The OF Blog: Nobel Failure?

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Nobel Failure?

This past week has seen a bit of a hullaboo in regards to comments that Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary for the Swedish Academy (in charge of awarding the Nobel Prizes), has made about the quality of American literature:

"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."
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.

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.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

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?"

Or maybe,b/c outside these international bestsellers,the U.S. translates very little?
I live in a small town in Italy (a country whose per capita average of books read every year is sadly low if compared to many others in the Eu) but I've never had problems finding
literature in translation in my local bookshop -Latinoamerican,Scandinavian,Slavic,Dutch,Arabic, from Estonia,Madagascar,whatever.

Critique a country of immigrants and the various "flavors" of thought and literature for being "insular?" unless you consider DeLillo or Roth "immigrants",this isn't really reflected.
Canada and Australia have excellent writers of recent immigration (Michael Ondaatje,David Malouf).
The only non-white American winner,according to Kirsch,has a "far from secure" critical reputation;I can imagine the uproar if the Prize went to Scott Momaday or Leslie Marmon Silko.

Even Austrians and Italians didn't think Elfriede Jelinek and Dario Fo deserved their prizes;
Some Austrians,some Italians and the reasons aren't necessarily literary.
Still,if instead of Fo the Prize had gone to a very fine poet like Mario Luzi or a respected novelist who has won prizes in Germany, France,Spain like Claudio Magris the reaction from the U.S. would have been "huh?" all the same.

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.

Let's hope the prize goes to deserving bashers like Peter Handke or Harry Mulisch then.

Here and here ,two excellent responses to Kirsch.

Ciao,Marco

Chris Baldwin said...

"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."

That's not actually correct. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Brodsky all won the prize between Bellow and Morrison. Sure, they weren't born in the US, but neither was Bellow.

 
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