Ig-Nobel Thoughts

Is U.S. literature too insular and media-crazed to merit notice by the Swedish Academy? Scott McLemee asks around.

October 8, 2008

Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, recently told the Associated Press that the literary culture of the United States is too mass-media oriented and cut off from the rest of the world. "The U.S. is too isolated," he said, "too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining." The last Nobel Prize for Literature awarded to a U.S. writer was given to Toni Morrison 15 years ago. An obvious implication of Engdahl's remarks is that things will remain that way for a while yet.

How valid are Engdahl's criticisms? Are there tendencies in U.S. culture that negate his perspective, or particularly grievous ones that confirm it? What American author seems an obvious candidate for the Nobel?

Those were the questions I posed by e-mail to a range of writers, critics, translators, and scholars. Most if not all of them are citizens of the United States, though it didn't actually cross my mind to ask for anyone's papers.

Here are the responses, presented in the order that they arrived. The winner of the Nobel prize for literature for 2008 will be announced on October 9.

Ron Silliman is the author of more than twenty volumes of poetry and criticism, including most recently The Alphabet (University of Alabama Press) and The Age of Huts (University of California Press).

"[Engdahl's criticisms] are valid & not valid is my take. But then I think that the only American who has received the Nobel Prize for Literature who has really earned it has been Faulkner. Giving one to Hemingway, but not to Gertrude Stein, whose literary style he normalized into his own, is like giving a Grammy to the Dave Clark Five while ignoring the Beatles. The others, without exception, show the degree to which the award is political, not literary.

If by American literature, Engdahl means the likes of Roth, Irving, Updike, Oates, then I'm entirely sympathetic to his complaint. If by it he means Pynchon or David Markson, then I'm a lot less sympathetic, because I don't think it's accurate there. Or Samuel R. Delany, for that matter.

I've always felt sad about the fact that neither Allen Ginsberg nor Robert Creeley received one, nor William Carlos Williams in the 1950s, which would have been the appropriate time to have recognized him.

In addition to John Ashbery, the only U.S. poets I would seriously consider would include Judy Grahn, who has done more to create a women's literature than any other writer in the past half century, conceivably Adrienne Rich (or possibly the two together), Joanne Kyger, the lone great woman writer of the beat generation, or Simon Ortiz, the Sioux poet. But those aren't the names I see being bandied about.

I think the problem that Engdahl might be having -- and likewise might account for some of the reaction he's gotten -- has to do with the fact that the relationship between great writing and the trade presses is like a Venn diagram with not so much overlap. If one judged American writing by what one saw published by Random House or [Farrar, Straus and Giroux], one would be apt to conclude exactly what he has."

Franco Moretti, whose method of "distant reading" was discussed in this column some time ago, is a professor of English and comparative literature at Stanford University and editor of the two volume study The Novel (Princeton University Press, 2006).

"Engdahl seems to me to be perfectly right. But unfortunately I am traveling, and cannot do any better than that. Sorry."

Levi Stahl is the publicity manager for the University of Chicago Press. His fiction and criticism have appeared in numerous magazines, online and off, and he blogs about what he has been reading lately at Ivebeenreadinglately.

"As usually happens with sweeping generalizations about culture, the ignorance of Horace Engdahl's assertion that American writers are too insular to conceivably win the Nobel Prize for Literature obscured the kernel of truth at its heart: American literary culture is relatively insular, as evidenced by the paltry number of literary translations published each year (let alone the even smaller number that achieve prominence). I had been thinking about this topic recently when reading an advance copy of Roberto Bolano's 2666: to an even greater degree than in his earlier The Savage Detectives, in 2666 Bolano draws his characters and settings from all over the Western world. Though the dark heart of the novel is in Mexico, whole sections take place in Europe and important characters hail from Germany, France, Italy, England, the United States, and a handful of Latin American and South American nations. Bolano's globe-trotting narrative reflects more than a casual comfort with internationalism; rather, it suggests a deliberate refusal to allow national boundaries to negate deeper ties of responsibility, affinity, and basic humanity.

I don't think it would be inappropriate to describe that approach as relatively uncommon in American fiction, but where Engdahl tripped up was by painting with such a broad brush, not hedging. After all, there are many prominent American writers who are internationally engaged -- literary reputations aside, it's hard to argue that such writers as William Vollmann, Philip Caputo, or Robert Stone, to take just a few, fail to demonstrate an informed interest in the larger world.

However, unless Engdahl's comments were an extremely canny publicity ploy, it sounds like we can't expect any American winners for a while. That would seem to let out such perennial possibilities as Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo. Who's in the next rank? What writers might be on the verge of a Nobel-level career? I'm placing my bet on Richard Powers (as did the MacArthur Foundation several years ago): His oeuvre to this point has shown him to possess a restless, inquisitive mind that is unlikely to allow him to repeat himself or settle into a rut, while his ambitious attempts to marry the language and insights of science to psychological realism seems like a reasonable formula for the sort of sweeping masterpiece that could get the Nobel committee's attention.

Claire Messud is another novelist whose work I could imagine developing sufficiently to make her a contender, especially if she were to expand on the gestures to internationalism that she made with some of the scenes and characters in The Emperor's Children. My longshot candidate (though admittedly age is working against her) is poet Mary Oliver: though her poetry, deeply rooted in her New England home, could be described as provincial, her rigorous attention to nature, and her constant questioning of the relationship (and boundaries) between humanity and the animal world, seem particularly suited to the worldwide discussions, negotiations, and battles about conservation and responsibility that are sure to be a defining aspect of the coming decades."

Charlotte Mandell is a prolific and respected translator of French literature into English. Her recent work includes translations of Marcel Proust's The Lemoine Affair (Melville House, 2008) and Pierre Bayard's Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong: Reopening the Case of the Hound of the Baskervilles (Bloomsbury USA, 2008).

"It's true that the U.S. doesn't publish enough translations: only 3% of its publications every year are translated books. Europe publishes many more translations: 'American publishers have one of the lowest translation rates in the Western world, according to Andrew Grabois, a consultant for Bowker, which tracks the publishing business. Only 3 percent of books published in the United States are translations (4,114 in 2005), Mr. Grabois said, compared with, for example, 27 percent in Italy. As a result, linguists contend, much of the English-speaking world knows little of other countries and cultures.' [Source here.]

That said, it's not true that the literary scene in America is insular. American writers like John Ashbery, Robert Kelly, Lydia Davis, Paul Auster, and Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop are not only great writers in their own right; they're also prolific and accomplished translators (Ashbery, Davis, Auster, and the Waldrops from the French; Kelly from the German and French). Robert Kelly has published several collaborative books with German authors like the Tyrolean artist Brigitte Mahlknecht, and the German writer Schuldt; Ashbery has translated or collaborated with French writers like Raymond Roussel, Pierre Martory, and Franck-André Jamme. I would add Clayton Eshleman (who translates from the Spanish and French) and Jerome Rothenberg (who translates from just about everything). Also, Rosmarie Waldrop translates from the German as well as the French.

Young American novelists like Paul LaFarge, Edie Meidav, and Emily Barton are deeply involved with cultures outside of America. It would be wonderful if the publishing world in America were as interested in other languages and cultures as the American poets and novelists living and writing today."

Steven G. Kellman, a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio, is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (Norton, 2005) and won the Balakian Citation for his critical writing. Last month he received the Gemini Ink Award for Literary Excellence.

"Though Russia is visible from Alaska, who is looking? Not the nationalistic cheerleaders chanting their mantra about the uniqueness of “America” (an inverted and hubristic synecdoche for “United States of America”). Nor the student at my university who had the chutzpah to demand exemption from a language requirement on the grounds that: “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me.” Not the moviegoers allergic to subtitles or the justices who deny the pertinence of any foreign case law. Popular culture and political discourse both corroborate Horace Engdahl’s observation about American insularity and self-absorption. And, yes, a pitiful smidgen of the world’s literature ends up in English. The Swedish Academy’s apotheosis of Elfriede Jelinek, Gao Xingjian, Wislawa Szymborska, and Kenzaburo Oe was an embarrassment to American publishing, to whom they were strangers.

And yet … Engdahl would have to revoke William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize, since the Mississippi novelist confined his fictions to the tiny postage stamp of Yoknapatawpha County. Sinclair Lewis never moved his prose from Main Street to the Champs Elysées. Many major American writers, including Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost, find the universe in a grain of local sand. American literature at its best is adversarial, at odds with the Babbitts and Snopeses who dominate the culture at large. To refute Engdahl’s claim that American writers “don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature," it is sufficient to cite Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Ha Jin, and Jhumpa Lahiri.

Translation feeds the creativity of American poets such as W. S. Merwin, Robert Pinsky, Jerome Rothenberg, and Richard Wilbur. Among senior figures whose productivity is worthy of canonization in Sweden, Don DeLillo, David Mamet, Cormac McCarthy, and Thomas Pynchon are hardly isolationist hayseeds. The fictions of Philip Roth, who edited the invaluable “Writers from the Other Europe” series, establish lively connections with London, Tel Aviv, and Prague. Stockholm proclaims its own provincialism if, embracing the hoary stereotype of Americans as savages, it excludes them from the literary conversation."

Scott Esposito is editor of The Quarterly Conversation, an online journal of essays and literary criticism.

"Engdahl's remarks seem to have about as much validity as Lawrence Summers's infamous statement regarding women's ability for math and science. And perhaps, like Summers, Engdahl would choose to defend himself by saying that these words were just a few taken out of context. Who knows. But these words do make me wonder about Engdahl and his own level of cultural insularity; certainly what he said would indicate he has some. At any rate I'll just make the following rather obvious but perhaps necessary (for Engdalh, at least) observation: Cultural insularity is a stereotype about America, one that I'm sure many Europeans embrace; there's some truth to it, but the fact that some Americans are incurious about the world in no way means that every person in this extremely diverse nation of 300 million is the same way.

I'm not going to get into an argument over where the "center" of literature resides these days, but it's strange that Engdahl would consign America to the margins when there's no doubt that postmodernist literature originated in and is still dominated by the U.S. When you talk about investigating human identity and critiquing society through a postmodern lens -- which is exactly what the Nobel committee spoke about when it gave Orhan Pamuk the award in 2006, or Jenelik it in 2004, or Lessing in 2007 -- you're talking about ideas that largely originated with American writers.

If the Nobel committee were interested in honoring an American postmodernist, then to these names could easily be added Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, John Barth, or William T. Vollmann (who seems to know a little about the world). Beyond the Nobel candidates, American authors like Norman Rush, Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Powers, Matthew Sharpe, Cormac McCarthy, and Deborah Eisenberg should be able to furnish Engdahl with proof that we are not all sheltered over here."

Sandra Gilbert is professor emerita of English at the University of California at Davis. Her most recent books are a study of elegy, Death's Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve, and a collection of poetry, Belongings, both published by W.W. Norton in 2006.

"Engdahl's comment seems to me to be such a massive overgeneralization that it's hard to know where to begin to respond. Certainly American poets are frequently (though not always) worldly & wise readers who keenly grasp the importance of contemporary artists around the world: Darwish, Khoury-Ghata, Malroux, Ravikovitch, and a range of others."

Jane Ciabattari is president of the National Book Critics Circle.

"The parochialism of the Nobel's literary gatekeepers is nothing new. The Nobel committee’s literature selections tend to be based on mid- to late twentieth-century Eurocentric aesthetics. Still, even within the cautious framework of traditional Nobel considerations, there are Americans whose scope and conceptual daring should put them in the running. Consider the writers recognized numerous times by the National Book Critics Circle over the past 35 years: E.L. Doctorow (he won the first NBCC fiction award for Ragtime in 1975, the 1989 award for Billy Bathgate, was shortlisted for Loon Lake and won the 2006 NBCC award for The March), Don DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth. These are writers who have for decades engaged with the roiling cauldron of American culture, depicting the repercussions of our legacy of violence and war, the distorting and numbing effects of mass-market materialism.

But to say the U.S. is “too isolated,” and “too insular,” betrays Engdahl’s own ignorance. It is especially embarrassing to him at a time when the doors of American literature have swung wide to gather in a new generation of writers whose work is shaping a post-conflict global literature, a literature of mixed cultures reflecting experiences on many continents. In the past few years, the National Book Critics Circle has recognized the contributions of this group -- young writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Vikram Chandra, Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat, Kiran Desai, Aleksandar Hemon, to name a few.

Incidentally, I’d add to the list of deserving candidates Americans Edward Albee, who has forged new ground in theater as a worthy successor to Pirandello, and Peter Matthiessen, whose artful, original, and empathetic nonfiction and fiction has explored historic, cultural and natural borderlines in Indian country, along the Atlantic Coast, in the Himalayas, Siberia, Africa, and South America."

Morris Dickstein is a distinguished professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His most recent book is The Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World (Princeton University Press, 2005).

"The main glitch in the competition for the Nobel Prize in Literature used to be the demand for positive moral uplift built into the award. This conflicted so dramatically with the direction of modernist literature that it was hard to imagine how any serious writer could get it, and in the early years few did. The names of those passed over are legion. In later times this requisite dovetailed with the undying hostility of individual Academy members to particular authors. These two factors explain why writers like Graham Greene, Nabokov, and Norman Mailer were passed over year after year, though Sartre and Beckett somehow managed to slip through, much to their own chagrin. More recently another obstacle replaced this one: European anti-Americanism, bolstered by a virulent left-wing anti-Semitism.

There’s always been a political dimension to these awards. When it was still cool to like Jews, still seen as the chosen victims of modern history, the award went to Agnon, Nelly Sachs, I.B. Singer, and Saul Bellow. Today it would be even harder to imagine the selection of an Israeli writer than an American writer, though Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, and Aharon Appelfeld all have strong claims and are widely read in several European languages.

The same may hold true for the American writer whose appeal, since the death of Mailer, is strongest, Philip Roth. Though invariably provocative, his work too has been a great success with European readers. Updike also has a serious claim on the strength of his early novels, his lifelong productivity, and his consistently great short fiction. Neither of them is a Faulkner or a Hemingway, writers who revolutionized world literature, but Horace Engdahl’s dismissive comments are more about Bush and his damn-the-world, go-it-alone policies than about American writers. It’s true that American audiences are insular and read few works in translation, but our writers are not, except perhaps those seduced into playing postmodernist games at the expense of any felt human world."

Benj DeMott is one of the founders of First of the Month, which describes itself as "a newspaper of the radical imagination." He edited a recent selection of its greatest hits, First of the Year: 2008, just published by Transaction.

"That Nobel Committee-man’s snotty line about the provinciality of U.S. writers may be a sign that anti-Americanism is rife among A-Students in Euro-land. But on the b-side, consider those Huns and Brits who mounted an exhibition of Bob Dylan’s sketches this year, featuring a catalogue that talked up the artist as a Universal Genius -- a Goethe-like figure who not only composes music but draws and writes (memoirs as well as lyrics). What the hey -- maybe the Nobel locust is setting the high table for Dylan. I won’t mourn for J.C. -- the anti-Christ? -- Oates or Don DeLillo if that’s the October surprise. But I might organize for a more deserving American writer who was born in real time right when Bob Dylan was transforming pop life. Richard Meltzer’s early work on rock and roll -- The Aesthetics of Rock -- and pop culture -- Gulture -- made sense of the ‘60s as it all screamed by so fast. In more recent times, Meltzer has made himself into writer for the ages.

Like his wild brothers and sisters under the hill, Meltzer’s canon is marked by his (1) fascination with words qua words (2) radicalism (3) honesty. (He titled his massive collection of music writing, A Whore Just Like the Rest.) If you care about American writing, look out for Meltzer’s soon-to-be-published A World that Don’t Exist, and check Autumn Rhythm: Musings on Time, Tide, Aging, Dying and Such Biz (2004). In these (blues-, rock-, and jazz-drenched) meditations on “the death of your ass and mine ... the one-size-fits-all-ness of life,” Meltzer is finding his own way up into that high country that Dylan’s been reaching for since Time Out of Mind.

Ted Genoways is editor of The Virginia Quarterly Review.

"I think it's a mistake for anyone to make sweeping statements about literature, but history judges the givers of prizes especially harshly -- and maybe no prize of the last century deserves that scorn more than the Nobel. This is, after all, the prize that passed over Jorge Luis Borges, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Marcel Proust, and Leo Tolstoy. And they've compounded their errors in recent years by letting major figures of humane letters die unacknowledged -- Roberto Bolaño, Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Ryszard Kapus'cin'ski, and Kurt Vonnegut in the last five years alone. I mean, how seriously are we supposed to take the pronouncements of Secretary Engdahl when the academy under his guidance has chosen to honor Elfriede Jelinek and Gao Xingjian but not Salman Rushdie, Milan Kundera, Tomas Tranströmer, Chinua Achebe, Mario Vargas Llosa, or Margaret Atwood.

So do I despair when Endahl says that American literature "is too isolated, too insular" and fails to "participate in the big dialogue of literature"? No, I don't. But maybe that's because I've read novelists Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Louise Erdrich, and Michael Chabon, poets Philip Levine, Adrienne Rich, and Yusef Komunyakaa, playwright Tony Kushner, and -- yes, I'll say it -- graphic novelist Art Spiegelman. I'd stack that group of writers against any country's on any day."


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