Over a week after the Nobel Prize for Literature was bestowed upon France's Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, and the literary community is still buzzing with the question: Is the Nobel Lit Prize anti-American? Seems that nothing can happen in the literary world without intense navel-gazing ensuing and, since I'm no exception, I'll weigh in here. My answer is: Yes and No.
It's indisputable that the pre-award comments by Horace Engdahl, the academy's permanent secretary, that American writers aren't up to Swedish snuff, that "The U.S. is too isolated, too insular...They don't translate enough and don't participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining" expose him, at least, as having a bias.
I would like to point out to Mr. Engdahl that the U.S. is a big place, composed of 50 states, with each state providing literature as diverse from one another as, say, a writer from Ukraine and one from Chechnya, now that Russia is no longer one happy family. With nearly 200,000 new books published here each year, approximately 10,000 of them novels, no one could read comprehensively their own country's output, let alone everyone else's. That's not to say people shouldn't read outside their own geographical box; but it is to say that Mr. Engdahl can't have read every writer in the U.S. and therefore his comments are too self-damningly sweeping by half. It can further be argued that what U.S. writers he has read, he's read with a mental predisposition to find them to be disappointing.
That's one thing I learned over the course of the 292 book reviews I penned for Publishers Weekly. We all like to think of ourselves as openminded, but the reality is that people come at a particular book with one of three mindsets, which are based on a number of variables: predisposed to like, predisposed to dislike, and - that rarest of things - neutral. When the reader is predisposed to dislike, the writer almost never wins.
But enough with that digression. Back to our story.
Now for some facts.
The U.S. has won the Nobel Prize for Literature 11 times over the life of the award, more than one-tenth of the prizes awarded and pretty evenly spread over the years. So for the last 100 years, 1 in 10 of the best writers in the world have been Americans. In light of how many other countries there are in the world, it suddenly seems kind of greedy of us to think we should win, you know, every time. You see, even if Mr. Engdahl needs to grasp the fact that the U.S. is a big honking place with diverse voices, the U.S. needs to grasp the fact that the world is a big honking place with even more diverse voices. But that's the problem with the U.S. We do have a tendency to stomp around in our big boots, eager to shout "We're #1!" at every turn as though every aspect of life were some other category in the Olympics. Honestly, it's no wonder we piss some people off.
Who are the living Amercan writers whose names are most often bandied about whenever the Nobels roll around each year? Updike, Roth, Pynchon, DeLillo, and, when she's lucky enough to have the list-makers remember her, Oates. Personally, Joyce Carol Oates is the only one of the five I think flat-out deserves to win it - maybe Roth in a slow year - but so long as she remains healthy, I'm content to let it wait a few years. Perhaps then she could have a lovely Doris Lessing moment with it and basically tell the notifiers, "Get off my lawn!"
In the wake of all the Nobel kerfufflery, articles started popping up like David Kipen's "The Best Foreign Books You've Never Heard Of," which lists books by 13 different writers. I guess we need to be educated now. And perhaps we do, but maybe not from such lists. Carlos Fuentes? Haruki Murakami? Naguib Mahfouz? I've heard of those people. (I've heard of all but two on the list.) I've read almost all those people. I even wrote the comprehensive guide to all of Naguib Mahfouz's work for Doubleday back when Jacqueline Onassis was his editor there. And I'll bet a lot of other Americans have read those same books.
So let's see if I've got this all straight: Mr. Engdahl is just as narrow-minded as those he accuses of being so, Americans can be too self-involved plus annoying and they think they deserve to win at everything every time, other people can be annoyingly arrogant about the supposed provincialism of Americans, and, oh yeah, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio won this year and I can finally spell his name without double-checking.
Bottom line: Mr. Engdahl is prejudiced but the U.S. doesn't need to be so insufferably proud all the time. (Now there's an idea for a book: Mr. Engdahl as Mr. Darcy with the U.S. cast as Miss Elizabeth Bennet.)
OK, time to wrap this up.
QUESTION OF THE DAY: WHAT DO YOU THINK OF ALL THIS OR ANYTHING ELSE?
Be well. Don't forget to write.