Thursday, October 09, 2008

American Literature is Second-Rate, Says Swedish Nobel Judge

The 2008 Nobel Prize in literature has just been announced and – surprise! - an American did not win it. The prize went to Frenchman Jean-Marie Gustave Le Cl├ęzio for his “new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization.”

What has provoked strong reaction on both sides of the Pacific and the Atlantic is the comment last week by Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy that awards the Nobel Prize for Literature. "Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures,” said Engdahl, “but you can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world ... not the United States.” He asserted that American writers are "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture," which drags down their quality. Any other shortcomings? "The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature," said the honorable judge. "That ignorance is restraining."

In a news conference in Stockholm after the announcement today, Mr. Engdahl described the new Nobel Laureate as a cosmopolitan author, “a traveler, a citizen of the world, a nomad.” No American writer shared these qualities, you could almost hear the secretary as saying.

Unlike physics, chemistry, economics, and physiology or medicine in which they dominate, the literature prize has proved elusive for Americans. The last American to win the prize was Toni Morrison in 1993. Before her, the list comprises Sinclair Lewis (1930), Eugene O'Neill (1936), Pearl Buck (1938), William Faulkner (1949), Ernest Hemingway (1954), John Steinbeck (1962), Saul bellow (1976) and Isaac Bashevis Singer (1978). That’s it, a total of 9 out of 107 since the awards began in 1901.

So is there anything to Mr. Engdahl's observations? Are American writers, in fact, provincial, as the Swede said in so many words? The notion is laughable. The great American writers have been great precisely because they were universal in their outlook, and also because they not only resisted the trends in their own mass culture but showed us how to turn away from its toxic elements through the power of their imagination. While names like Philip Roth, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates and a few others come up every year around this time as possible recipients of the prize, no American, in my opinion, is more deserving of the Nobel than Wendell Berry.

In weaving magical, redemptive and engrossing tales around the fictitious town of Port Williams in Kentucky, Berry has shown how literature can not only take us beyond ourselves but also restore sanity in an increasingly insane world. Whether you are basking in the warm glow of the Coulter clan or remembering with Andy Catlett or rediscovering the true meaning of fidelity or crying with Jaybar Crow in his heartbreaking loss (more poignant, again, in my opinion, than Henry's in Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”), Berry’s voice is unique and unforgettable. His work reminds us why we need and read literature in the first place. But how likely is it that Wendell Berry will win the literature prize? About as likely as Sweden asking Finland to take over the responsibility of deciding who gets the award and who does not.

Fact is, the Nobel Prize in literature has often been driven by politics than by the recognition of genuine talent. In physics, chemistry, economics and physiology or medicine, the charge could be made that some worthy recipients have been ignored but it is also undeniable that all recipients have been worthy winners. You cannot fake your contributions in these fields or cater to some ideological imperatives of the day to win. You have to make contributions that your peers recognize as fundamental and trailblazing. Not so in literature. Other than some of their countrymen and perhaps some ideologically-persuaded fans, who really has read the novels of Dario Fo (1997), Gao Xingjian (2000) or Elfriede Jelinek (2004), to name only three in a long list?

The literature prize has acquired a bad reputation for its dubious awards and, to reuse Mr. Engdahl's words in this context, its isolated and insular criteria. It is time the Swedish Nobel Academy reviews its record and bring the same credibility to the literature prize that it brings year after year to physics, chemistry, economics and physiology or medicine.

P.S. In a recent interview, John Updike was asked about Horace Engdahl's comment that the U.S. was too insular to produce great writers. Updike's response: "I thought there was something in what he said. This is a non-European country. We're a cultural island and our canon, our masterpieces, are unlike the European masterpieces. "Moby Dick" and "Huckleberry Finn" are the two great 19th-century American novels, and they're about marginal characters drifting around. We're fascinated by heading west, there is a Puritan religiosity that haunts us. European novels want to show you society as it exists or existed, whereas American novels would rather get away and dwell on the inner life of the character, which is another way of being insular. I thought it was interesting that he said we weren't up on things, that there is an accumulation of knowledge about how to create art. I don't think that is true. I don't think European clubbiness helps their art. There has been a falling off of American winners of the Nobel. There was a spate after the Second World War that reflected the importance of the U.S. in the global picture. Now we don't project quite that magnetic image."

1 comment:

Jason Winton said...

I agree about Berry. He is one of our best (if not the best) contemporary American writers. The most intriguing aspect about reading Berry's work is his long-standing invitation to unashamedly read with the intent to learn the truth of what he says (not merely to abstract an explanation or uncover a hidden meaning).