager readers asked her about it, DeWitt began selling a version of the book on her Web site, paperpools, after which it was reviewed by the London Review of Books, excerpted in n+1, and finally picked up by Noemi Press. It remains unclear, however, when the book will see daylight.
There are many possible explanations for DeWitt's troubles. One has to do with the fact that her writing frequently incorporates languages other than English. The Last Samurai, the tale of a single mother Sibylla who raises her child Ludo to be a polymath, prominently features Ancient Greek and Japanese. DeWitt justifies the inclusion of these languages as a way to teach the reader that they too can learn these languages without too much difficulty. Your Name Here, she told Joey Comeau in an interview for the blog A Softer World, was designed to do for Arabic what Tolkien did for the invented language of Elvish in Lord of the Rings. Quixotically, DeWitt imagines that "[i]f an alter-Tolkien had done for the languages of the Middle East what Tolkien did for the languages of the elves and the dwarves, we couldn't have the unholy mess we have now!"
DeWitt's playful attitude toward foreign languages comes at a price. It requires meticulous attention to copyediting and book design, an attention that mainstream publishers are often unwilling or unequipped to give. Making matters worse, the idea that literature might include a pedagogical or improving mission is anathema to a widely shared ethos in contemporary literary culture.
Whereas DeWitt often talks about fiction as if it were a vehicle for presenting exciting ideas, the tendency of American culture is toward relaxation. Since the sixties, Americans have systematically de-formalized themselves, on the tacit theory that formality is equivalent to authority, and that authority is, more or less, equivalent to authoritarian oppression. The writing of David Foster Wallace might be regarded as the extreme terminus of American informality (even if it actually is formality concealed by a veneer of conversational style). It is no accident that Wallace, in his review of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, praises that volume's author for being a grammatical prescriptivist without seeming so. After all, what is stuffier, or more intrusively formal, than being asked to learn someth...