Nobel Prize in Literature needs to be truly international

Damn. I was rooting around looking for some other angle to lob shit at the current state of American literature, and ran across a very good comment on the Christian Science Monitor. The actual story says nothing new, but this comment by Mike Pat put together a lot of points fairly, laying just as much blame with the Nobel selection committee:

Horace Engdahl’s recent comments concerning American writers are an unfortunate confirmation of what most of us inferred already- the Nobel committee hates American literature. The reasons matter little, however it appears clear that Euro snobbery is at least part of the answer. There is probably a measure of jealousy, mixed with political punishment for the Bush administration policies. Historically, Nobel has largely ignored American writers. When one considers that since 1962, when John Steinbeck won, only three Americans have won-(and one of them was really a European writer- Isaac Bashevis Singer- writing in the Yiddish tradition and language-although we are happy to claim him) it is clear that Nobel disdains America.

Maybe this isn’t so bad when one considers the stunning list of European and Non-European non-winners which leads one to conclude that the Nobel committee knows nothing about literature. Consider this partial list of non-winning European writers who were eligible since the prize was created in 1901: Leo Tolstoy, Emile Zola, Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, Thomas Hardy, August Strindberg, Edmond Rostand, Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, Rainer Maria Rilke, A.E. Housman, Miguel de Unamuno, Marcel Proust, Maxim Gorky, Hugo von Hoffmansthal, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, G.K. Chesterton, Fernando Pessoa, Isaac Babel, Virginia Woolf, Federico Garcia Lorca, Osip Mandelstam, Paul Valery, Aldous Huxley, E.M. Forster, Bertolt Brecht, George Orwell, Luis Cernuda, Isak Dinesen, W.H. Auden, Nikos Kazantzakis, Paul Celan, Jorge Luis Borges, Graham Greene, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Anouilh, Italo Calvino, Eugene Ionesco, Stanislaw Lem, Iris Murdoch, Milan Kundera. None of these writers were deemed worthy by the Nobel Committee.

Consider this partial list of North/South American writers who were also ignored by Nobel: Henry James, Mark Twain, Joaquim M. Machado de Assis, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Flannery O’Connor, Vladimir Nobokov, Alejo Carpentier, Julio Cortazor, Robertson Davies, Mario Vargas Llosa, Philip Roth, Arthur Miller, Carlos Fuentes, Thomas Pynchon, Norman Mailer, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Ralph Ellison, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Updike, Margaret Atwood, Roberto Bolano etc. etc.

Instead of some of these names we get unbelievable selections like Dario Fo, Elfriede Jelinek, Gao Xingjian. The simple fact of the matter is that while many Nobel laureates have richly deserved the prize (like recent choices such as Pinter, Coetzee, Saramago, Grass) these choices are the exception rather than the rule. In light of the comments of Engdahl coupled with the total lack of North/South American winners since Toni Morrison’s win in 1993 it is time to wipe clean the Academy and find new and qualified Nobel selectors. The award is so tainted at this point it seems to be an international joke. I love European literature but to annually award the prize to European writers while virtually ignoring the rest of the world is not acceptable. If you want to have a European award go right ahead but don’t pretend that this flawed award is the height of international acclaim. Nobel virtually missed the “Latin Boom”, has all but ignored North American literature, Asian literature, Australian literature and African Literature. How do you justify the choice of someone like Jelinek while not picking Chinua Achebe or Philip Roth or Roberto Bolano? A new international award is needed to properly reflect literary greatness. Engdahl’s ridiculous comments only confirm the misguided selection process that has resulted in choices that will seem as bizarre as the terrible early choices made by the committee.

I agree with this man nearly completely. Engdahl’s comments pissing off American critics delighted me, but Pat makes the better argument of the Nobel Prize in Literature being a joke. This is the voice of reason. I was sick of reading Americans chanting Philip Roth, Philip Roth, Philip Roth without much more elaboration.

His inclusion of Stanislaw Lem in the list of unfairly ignored authors, in addition to championing the Latin Boom, makes Mike Pat extra super awesome.

Whadday know?! My new hobbyhorse still looks like fun this morning!

Literary Saloon has a round-up collecting posts reacting to the little scuffle. Three of four are defending the merits of American literature. Ah, the self-satisfying joys of nationalism! It’s beautiful how they bolster America’s international cred by pointing to immigrant novels, not realizing that this is another example of just how much America loves to look in the mirror to see America.

Yesterday I neglected to address Engdahl’s other point,  that American literature is “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture.” Someone seized onto the imagined evils of Coca-Cola (although turning this into a strict import-export arguments would prove Engdahl’s argument,) but the monolithic soda is passé. Don’t these people remember that after 9/11, many American critics began the handwringing, asking who will write the Great Novel that defines 9/11? That is a perfect example of American mass culture. There was no natural progression from this tragedy. American critics were essentially demanding that someone step up to the plate to define what it means to America. The sensitivity is as much of a problem with American critics as the actual writers, as to succeed in this country, writers must pander to a bunch of preening, parochial neurotics with no patience and a low attention span.

Another odd argument that I’ve noticed is that Engdahl has no argument as the U.S. already has had ten  Nobel prize winning authors. Uh. Yeah. Cool. What about now though? Americans love sports. Are people who argue that they have a Superbowl winning football team in 2008 because the last time that they won was in 1993 taken seriously? In a weird way, this is a parallel to the mentality that allowed a lot of my fellow citizens to equate the Iraq invasion in 2003 to World War 2. Once justified, always justified…

As for the prize itself, i don’t much care. I was rooting for Pamuk, just because i have read him and enjoy his work. I’m just not broadly enough read to figure out where he belongs in the world of literature. Now that he’s won, my world is unchanged and i barely remember the event. Yesterday, Chad Post remarked that it would be awesome if Dubravka Ugresic won the prize. I have two half-read books by her. Sure! Why not? David Markson is still kicking too. So is William Gass. (It’s too bad that Gilbert Sorrentino isn’t.) Why must American literature necessarily be represented by the likes Roth and Updike?

You know the answer.

I only wish Roberto Bolaño was still around so that i could childishly root for him one day. For now, i’m going with Pynchon just because it would be funny. I don’t hate most of American literature. I just hate the critics who refuse to acknowledge that our country is insular and isolated, only a couple of years after drooling for the definitive 9/11 novel.

Is American literature too isolated & insular? Is the ocean wet?

It’s side-splittingly funny that the American response to Horace Engdahl stating that, ““The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining,” is to be a reading list of “great” American authors.

Dumbasses. The accusation is that American literature is too isolated and insular, you narcissistic motherfuckers. Breastbeating about how we are awesome isn’t addressing that. This is an issue about the lack of dialogue with the rest of the world, a lack of translation of the world’s literature into American markets, not about how more people need to read about Philip Roth’s penis.1 But oh yes, please shove more American navalgazing “realism” bullshit down the throats of international readers as if they are unfamiliar with it. Show the world some more of that arrogant swagger. Ignore completely what Engdahl actually said.

Harold Augenbraum, bring your list on. Let’s see how far you reach out of the mainstream. Blow our little minds. If The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is on it though, i might be forced to drive cross-country to cock-punch you, as i have nothing better to do than to reward you for being a clueless ponce.

Three Percent has a far more rational take on this little uproar.

Heh. Maybe the continued irritation with the American response can goad me into blogging again.

  1. I stole this from Bill. []