scholars and rogues

No Nobel lit prize for U.S. – we're too…something…

In a move designed to offend those Americans who read literature (and, no, they would not all fit into one small room), Nobel Academy secretary Horace Engdahl says American literature doesn’t deserve consideration for the Nobel Prize in literature:

“The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature,” Engdahl said. “That ignorance is restraining.”

The response of American literary experts has been to say things like the following (this comes from Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the foundation that offers American literature’s most prestigious prize, the National Book Award):

“Such a comment makes me think that Mr. Engdahl has read little of American literature outside the mainstream and has a very narrow view of what constitutes literature in this age,” he said.

So – who’s right? Engdahl? Augenbraum? And what constitutes American literature, anyway?

Maybe a look at the list of American Nobel Prize writers will help – or not. Here it is:

Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, Pearl Buck, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Czeslaw Milosz, and Toni Morrison.

Both Singer and Milosz were born in Poland and their writing deals with their lives in Poland before they came to live in America.  Pearl Buck, born in America, lived nearly half of her life in China – and her major work is set in – China.

So far we may conclude that if you live in America but don’t write about America you’re Nobel worthy. But let’s look at the rest of our esteemed list.

Lewis wrote his important work about Midwestern American (really Minnesota) small town life; Steinbeck wrote about California; Faulkner wrote about Mississippi.

So from that we can conclude that the Nobel committee wants American literature that looks deeply at specific areas of our vast nation – the Midwest, the West, the South. Right?  Well, there’s more to consider….

Bellow, O’Neill, Hemingway, and Morrison explore family and/or self identity issues again and again in their work.

(One could argue that all these writers do that, yes, but the just mentioned group focuses on this beyond other important elements such as place, the element that most characterizes the work of the previously mentioned writers.)

So, the Nobel committee would seem to value exploration of human relationships given that these American writers were honored.

It seems nearly impossible that no American writers can meet these criteria – if indeed, these are the criteria the Nobel committee uses to choose honorees.

But there’s a line in the above linked Associated Press article on this controversy that casts aspersions on the Nobel committee’s selection process:

The academy often picks obscure writers and hardly ever selects best-selling authors. It regularly faces accusations of snobbery, political bias and even poor taste.

And since America has a number of Nobel worthy authors – besides the mentioned Phillip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates, David Foster Wallace, Cormac McCarthy, John Ehle, Elmore Leonard, and William Gibson come to mind immediately – all of whom in their own ways epitomize the qualities the academy seems to have admired in their antecedents – there are no logical reasons for the claims Engdahl advances for the academy’s reluctance to honor American authors.

So I guess that leaves us to consider those accusations of snobbery, political bias, and poor taste.

Categories: scholars and rogues

43 replies »

  1. I’m not great at deciding what’s “literature” and what isn’t. I like what I like and it’s cross spectrum. But I’m curious. Does John Irving count? Vonnegut’s not around anymore, so I guess he can’t win. Updike?

  2. Yes, Vonnegut counts – big time. So does Irving. Updike, too. I just threw out some that covered a range of areas within literature. That explains Gibson and Leonard. That – and that they’re terrific writers….

    With the examples you give, you betray your knowledge of what literature is. You know exactly what literature is…. 😉

  3. If we’re too isolated and insular, does that also mean a Canadian or Mexican author can’t win? How about the countries of South America?

    I must hone in on the word “isolated”. Isolated from whom? We’re a hop from Cuba, a plane ride from Brazil. Or does he mean we’re too far away from Europe? If we moved to the Balkans would we suddenly not be “isolated”? Maybe he confused America with Australia?

    Nice to know he thinks we’re ignorant isolationists who refuse to participate. After his comments, who would want to bother?

    Lara Amber

  4. Jim,

    Typical European arrogance. Yet many Americans look to those people as our moral compass.

    Great article.


  5. I would add Paul Auster, Michael Chabon, Don DeLillo and James Ellroy to the list of American novelists who could be shortlisted for the Nobel Prize. As a romanian living in Germany and reading in three languages, I fail to see any european novelist (with Ian McEwan being the sole exception) who could dare to dream to have a shot at the Nobel Prize.

  6. JB, Yeah, I know a lot of good authors. I used to read a lot more than I do now, but I still like a good book. I had to restrain myself from listing several more. Hah. I’ve just never worried about whether or not they were considered literature. Versus, say, “genre.” Or whatever. For instance, take your Gibson suggestion. I also like PK Dick and Neal Stephenson. But are they “literature”? Or sci-fi? Or even philosophy? All of the above? What about fantasy stuff. Was Tolkien even considered? Is it too ridiculous to ask if a graphic novel would ever be awarded?

  7. Gibson is, of course, Canadian. I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the Nobelist’s remarks. He is presumably writing not about the era of Faulkner or even Morrison but about the 21st century. And he is certainly not including Mexico or Canada.
    Your inclusion of writers like Elmore Leonard or even Joyce Carol Oates suggest that the writer’s attitude is not unwarranted—we have trouble telling best sellers from literature. Philip Roth might be an exception. Maybe.
    As a culture we are shallow and insular and generally prefer shallow. And insular. Sad but true (Speaking personally I love Dick, Gibson, and Stephenson, and even a graphic novel or two. But they are simply not litcha. Nor, in my opinion, are the writers mentioned in comments.)

  8. Brookylngal, I’m curious what your definition of literature is, and whether or not speculative fiction of any kind (such as much of Dick, Gibson, Vonnegut, etc.) would qualify or not.

  9. I don’t know, literature is probably one of those “I’ll know it when I see it” things. Politics rules the day as usual.

    Funny enough, Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions was shortlisted for the National Book Award two years ago, and, while I enjoyed it, I wouldn’t consider it literature.

  10. Excuse me, but poetry, drama, creative nonfiction, and cross-genre works, along with speeches and a great deal of belles-lettrist and scholarly criticism are all LITERATURE, and in particular the sort of imaginative literature that the Swedish Academy honors. Not just prose fiction. So there are quite a few other writers–poets, dramatists, authors of creative nonfiction, etc.–who would also be candidates. They include Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, Yusef Komunyakaa, Michael Palmer, Jorie Graham, Adrienne Kennedy, David Mamet, John McPhee, etc.

    (T. S. Eliot was born in the US and educated here (at Harvard), so he might also be considered partly an American laureate.)

    That said, Engdahl is talking out of his ass. There are any number of American authors whose creative work looks beyond our national borders. One could add that given the breadth of American literature, which now includes works not written originally in English or even always concerned with parochially *American* themes (whatever that might mean in a nation of 300 million people, many of whom come from all over the world and also travel all over the world), which cannot be said for many other “national” literatures, Engdahl is particularly off-base. We get that much of the world detests Bush and the American people because we voted for him/let him game his way into office. But more than half of us didn’t vote for him from the beginning, we’ve suffered under his rule, and we will repudiate this election. So don’t slam everyone because of this toxic, repellant, destructive administration.

    Please just let it not be that insufferable Paul Muldoon.

  11. I have no way to evaluate Engdahl’s statement because, in my case, he’s correct. I have read no fiction in any other language than English. Even in translation, my forays into, say, Chinese, Japanese, Polish, and Czech serious literature are embarrassingly tentative.

    I will say that, if there are a lot of world authors out there who have written better books than Blood Meridian I really must start reading them.

  12. Slammy, that book kicked ass. 🙂

    If the Nobel people like Americans who write about experiences in other countries, what about Eggers “What is the What”? Or is that too new?

    (A side note: since we’re on the topic of Nobel Prizes for literature, Saramago won in ’98, right? Is anyone at S&R thinking about the movie adaptation of “Blindness”? I loved the book, even if it did remind me a LOT of Camus and Kafka.)

  13. Oh yeah, House of Leaves. I liked it, but still no go on literature. It’s the pop-culture equivalent to Nabokov’s Pale Fire. I knew I shouldn’t have tried to drop names around intelligent people.

    JS: I don’t know about Blood Meridian just yet. The lack of quotation marks is getting to me.

  14. If lack of quotation marks gets you, for the love of your own sanity don’t read Blindness.

  15. Mike: It’s going to be a long time before either Eggers or Danielewski get into the conversation, if at all. And if Eggers keeps writing stuff like An Unbearable Tale of Unreadable Postmodernist Self-Consciousness, or whatever that damned book was called, he never will. The Nobel is the ultimate lifetime achievement award, so don’t look for it to go to a young writer or someone who’s only cranked out one great effort.

    Assuming you think either of those writers has a great effort to his name.

    Steve: Okay, I’ll bite. Why isn’t it literature?

  16. Great discussion, but you all seem to be ignoring (apologies to stocker) the prime questions raised here:

    1) What is literature? The apologies you offer for sci-fi, detective fiction, and other genres suggest you’ve been “schooled” to think of literature as something only English (lit) profs can define. I call bullshit on that. Perhaps it’s a simple as Wordsworth claimed it to be: “…a man speaking to men.” (no apology for the seeming sexism)

    2) Who defines what literature is? Why should literature be defined by the likes of the Nobel committee or the National Book Award crowd. Why shouldn’t Neal Stephenson be considered a literary figure? This “French Academy” mentality of wanting to freeze language, art, etc. and saying who’s in/who’s out is so much hooey….

    3) The American “mentor/protege” system that is propagated in American colleges and universities as creative writing programs (full disclosure – I myself am a product of such a program) gives us some serious incest problems in our literary community. And Engdahl may have a point about that insularity problem if seen through that lens…. I’ve written about this issue elsewhere:

  17. Slammy: I was actually half joking about Eggers. Although, obviously, I DO like the guy. I thought “A heartbreaking work of staggering genius” was great. 🙂 But “What is the What” was damned good and seemed to be on a different level. I’m curious to see where he goes after that. Maybe it IS too soon. Of course, I’m just a space jockey who can’t even define the terms we’re talking about. haha.

  18. IMO, literature teachs us something about the human condition, or lets us experience it through the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin of someone else. Nobel-worthy literature shows us something profound. And the ability to reveal the human condition is not limited to any one region, ethnicity, nation, or genre.

    Rejecting genre stories, or American novels, or even graphic novels as being unworthy of consideration as literature says more about our own prejudices (our fault or not) than it says about anyone else’s writing skills.

  19. Oh, and one other thing…this “more than just one great work” idea kinda bugs me. But maybe that’s why Harper Lee didn’t get one, either?

  20. Yes, brooklyngal, we have trouble telling bestsellers from literature and that’s why leaving Elmore Leonard off the list would be wrong. Or maybe Martin Amis has trouble telling them apart, too.

    Leonard may write about a class of Americans a lot of people would rather not know about, but he does so with as much insight and literary ability as the ‘greats’ do about the people they write about.

    It’s possible it’s not the writers this guy dislikes, but the fact they write about Americans, a people he really doesn’t understand or want to understand – having already made up his mind. I’m Canadian, by the way, and I see some very lazy anti-Americanism every day. If you take out the word “American” and substitute anything else… well, you know.

  21. Heck, as an American, I routinely have trouble telling my ass from a hole in the ground. Can you blame me for poor taste in literature?

  22. God knows I didn’t read all of the comments, but Pynchon, though granted he didn’t have a book come out this year, comes to mind when I think of American authors.

    But the comment I wanyed to make has to do with how the US sopposedly doesn’t translate enough. How one can possibly gauge that is beyond me, but it shouldn’t matter whether or not a country translates books (especially since the state is not a publisher) but whether the books are obtainable in said country. For example there are very few arabic novels translated within the borders of the U.S. However, you can still access a large number within the US, even if they are translated in Egypt by the AUC Press or Lebanon by various publishers.

    Also, as for insular – does that mean old Soviet-bloc authors did not write books capable of obtaining a Nobel? Hell, even before. Is Dostoyevsky – more than just a tad insular – worse for it? Had he been published, would Bulgakov been removed from the lists because he did not have access to all of world literature and therefore could not engage in the correct dialogue?

    But I guess I shouldn’t even know of these authors or publishers since I am an American and therefore must be ignorant.

    Also – in regards to brooklyngal – have fun attempting to instill hierarchies into the arts. We will ignore them.

  23. Slammy, I can’t tell you why. Angliss mentions how literature should teach us something about the human condition, and I agree with that. The only thing House of Leaves taught me is that Zeno’s arrow paradox shouldn’t be dismissed lightly, or perhaps our greatest fear is of the unknown, or maybe I should never enter a house without the lights on.

    I can see why fantasy/scifi and other speculative fiction isn’t usually considered literature. The popular idea is, going off Angliss’ definition again, the focus is usually on setpieces (like magic or technology) and not on the characters. This isn’t true of all speculative fiction though, but it’s a stigma of the whole genre.

  24. Steve:

    There’s been some excellent sci-fi that approaches “great” literature of Nobel quality. Ursula LeGuinn wrote “The Left Hand of Darkness” and “The Word for World is Forest.” Certainly, Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” George Orwell’s “1984,” and HG Wells’ “The Time Machine” are excellent works. I would even say that Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” has much to recommend it. I love science fiction, but I don’t think there’s been a sci-fi author yet who matches up with Saul Bellow, William Faulkner, and the like.

    But, it’s subjective, I readily admit.

  25. Not a one of you has mentioned Ray Bradbury. But the committee saw fit not to give the prize to H.G. Wells, either. Both should have gotten the award – and both are science fiction writers whose work transcends to greatness….

    JS, I suggest you go look at a list of the Nobel literature winners. Yes, there are some undeniably great ones – but there are any number of choices that’ll have you scratching your head….

  26. Guy Gavriel Kay. That’s all I’m saying, because the whole “what is literature” discussion gives me the itch.

  27. The United States has NOT produced a decent world-class caliber writer. IMO that fact is simply a reflection of how much movies have dominated the American imagination. We simply don’t produce writers much less literate critics in our universities. The American literary tradition is Sarah Palin-like — it is woefully ignorant, dull, witless and above all lacking depth.

  28. This reminds me of conversations that swirl around the Pulitzers for fiction, poetry, etc. the Pulitzer committee has intentionally overlooked great American writers for various reasons, most of them political. By the time Hemingway won, for instance, it was widely seen as a make-good, not a reward for what was generally considered one of his weaker books. The Nobel committee is the same way, but the politics are just on a grander, snobbier scale.

  29. cmackowski,

    You might be interested in this tidbit from Pulitzer history: the prize winner for 1929 was LAUGHING BOY by Oliver LaFarge. I’ve read it – nice little book.

    Also nominated but passed over that year for the LaFarge opus – THE SOUND AND THE FURY by William Faulkner, A FAREWELL TO ARMS by Ernest Hemingway, and LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL by Thomas Wolfe.

    Says everything one could ever need to know about the Pulitzer selection process’s flaws….

  30. Tony,

    I forgot that there were no American writers before the invention of movies. No Nathaniel Hawthorne or Herman Melville. No Walt Whitman. No Emily Dickinson. No Edgar Allen Poe. No Transcendentalists.

    Oh wait, you mean there was literature before the advent of movies and your Palin reference was just a cheap political shot that was somehow supposed to bolster your point? Oh Tony, I can hear your cries though, of how their literature just isn’t good enough, and I suppose you’re right. How could it ever hope to compare to all the fantastic literature in 19th century Europe (and it really was great). Wait, what’s that? Moby Dick is still considered one of the greatest novels ever written? And Poe is still endlessly cribbed from?


  31. This really is the dark, damp floor of the internet; people that turn a forum into a bitching saloon. Sadly, this act is found on every website allowing user comments. A place for people to vent thier own frustrations on others whom have the ordacity to own a different opinion.

  32. I got a call this morning from John Ehle, who told me he had been nominated for a Nobel in Lit from Jim Booth at Scholars & Rogues. He knew it was only a mention in an article, but he was genuinely honored to have his name appear alongside so many great writers. As a publisher of a small press, we’ve been working with John for a little over two years now to bring some of his out-of-print books back into print, beginning with The Land Breakers. We’ve received personal kudos from folks like Harper Lee, Robert Morgan, Pinckney Benedict, and Ron Rash, and a suggested Nobel nod rates right up there with them. Thanks for bringing a smile to John’s face, and to mine.

  33. Kevin Watson,

    Please tell Mr. Ehle that his place among the greats is deserved and that his mention among those other writers honors them as much as it honors him.

    Glad he was pleased – and looking forward to the new editions of his classic works….

  34. I am thrilled to hear the labeling of John Ehle’s major works as “classics”. Over the years, he has made the localeand the character of the people of southern Appalachia his own. He also found the universal in his tales in much the same way that Faulkner did for the deep south. Rediscovering Ehle’s literature is most welcome.

  35. John and Rosemary left this morning for NYC. We were supposed to have lunch yesterday, but I came down with a bit of the crud, which I didn’t want to pass on to John. When he returns, I’ll pass on your comments.

  36. I’ve got to say, I really enjoyed reading the comments here. Sure, it’s the same inane bitching and arguing that takes the place of debate in all corners of the internet, but the use of wit and big words (properly utilized, of course) makes the experience much more palatable. As for defining literature: words on a page, provided they move you. The end.