No Nobels for American writers

For the past several days, some provocative statements by Swedish Academy permanent secretary Horace Engdahl have been eliciting angry and defensive reactions from American writers and book bloggers. In an AP interview, Engdahl implied that contemporary American literature fails to measure up to the level that would warrant a Nobel Prize because “the U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.”

At Three Percent, Chad W. Post argues that Engdahl is entirely correct about the provincialism of American readers. Literature in translation simply doesn’t sell here—American readers aren’t any better than American moviegoers or television viewers in seeking out the work of artists from other cultures. Even if an American writer wanted to keep up with what’s going on in literature abroad, she’d have an awfully difficult time doing so, given how little work in translation publishers bother bring to the American market. So, if the measure of a good writer is her degree of engagement in Engdahl’s “big dialogue of literature” across borders, Americans are bound to fall short.

I don’t dispute the idea that it would be healthy and enriching for American writers and readers to pay more attention to global literature. That said, I can’t accept the idea that literature must address international or intercultural concerns in order to earn the Swedish Academy’s approval. It strikes me as a failure of empathy for a European reader like Engdahl to insist that American writing that is largely about America and Americans can’t possibly resonate with readers outside of the United States. In fact, it sounds like exactly the same kind of narrow-mindedness and cultural insularity that leads many American readers to assume that foreign writers don’t have anything to offer them.

Revealingly, Engdahl also told the AP that in his mind, “Europe still is the center of the literary world”—an oddly Eurocentric notion for a Swede on the warpath against cultural insularity. It’s hard to take him seriously as a champion of intercultural engagement when he dismisses the whole of one national literature while simultaneously arguing for the literary superiority of his own native culture.

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3 Responses to “No Nobels for American writers”


  1. 1 Jim Gill October 7, 2008 at 11:42 AM

    Careful, that money comes from war. You don’t want thugs showing up at your door.

  2. 2 Andrew Rea October 13, 2008 at 3:23 PM

    There’s an equally amusing article from Slate last week, written by Adam Kirsch (who I think is pretty worthless, actually) of The New York Sun in defense of American writers. While I think his arguments are essentially off-point, I can’t help but cheer for the U.S. as a perennial scrappy literary underdog. Even that durned Swede couldn’t easily argue that someone like Dario Fo has had a bigger impact on, or dialogue with, the global literary scene than John Updike has. But, it’s important to point out that Europe likes to hold its cultural legacies very closely, and they’re very hesitant to give those up, especially to upstart nations that “don’t place value on great literature,” or whatever. Some would go so far as to argue that even the prizes awarded to Achebe and Soyinka can attest to the remains of a European “white man’s burden mentality. If we look at a nation analogous to ours, in terms of age, history and founding ethos, Australia has won a single Nobel Lit prize: in 1973 to Patrick White. Canada has brought home none, unless you count Bellow, which no one does. So the Nobel committee doesn’t just sport a disdain for Americans, but to non-European Anglo cultures. It’s just our deserved punishment for getting the hell out of there, innit?

  3. 3 goodreadings October 13, 2008 at 6:34 PM

    I didn’t much care for Kirsch’s article either. And that’s a good observation about a possible bias against non-European Anglo cultures. But it’s worth noting that South Africa has fared well with the Nobel in recent decades, with both J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer becoming Laureates. (And for whatever it’s worth, Coetzee actually lives in Australia these days, and is even now a citizen, if I’m not mistaken.) And then there’s Doris Lessing, who’s lived in England for many years, but is African by upbringing. But: that’s all trivia, really—I think your basic point is sound.

    There has been some speculation that Margaret Atwood will chalk one up for the Canadians one of these days (if she can overcome the anti-Anglo problem). But off the top of my head, I can’t think of any especially likely Australian candidates, can you? Though I confess my general ignorance of the current state of Australian literature.

    On a Nobel-related side note: I got free tickets to a Harold Pinter play at the Guthrie Theatre a couple nights ago. I wouldn’t say it was a bad play, but it was kind of exhausting.


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