Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Americans, and the Nobel Prize for Lit


As literary prizes, with their attendant controversies, go, I've always been more interested in the Nobel than in our national, annual bluster-in-beer-mug versions. The politics are messier, the judgements more fascinating, the aesthetic conclusions more grandiose and self-serving (if that's possible).

Here's most of the record, from Alexander Nazaryan at Salon (itself a one-note ideological internet rag), with my responses.

"[T]he literature Nobel will be announced this Thursday and if an American doesn’t win yet again, there will be the usual entitled whining — the sound of which has been especially piercing since 2008, when Nobel Academy permanent secretary Horace Engdahl deemed American fiction “too isolated, too insular” and declared Europe “the centre of the literary world.” --Nazaryan

Nazaryan uses Engdahl's quote as a springboard for identical views. But let's first investigate Engdahl. The permanent secretary for the literary prize with the biggest cachet (though no longer with the biggest cash) not only misrepresents American literature (however much of it he -- and by extension, the 16 member panel -- reads), he also flunked Contemporary History 101. Here's Engdahl, in words Nazaryan fails to quote:

"Very many authors who have their roots in other countries work in Europe, because it is only here where you can be left alone and write, without being beaten to death."

Got that? In America, as the Soviet media were and are fond of reporting -- in eras of Andropov or Putin, Gorbachev or Brezhnev -- not only are the citizenry, urban or rural, fearful dupes locked in apartments constantly obsessing over impending criminal surges while trying to grow tomato plants through the light from cracked windows, the thugs have successfully breached the walls. Or, as the more balanced "political" section of Salon would no doubt update it, the stooges of the oligarchy/new world order.

Back to Nazaryan. He cedes several points to those American publishers, writers, and critics who rightly took Engdahl to task for his incredibly presumptuous views.

"It’s true that the Academy, like any body of judges, has made some ill-informed decisions. And they’ve not done themselves any favors with some George W. Bush-era selections that plainly had more to do with politics than literature.

In 2005, British playwright Harold Pinter fulminated during his Nobel lecture about “the crimes of the United States” with all the embarrassing authority of a college freshman who just discovered Howard Zinn. In 2007, the prize was given to South African novelist Doris Lessing, who called 9/11 “neither as terrible nor extraordinary as [Americans] think.” " -- Nazaryan

Those Bush-era decisions weren't anomalous. The Nobel lit commitee has always viewed the prize through an ideological prism: Eurocentric, and, in the last forty years, multicultural. Now there's nothing inherently wrong with this approach. But be up front about it. The Nobel for scribes is a stamp for Euro-centred cross-culture. Even this subset of a subset, though, (World Prize?) is contaminated. I'll get to that after going through the rest of the body of quotation.

"That only fed the vitriol directed at Stockholm, --" -- Nazaryan

A credit. Certainly no Stockholm Syndrome, then.

"obscuring a valid point about American letters: We’ve become an Oldsmobile in a world yearning for a Prius. Our paint is flaking. Nobody wants our clunkers." -- Nazaryan

First off, poor analogy. Today's Prius will be tomorrow's whole 'nother form, let alone genre. Worthy literature is about the long haul. Second, it's wrong. Many American authors are readily translated into Euro languages. It's true that Americans do a piss-poor job of seeking out and reversing the transaction, but the legacy of European culture doesn't automatically equal Oxford dons' noses scoring ceiling-grooves and painterly Parisian bohemians scoffing at the boorish American man of letters.

"Stockholm has been trying to tell us this for a long while, and we would do well to listen." -- Nazaryan

What does this even mean? That American authors should shape and alter their visions to accord with Nobel commitee whims and dictates?

"Between 1950 and 1959, every one of the 10 Nobel winners was a European male. Between 2000 and 2009, three women won the prize, as well as five non-Europeans. They have given it to Caribbean poets and Chinese absurdists. An American-born male hasn’t won since John Steinbeck in 1962. The last white American male to win the prize was Joseph Brodsky in 1987 — and though he wrote in English, his poetic training and intellectual sensibility are purely those of the Soviet √©migr√© he was. Saul Bellow was born in Canada." -- Nazaryan

Like an accomplished sophist, an ideological hack, Nazaryan throws up this data without context or elaboration, then shifts tack so that the lack of winners somehow becomes a self-evident damnation. There is no argument here. Americans have been virtually shut out because of ideological -- and yes, baldly political reasons, certainly not aesthetic, moral, or (to directly counter the commitee's claims) comprehensive ones. (And Bellow, though born in Canada, was thoroughly American, having moved there at seven, and possessing the sensibility and peculiar concerns of an American.)

"But if we don’t win yet again, we are at fault. America needs an Obama des letters, a writer for the 21st century, not the 20th — or even the 19th." -- Nazaryan

I earlier stated that Nazaryan obviously flunked History 101. But he also seems to get the bulk of his current affairs information from the mag he's writing for.

Yes, American authors need to aspire to their teleprompter-regurgitating leader (who doesn't pen the words on the scroll, who needs ghost-writers for his aubiography, whose contribution to putative literature were two poems in an undergrad mimeo, and whose policies vis-a-vis the hated Bush II have only been notable for an entrenchment then amplification of the status quo). Hey, but he sure talks smooth, awright!

"One who is not stuck in the Cold War" -- Nazaryan

Are American authors to be blamed for the glacial, reactionary pace of the commitee's judgements? And isn't that supremely ironic in light of this quote? Pinter's and Lessing's anti-Americanism played a part in their wins as even Nazaryan states, but they also copped the award for a body of work which scaled the uppermost Alps forty or more years ago. And at that time .... well, there was a Cold War.

"or the gun-slinging West" -- Nazaryan

Other than Cormac McCarthy's highly-regarded Western, the genre has been deader'n a rattler lacerated by a cactus in a cyclone. Or is Nazaryan's fixation with Bush reappearing?

"or the bygone Jewish precincts of Newark" -- Nazaryan

Yes, because that's all Roth writes about. And because mono-racial and tightly geographic novels can't transcend their "narrow" confines.

(Part Two, and final, tomorrow.)

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