Wednesday, October 8, 2008

No Nobel?! Why It Doesn't Matter to the Americans


One of the most prized possessions is a twenty volume edition of “The Nobel Prize Library.” Published by Grolier in 1970, the set is bound in blue leather with gold leaf bindings. The set it gorgeous to look at, a real showpiece.

Reading it…well, that is another matter.

The Nobel Prize Library ends in 1970 and the last author covered by the library – which offered the writer’s acceptance speech, a sampling of their work, and a critical essay – was Alexander Solzhenitsyn. One realizes that so many of the writers collected here, despite their having won the Nobel, remain forgotten or in obscurity. For every Samuel Beckett, Thomas Mann or Ernest Hemingway, there is a Miguel Angel Asturias (Guatemala, 1967), Roger Martin du Gard (France, 1937), and Giorgos Seferis (Greece, 1963).

When last week, Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, made it clear that those in charge of awarding the prize don’t look favorably upon the US candidates a lot of people in the US literary community got hot and bothered.

If you missed it, Engdahl, told the Associated Press that American writers are “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture,” and the “US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature,” adding “That ignorance is restraining." (Ignorance…really?)

He pulled back a bit when he added, “Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures,” he said “but you can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world ... not the United States.”

Now, all I’ll say about that is that Europeans tend to mistake America and American culture for a monolith. The U.S. is comprised of 300 million people, some 35 million of whom were born abroad. In New York City, 40% of the population was born overseas. Our culture is vast, deep, and rich and to a large extent reflects the culture of the globe as a whole. If you think our writers don’t reflect that in their work, then as our head of the National Book Foundation recently suggested, allow me send you a reading list.

No, sadly it seems unlikely that Updike, Roth, Oates, Pynchon, or DeLillo will get the prize. It would seem the streak of anti-Americanism running through the literary committee of the Academy is too strong to be overcome – especially while the US remains mired in contentious, unfortunate war in Iraq.

Does it matter? Not really. Each of those aforementioned writers has earned their reputation – one that is likely to last well beyond memories of the novel.

So I say, let them join the pantheon of great non-winners of the Nobel Prize, which already includes names like Tolstoy, Proust and Nabokov.

He who is still read wins in the end.

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