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