Adam Kirsch, writing for The Slate, has an excellent retort, noting that based on a plethora of anecdotal evidence, it is the Swedes, and perhaps by extension certain others in Europe, that display a rather dismal understanding of American culture and the literary scenes taking place. Kirsch notes that the "insular", "ignorant" qualities that Engdahl decries actually constituted the very qualities that past Nobel committees praised when they awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to Sinclair Lewis, Pearl S. Buck, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner. Kirsch then notes how the times have changed since Saul Bellow won the award in 1976, with only Toni Morrison winning the award in the interim.
"The U.S. is too isolated, too insular," Engdahl decreed. "They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining."
Kirsch makes an excellent point in questioning how the Nobel committee seems to be eschewing Alfred Nobel's own directives in regards to choosing the literature winners in favor of highlighting those who are more apt to be seen these days denigrating American society and culture (in addition to the ubiqitous bashing of U.S. military affairs) than to be seen producing sterling works today. Why hasn't a Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, John Updike, or Don DeLillo been honored, when their works challenge the state of contemporary affairs and which contain rich prose and characterizations? That, unfortunately, is the area of Kirsch's argument that could have been developed further, even though I agree with those choices and would add one other, Cormac McCarthy, to that august list of American contemporary writers.
It is annoying, needless to say, to read yet another dismissive comment about American literature that fails to recognize its very international and daring qualities. Criticize the U.S. for lack of translation, when it usually isn't until a work is made available in the U.S. that most works go "international bestseller?" Critique a country of immigrants and the various "flavors" of thought and literature for being "insular?" I guess either Engdahl was in dire need of having any sort of press or else he loves having his toes tickling his tonsils, because such comments only feed into the perception that despite whatever qualities that the United States produces in the field of literature (and other cultural endeavors), there always will be those who'll be dismissive while being insular and ignorant themselves.