1 October 08 | Chad W. Post

A number of people had emailed or called me about the controversial statements made by Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary Horace Engdahl about American writing, basically stating that the U.S. is too culturally insular to have a writer worthy of the Nobel Prize. (The last American to win was Toni Morrison in 1993.)

“Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world . . . not the United States,” he told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview Tuesday. [. . .]

Speaking generally about American literature, however, he said U.S. writers are “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture,” dragging down the quality of their work.

“The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature,” Engdahl said. “That ignorance is restraining.”

Although I think there are a lot of great American writers, you’ll get no argument from me re: our cultural insularity. Four hundred original translations of fiction and poetry a year doesn’t result in an open, idea-exchanging culture.

Of course, American writers and critics are capital-p pissed about this and quickly, and sharply, responded:

“You would think that the permanent secretary of an academy that pretends to wisdom but has historically overlooked Proust, Joyce, and Nabokov, to name just a few non-Nobelists, would spare us the categorical lectures,” said David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker.

And:

Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the foundation which administers the National Book Awards, said he wanted to send Engdahl a reading list of U.S. literature.

“Such a comment makes me think that Mr. Engdahl has read little of American literature outside the mainstream and has a very narrow view of what constitutes literature in this age,” he said.

“In the first place, one way the United States has embraced the concept of world culture is through immigration. Each generation, beginning in the late 19th century, has recreated the idea of American literature.”

There’s a lot to say about this, although it requires a lot of walking the line between admitting America’s faults (like Sinclair Lewis did in his Nobel acceptance speech 78 years ago) and insulting the gifted, admired American writers alive today.

So rather than put together a measured response, here are a list of my first thoughts:

1) Hell yes, America is culturally insular, and props to Engdahl for pointing this out;

2) I wonder if this will cause a backlash against international literature, rather than cause more American writers to read books from beyond our borders;

3) Immigrant literature does add to our culture, but it’s not a 1:1 equivalent to literature in translation—it always comes up as a defense of our cultural ignorance though;

4) To ignore the force of the marketplace on publishers’ decisions of what to publish, of editors’ choices in editing, of writers’ styles in writing is short-sighted. Not that everyone bows down to the mass public, but please, this is still a business, and people want to be successful, and in America success equals big money;

5) Dubravka Ugresic should win the Nobel Prize. That would be awesome;

6) For months I’ve been trying to write (by “trying” I mean thinking about) a book/article proposal regarding my visits to other countries in search of unique fiction and the number of times I’ve had people try to pitch me a book because it was heavily influenced by contemporary American writers. Who wants to publish derivative work in translation? (Well, lots of people, so skip that.) I’d much rather find the book that’s influenced more by its countries own traditions, which will inevitably have been shaped by other literatures including works from America yet retain something unique and different;

7) Do American writers/critics really think we deserve to win the Nobel more frequently than other countries? I don’t. There are fantastic writers from all over the world who are equally as talented and important as American writers. Over the history of the prize, the U.S. has had a few nice runs, as have other countries. Almost by definition, the prize should be diverse and as global as possible;

8) It’s dangerous for anything, especially a “peace prize,” to be viewed in a nationalistic way. Celebrate the writers that win, rather than criticizing the committee for not picking more writers from your own country. Same would apply to Engdahl. Making fun of American culture is easier than falling down the stairs, but you could give a nod to the uber-talented at the same time;

9) I’m so glad I got to use one of my favorite internet-driven phrases as the title of a blog post, because, you know, Alfred Nobel created dynamite and the Nobel Prize, etc., etc.


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