By saying American writers are too insular and the American literary establishment is parochial, the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy has kicked up a controversy.
The 2008 Nobel Prize for literature is expected to be announced on Thursday but already a controversy has erupted as a member of the Swedish Academy that decides the award faces accusations of anti-American bias after he launched an extraordinary attack on American writers calling them too parochial and effectively suggesting that if he had his way he would not let any contemporary American writer anywhere near Stockholm.
The man at the centre of the storm is Horace Oscar Axel Engdahl, an influential Swedish historian and critic but, more importantly, Permanent Secretary of the Academy for nearly a decade. It is in the context of his position as an official of the Academy and his role as a member of the jury that his explosive remarks, in an interview to the Associated Press news agency, assume significance. The merit of his arguments about American literature apart, was it right for him to go public with his personal bias while sitting on the jury?
No wonder, the American literary community is livid and has accused Mr. Engdahl of prejudging the prize. Indeed, AP led its report with the words: “Bad news for American writers hoping for a Nobel Prize this month: The top member of the award jury believes the United States is too insular and ignorant to compete with Europe when it comes to great writing.”
In Britain, too, independent critics have questioned Mr. Engdahl’s judgment. There is a strong view that he has not only compromised his own position as judge but also undermined the credibility of the entire judging process. “Now, no American is going to believe that the judges were objective if the Prize goes to a non-American writer,” one critic said.
It has been more than a decade since an American writer last won the Nobel while during the same period nine European/British writers have won it. The last American writer to win the Prize was Toni Morrison — in 1993. Even on that there is a controversy with some Americans on the Right arguing that it was not so much a recognition of strictly “American” writing as the Swedish Academy’s politically correct nod to Afro-American literary angst.
So, what did Mr. Engdahl exactly say that has caused such a furore on either side of the pond? His basic argument was that American writers were too “insular” and either unable or unwilling to engage with big issues. Turning the knife further, he said, Europe was still the centre of the literary world while the American literary establishment was so “parochial” that it did not even translate enough of other literatures.
Here it is, in his own words: “Of course, there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world ... not the United States …The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.”
The reaction to his outburst was at two levels. One, of course, was whether as a jury member he should have singled out a country for such outspoken criticism. (Some said had he made similar comments about African or Asian writers, he would have been hauled over the coals for alleged racism.) And, secondly, his reading of American literature was seen to be wide of the mark.
Harold Augenbraum, head of the U.S. National Book Foundation which administers the National Book Awards, said he was inclined to send Mr. Engdahl a “reading list” of American literature. “Such a comment makes me think that Mr. Engdahl has read little of American literature outside the mainstream … One way the United States has embraced the concept of world culture is through immigration. Each generation, beginning in the late 19th century, has recreated the idea of American literature.”
David Remnick, Editor of the New Yorker, suggested that the Academy itself needed to do a lot of introspection about its literary judgment before “lecturing” to others. “You would think that the permanent secretary of an academy that pretends to wisdom but has historically overlooked Proust, Joyce and Nabokov, to name just a few non-Nobelists, would spare us the categorical lectures,” he said adding: “And if he looked harder at the American scene that he dwells on, he would see the vitality in the generation of Roth, Updike and DeLillo, as well as in many younger writers, some of them sons and daughters of immigrants writing in their adopted English.”
John Sutherland, Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at the University College, London, who teaches at the California Institute of Technology, called Mr. Engdahl’s attack on American writers a “little stick of dynamite into the fundament of the literary world.” Writing on The Guardian website, he said: “Engdahl’s ‘insularity’ crack is particularly invalid with reference to writers such as Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy whose novels (eg. The Human Stain, No Country for Old Men) are concerned, supranationally, with the human condition. If the grey men of Stockholm felt daring (they never do) they could give their prize to the best living American poet, Robert Zimmerman.” He agreed that America “doesn’t translate enough” but said it had more to do with the nature of its “imperial power.” “Did the Romans bother to translate whatever gobbledygook those … Anglo-Saxons spoke,” he asked. Angry reaction
The blogosphere is seething with angry reaction to what one blogger described as Mr. Engdahl’s “idiotic” comment. To give a flavour, here is what a reader, using the pseudonym, “Freemyspeech,” writes: “Many of the greatest writers are Americans and attempts to dismiss much of the greatest literature in the world are absurd.” Another, calling himself (or herself?) “Sarka,” argues that it is wrong to categorise literature as “universal” or “provincial.” “Universal or provincial? It’s a silly argument. The American novels I love best are thoroughly American in themes and treatments, if in very different ways. The same goes for any other nation — don’t tell me that the appeal of Dostoyevsky’s novels is not partly their extreme unabashed Russianness, as well as their universality ... Often the more a novelist gets universal pretensions, and away from some kind of roots, the less interesting and universal he becomes (see the fate of our Czech Kundera, for example — he’s always interesting but he was the hell of a lot more passionate and convincing when he kept to being Czech than when he turned Frenchified and cosmopolitan, and paradoxically, the hell of a lot more universal ...). The best novelists always use the specific and local as the way to the universal,” he says.
It is true that at a philosophical level, the quintessential European novel, notably French and German, is more “elevated” in terms of engaging with the universal human condition, etc., but to say that American literature lacks big ideas and American writers talk only to Americans is absurd. Anyone who has even a fleeting acquaintance with the best of American writing (Ernest Hemingway, Arthur Miller, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, John Updike, not to mention T.S Eliot — it is a long list …) would strongly disagree with Mr. Engdahl’s view.
My admittedly limited encounter with American writing tells me that despite its pronounced American-ness, it is as universal as any great literature should be. Perhaps no other literature is as deeply rooted in its own social and cultural milieu as the great Russian novel (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev et al) and yet it is also regarded (and indeed is) the most universal. And what about African and Asian writers whose writing essentially reflects their own concerns? Does it make them “insular” and “parochial?”
There are, after all, only a handful of big universal themes. For the rest, a writer is left to exploring his or her own experiences in relation to the world he or she knows best (his or her country, family, friends, encounters with love, betrayal, death, etc.). But in the end, what is important is that they are presented in a way that others (from different cultures and backgrounds) are able to relate to them.
For example, which book can be more “American” than J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (it is as American as, say, Anna Karenina is Russian or Midnight’s Children is Indian) but its universality (a story of teenage angst and rebellion) is beyond doubt; and even today — more than half-a-century after it was written — anyone (not just teenagers), anywhere can relate to it. And it is an American novel, Mr. Engdahl.
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