Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Americans, and the Nobel Prize for Lit (Part Two)

(cont'd from last post)

"The critical establishment was split on the award to Toni Morrison, but the Nobel Academy knew precisely what it was doing when it cited her “visionary force, [which] gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” " -- Nazaryan

The quote within the above quote is only part of the story of what makes (or, more precisely, what can make) for a great body of work. Yes, Morrison doesn't flinch when tackling her ambitious material. But, again, this is a literary prize, not a politically correct tour of the immoral and criminal forces in America's past. But of course Salon is going to leap on this. Nazaryan's article is notable for its jejune thesis and lit-absent focus.

"You struggle through “Beloved,” but you reach an understanding you didn’t have before." -- Nazaryan

Yes. The struggle and the understanding: it's too bad Morrison's writing doesn't match her compassion.

"Can you honestly say that about Oates’ “We Were the Mulvaneys”?" -- Nazaryan

I haven't read it, but I wasn't aware that this single book was the cause of forty years of previous neglect of the Nobel towards American writing.

"Of the Americans thought to be on the long list, only Pynchon has written a big novel of big ideas — but it’s been 38 years since “Gravity’s Rainbow,” " -- Nazaryan

If the commitee were contemporarily consistent, this should boost Pynchon's chances. Actually, Pynchon's attitude towards his native land should warm the Nobel panel, and it's no surprise the odds on Pynchon are the shortest of any of this year's American roster. But I think the reason Pynchon has been overlooked for the award since the 70s is quite simple. They probably figure, and quite rightly, that Pynchon would embarass them by not showing. The Swedes may hate American culture, but I wouldn't doubt that even they watched Marlon Brando's stand-in at the Academy Awards many moons ago.

But now we get to the heart of the darkness. Notice that Nazaryan can't form his own argument, but has to lean heavily on David Foster Wallace:

"Four years after Morrison won the Nobel, David Foster Wallace predicted the current rut in which our literature finds itself in a New York Observer evisceration of John Updike’s “Toward the End of Time.” Though he took particular issue with Updike’s autumnal output, Wallace parceled blame to all of the Great Male Narcissists, with their hermetic concerns and insular little fictions. The following is Wallace’s estimation of Updike, but it could just as easily be said about anyone else in the postwar American pantheon: “The very world around them, as beautifully as they see and describe it, seems to exist for them only insofar as it evokes impressions and associations and emotions inside the self.”" -- Nazaryan

I'd read the Wallace denunciation some time ago. It has a degree of merit, but the trouble is that in aceing the frustrating scope of much fiction of the last forty years, it leaves out much else and misunderstands the greater concerns and ambitions of those authors.

Literature is supposed to hold up a mirror, not just in front of the supposedly narcissistic author/narrator, but for the reader and to society writ large. If Updike's protagonists can't see past their noses (or dicks), did it ever occur to Wallace (or Engdahl or Nazaryan) that Updike is making a serious point about Boomer selfishness and entitlement, about insularity and obsession? Even bringing up global misery in acknowledgement would serve to briefly trade in the microscope for the telescope, thereby breaking the pond-gaze dream.

"Our great writers choose this self-enforced isolation. Worse yet, they have inculcated younger generations of American novelists with the write-what-you-know mantra through their direct and indirect influence on creative programs. Go small, writing students are urged, and stay interior." -- Nazaryan

Now this is either disingenuous or naive. It's also dead wrong. First, Nazaryan calls these writers "great". How does that help his argument? Second, and I can't believe I'm defending creative writing programs, there's a lot of wisdom in writing about what one knows. O'Connor and Faulkner stuck to the South, Hemingway carried his persona around with him no matter what the subject. And two of those "claustophobic" writers won the Nobel. Especially for writing students just getting their feet wet, it's a good idea to not come out of the gate with a one thousand page techno-thriller-fantasy-romance anchor about the gritty realities of a Kashmir teen seeking refuge throughout Continental Europe while participating in local protests, trying to avoid being kidnapped by mysterious plutocrats, taking a sidetrip to Tibet for an ambiguous encounter with a Mahayana adept, and agonizing over the economic lures and spiritual dilemmas of selling Russian weapons to Iranian proxies, not to mention impregnating a Chinese student in Poland during a spring thaw where chemically-laden birds circle the docks in a repeating symbolic gift for the amazed protagonist.

That can all wait for the second book, at which point the creative writing programs can no longer be blamed. Of course, if career advancement is the only goal, as it is for so many, teachers-writers-prize dispensers-job procurers will be aped no matter what the prevailing aesthetic. In Canada, at least, the novelistic equivalent of the scene that Nazaryan depicts is quite different. A lot of multicultural nods and entanglements, though (often) not a lot of depth or enlightenment or energetic writing.

"Avoid inhabiting the lives of those unlike you — never dream of doing what William Styron did in “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” putting himself inside the impregnable skin of a Southern slave. Avoid, too, making the kinds of vatic pronouncements about Truth and Beauty that enticed all those 19th-century blowhards." -- Nazaryan

Just because an author inhabits the skin of another race or sex or species or inanimate object doesn't make this a daring success. One still has to be sold on the pronouncements, the relationships, the conclusions, and it has to again (and often) be said, the writing. I haven't read any of Styron, but I have read enough "progressive" lit to know that that approach is damnably difficult to pull off. As for the "vatic pronouncements about Truth and Beauty", I don't know what he's talking about. There are many American authors detailing the "big stuff" in their works.

Here, it would be appropriate to switch things up a bit. Why are American poets neglected in Nazaryan's article? Robert Lowell kicked off in 1977, but his greatest work was done by 1962. Transatlantic, steeped in European history, contemporary, politically engaged, Lowell is often stupidly pegged as a confessional, as if he had no more scope than an Olds (Sharon, not the car Nazaryan previously disparaged). He should have been a slam dunk for the award in his lifetime, but of course the panel who couldn't salute James Joyce knows a thing or two about merit. (That damn Irishman, picking scabs off that tiny island. What can a slum garreteer in Paris possibly enjoy from such a puny focus?)

The rest of the article is high-toned boilerplate, sermonizing vagaries with all the right adjectives. But I'll just note two snippets that caught my eye (one of them up-text):

"What relevance does our solipsism have to a reader in Bombay? For that matter, what relevance does it have in Brooklyn, N.Y.?"


"And lastly, the one word that seems most elusive to our writers today, so much so that I fear we’ve become afraid of it: universal." -- Nazaryan

What does universal mean, here? That the favoured Euros create a tale wherein a disenfranchised minority crosses a border, is subjected to the indifferent or menacing fates of a political elite the protagonist can't understand or defeat, which then gives lease for the author to vent or prophesy from an elevated third-person stoop on Truth and Beauty? And isn't that just as conformist as any narcissistic moaning in a small room? And what makes those authors automatically exempt from charges of narcissism? The Lebanese-Canadian Rawi Hage wrote an excellent novel based on his boyhood experiences in his blighted homeland, but how many Nobel Laureates wrote from the study, from historical and folkloric knowledge, the same as any American removed from the "action"? Some, if not most of them, are steeped in conscience, and are sincere. Last year's winner comes to mind. But they're writing from a protected position, and are espousing points of view (many of them) which have been accepted now for decades. Important? Often. Transgressive and daring? Not so much, unless you're talking about aesthetics. But aesthetics are political, too.

The argument breaks down, though, fundamentally. Roth, used as a punching bag in the piece (and its related quotes) because he's often cited as the most deserving American yet to win the Nobel, was talking deftly and intelligently about class differences and hatred as far back as Goodbye, Columbus. And the war of the sexes isn't universal? Other authors' narratives have spanned (for example) California to Indiana to New York in one work, a more complex socio-economic reality than books about poor maids in Jamaica brutalized by men, the women then travelling to England to become poor maids brutalized by men.

Click on the Lit Nobel winners of the past ten years or so, and note how the plaudits are framed. You'd think they were winning the awards for sociology exams.

P.S. , and edit:

I forgot to mention that Nazaryan is a Russian emigre teacher living in New York who is publishing his first novel about a Russian emigre in New York. But perhaps this is just an Oulipian experiment, the straightjacket he's putting himself in (perhaps?) an ironic comment on narcissism. Or is anything universal just because you've crossed an ocean by plane?

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