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Here Comes the Backlash

Last week, I worried that Horace Engdahl’s comments about American literature and the Nobel Prize would result in a bit of an anti-foreign literature backlash. And as Edward Gauvin pointed out in the comments, it’s starting . . . From Adam Kirsch’s article at Slate:

All of these criticisms are, of course, true. But the real scandal of Engdahl’s comments is not that they revealed a secret bias on the part of the Swedish Academy. It is that Engdahl made official what has long been obvious to anyone paying attention: The Nobel committee has no clue about American literature. America should respond not by imploring the committee for a fairer hearing but by seceding, once and for all, from the sham that the Nobel Prize for literature has become. [. . .]

What does distinguish the Nobel Committee’s favorites, however, is a pronounced anti-Americanism. Pinter used the occasion of his Nobel lecture in 2005 to say that “the crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless” and to call for “Bush and Blair [to] be arraigned before the International Criminal Court of Justice.” Doris Lessing, who won the prize last year, gave an interview dismissing the Sept. 11 attacks as “neither as terrible nor as extraordinary as [Americans] think,” adding: “They’re a very naive people, or they pretend to be.”

It would be nice to think that the Swedish Academy was not endorsing such views when they selected Pinter and Lessing or the similarly inclined José Saramago and Günter Grass. But to prove the bad faith of Engdahl’s recent criticisms of American literature, all you have to do is mention a single name: Philip Roth. Engdahl accuses Americans of not “participating in the big dialogue of literature,” but no American writer has been more cosmopolitan than Roth. As editor of Penguin’s “Writers From the Other Europe” series, he was responsible for introducing many of Eastern Europe’s great writers to America, from Danilo Kiš to Witold Gombrowicz; his 2001 nonfiction book Shop Talk includes interviews with Milan Kundera, Ivan Klima, and Primo Levi. In his own fiction, too, Roth has been as adventurously Postmodern as Calvino while also making room for the kind of detailed realism that has long been a strength of American literature. Unless and until Roth gets the Nobel Prize, there’s no reason for Americans to pay attention to any insults from the Swedes.



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