Monday, October 03, 2011

American Writers - too insular?

Ed here: I don't agree with everything Mr. Nazaryan says here but I do take his point about the insularity and narcissism of American literary writers. My agreement may simple be due to my age. When I was growing up literary writers such as Theodore Dreiser and James T. Farrell and John Dos Passos and John Steinbeck and Nelson Algren were still read and mainstream writers such as John O'Hara and Budd Schulberg and Jerome Weidman and (early) Herman Wouk were on the bestseller lists. These were writers whose works celebrated and critiqued the nation in addition to telling personal stories. For all intents and purposes they are forgotten and unread today. I think they disappeared after Formalism began to infect various college writing workshops. I remember a professor ridiculing Dreiser and calling him "an readable hack." Implicit in Mr. Nazaryan's piece is the question of Formalism's influence.

MONDAY, OCT 3, 2011 12:04 PM CDT
Why American novelists don't deserve the Nobel Prize
An American hasn't won in 20 years. The Academy finds our writers insular and self-involved -- and they're right

America wants a Nobel Prize in literature. America demands it! America doesn’t understand why those superannuated Swedes haven’t given one to an American since Toni Morrison in 1993. America wonders what they’re waiting for with Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon. America wonders how you say “clueless” in Swedish.

Okay, enough. But the 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.”

Boy, were we upset. Over at Slate, Adam Kirsch penned a scathing essay declaring that “the Nobel committee has no clue about American literature,” arguing that Philip Roth should have won the prize. New Yorker editor David Remnick said, “You would think that the permanent secretary of an academy that pretends to wisdom but has historically overlooked Proust, Joyce and Nabokov, to name just a few non-Nobelists, would spare us the categorical lecture.” He added John Updike (then living) and Don DeLillo to the mix of worthy laureates.

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.”

That only fed the vitriol directed at Stockholm, 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.

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Todd Mason said...

On the FictionMags list, this has unsurprisingly generated a little discussion, where some spirited defense of the contributions of folks ranging from Philip Roth to Karen Joy Fowler were cited, and I'm going to go ahead and suggest that given that even such clowns as Bret Easton Ellis and William Vollmann attempt social critique, that the notion of a cloistered bunch of navel-pokers is a gross overstatement, when we consider actually talented folks ranging from Michael Chabon to Bobbie Ann Mason, Ellen Gilchrist to William Kotzwinkle, Philip Roth to Karen Joy Fowler to Ed Gorman, among our literary lions of various stripes, I suspect we'll find considerably less airlessness than we can find if we pick and choose for that.

Richard S. Wheeler said...

American literary fiction is dessicated. American commercial fiction is often lively and rich and better written than the literary variety. The Nobel secretary's observation is quite correct as it pertains to literary fiction. I remember one of our finest American reviewers, Jonathan Yardley, lamenting a few years ago that a certain literary novel read like yet another MFA Creative Writing thesis about a dysfunctional family.

Todd Mason said...

Yep. You can certainly find those, just as you can find jejune and inept writing in every sort of category one wants shove fiction into...and too much of that gets published, and some of it is widely-read. And even praised by people who might know better, or who value some small virtue in the work in question. And, of course, de gustibus.