This grand declamation comes from the Swedish Academy a week before the Nobel Prize for Literature is announced. The organisation’s permanent secretary Horace Engdahl gave a couple of explanations that need to be examined:
- “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.”
Europe has always been seen a culture snob, and its literature is no exception. Yet, I do not see the prudence of hemming in all of European literature under one roof. What would a German have in common with the English, or the French with the Spanish? Is ancient Greek literature to be held in reverence forever?
I have to admit that my knowledge of contemporary American literature is limited, but would it be true to say that US writers are dragging down the quality of their work because they are...
- “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture”?
Is sensitivity and intimacy with one’s environment not important enough to be able to critique the same mass culture? If the allegation serves to convey that American writers tend to fall prey to mass trends, then that is indeed the case with a limited number of people anywhere in the world.
Pop culture is a legitimate area of study, whether in fiction or non-fiction. Wasn’t consumerism the central theme of Death of a Salesman?
- “The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.”
Here I have to admit that I find US political policy and the great masses to be insular; there is an element of not being quite aware of what happens outside the super bowl of American life. However, artistes have tried to break the barrier.
David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, provided a response: “And if he (Engdahl) 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. None of these poor souls, old or young, seem ravaged by the horrors of Coca-Cola.”
Spirited as the rejoinder is, it does not examine that Coke is in fact a great leveller and hardly cause of the insulation. The cola has crossed the big divide and is chicken soup for many a writer dead-beat on a metaphor for ‘uncivilisation’.
Immigrant writing, on the other hand, tries – often too hard – to recreate an ethnicity based on nostalgia of the earlier generation. This is most evident among the South Asian diaspora.
The Nobel Committee, in fact, errs not because of intent but its lack of it. It is a faulty premise to expect literature to shun one’s environment. Aren’t writers and artists the recorders of contemporary history?
Cut them some slack and they might survive it to become posterity.
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Some more of my views appear in Mailer’s Miasma