Saturday, October 4, 2008

Adam Kirsch on American Literature and the Nobel Prize

To generate interest and controversy, the Nobel Academy's secretary general Horace Engdahl slammed the state of American writing, making the charge that American writers are "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture," and that "Europe still is the center of the literary world ... not the United States." He's also said, "The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature... That ignorance is restraining."

Okay, first of all, let's take a look at the Ladbrokes odds for Nobel contenders. These are never accurate (I wish I could go back to last year to find out if Doris Lessing even appeared on it), but let's just see which American names are on there.

Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, John Updike, Marge Piercy, Maya Angelou, E.L. Doctorow, Mary Gordon, Paul Auster, William H. Gass, Bob Dylan

So let's keep these writers in mind as we consider Adam Kirsch's response to Engdahl, which was basically "Europeans don't get America," but more specifically consists of four points:
  1. America is the victim of European condescension: "When Engdahl accuses American writers of being raw and backward, of not being up-to-date on the latest developments in Paris or Berlin, he is repeating a stereotype that goes back practically to the Revolutionary War. [Only to the Revolutionary War?]... Ironically, though, while Engdahl decries American provincialism today, for most of the Nobel's history, it was exactly its "backwardness" that the Nobel committee most valued in American literature... Such writers [Pearl S. Buck, John Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis] reflected back to Europe just the image of America they wanted to see: earnest, crude, anti-intellectual."

  2. America is the victim of European jealousy: "To judge by the Nobel roster, you would think that the last three decades have been a time of American cultural drought rather than the era when American culture and language conquered the globe. But that, of course, is exactly the problem for the Swedes. As long as America could still be regarded as Europe's backwater—as long as a poet like T.S. Eliot had to leave America for England in order to become famous enough to win the Nobel—it was easy to give American literature the occasional pat on the head. But now that the situation is reversed, and it is Europe that looks culturally, economically, and politically dependent on the United States, European pride can be assuaged only by pretending that American literature doesn't exist."

  3. America is the victim of European anti-Americanism: "What does distinguish the Nobel Committee's favorites, however, is a pronounced anti-Americanism." Kirsch points to Pinter's acceptance speech and an interview with Doris Lessing where she downplayed the exceptionalism of 9/11.

  4. America is the victim of European ignorance because we do translate and, um, think about non-American writers, or at least Philip Roth has: "to prove the bad faith of Engdahl's recent criticisms of American literature, all you have to do is mention a single name: Philip Roth. Engdahl accuses Americans of not "participating in the big dialogue of literature," but no American writer has been more cosmopolitan than Roth. As editor of Penguin's "Writers From the Other Europe" series, he was responsible for introducing many of Eastern Europe's great writers to America, from Danilo Kiš to Witold Gombrowicz; his 2001 nonfiction book Shop Talk includes interviews with Milan Kundera, Ivan Klima, and Primo Levi. In his own fiction, too, Roth has been as adventurously Postmodern as Calvino while also making room for the kind of detailed realism that has long been a strength of American literature. Unless and until Roth gets the Nobel Prize, there's no reason for Americans to pay attention to any insults from the Swedes."
Okeydokey. I think there is a right way to engage this question (whether Europeans understand American literature), but Kirsch doesn't come close to following it. Instead, he largely fulfills precisely those characteristics Engdahl pointed to as disqualifications for Nobel consideration: insularity and ignorance.

First things first, let's just try to be accurate: Kirsch calls out the Nobel Academy for awarding the prize to Pearl S. Buck, who he says is "almost [a] folk writer, using a naively realist style to dramatize the struggles of the common man." You mean like Mark Twain? Anyway, Kirsch argues that this roughness and simplicity was awarded because Europeans liked the idea of a rough and simple America they could "pat on the head." Is he aware that the very book he cites as an example of this "earnest, crude, anti-intellectual"—The Good Earth—is set in China, and it was this cosmopolitan-ness that the Committee applauded in their citation, calling out "her mission as interpreter to the West of the nature and being of China... [and] the notable works which pave the way to a human sympathy passing over widely separated racial boundaries and for the studies of human ideals which are a great and living art of portraiture... opening a faraway and foreign world to deeper human insight and sympathy within our Western sphere - a grand and difficult task, requiring all your idealism and greatheartedness to fulfil as you have done." Now, The Good Earth may not be a Borgesian mindbender, but what the Swedes thought of it certainly doesn't even resemble Kirsch's description of her work.

Or how about Eugene O'Neill, whom Kirsch fails to mention entirely? Is O'Neill, who won the award in 1936 (two years before Buck and six years after Lewis), an example of American anti-intellectualism? Certainly there are some rough-hewn characters in his work (although usually those rough characters are shown to be quite complex), but one wouldn't get that from their lavish praise.

Okay, now how about Sinclair Lewis? Certainly, the Academy cited his deep connection to the "prairie," but here are two comments, one the first sentence of the award presentation speech, which shows that the Academy was hardly thinking of him as just a dumb American: "This year's winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature is a native of a part of America which for a long time has had Swedish contacts... To be sure, the town is first and foremost American, but it could, as a spiritual milieu, be situated just as well in Europe." This is not how I would, if I were a European, denigrate America. Or how about John Steinbeck: "You are not a stranger to the Swedish public any more than to that of your own country and of the whole world. With your most distinctive works you have become a teacher of good will and charity, a defender of human values, which can well be said to correspond to the proper idea of the Nobel Prize."

Well, if the Academy hasn't even been that condescending to the American writers whom Kirsch condescends to, can we really claim that their choices have been in the service of maintaining an image of America as a backwater? This notion becomes even more preposterous once you think of the other Americans who have been given the award: Bellow, Morrison, Hemingway, Faulkner, Eliot. Kirsch makes a sniping comment about Morrison ("whose critical reputation in America is by no means secure"—WTFF?) but he shuffles around the other choices by saying that, in the immediate post-war years, "the Nobel Committee allowed that America might produce more sophisticated writers."

Well, let's say this is true—at a certain point in the 20th Century, Europeans were willing to accept that America produced sophisticated people. Let's leave aside the fact that Eliot, Faulkner and Hemingway, like Steinbeck and Buck, "fit all too comfortably on junior-high-school reading lists." Let's even leave aside the fact that Faulkner, Bellow and most of all Hemingway wrote many works which could easily promote the image of America as a cultural backwater (Nick Adams stories aren't very cosmopolitan and neither, for that matter, is Yoknapatawpha County). We'll ignore both those facts, even if they destroy the distinctions Kirsch is making between the "sophisticated" writers that the Academy grudgingly awarded, and the backward writers awarded that the Academy enthusiastically awarded.

If we ignore those facts, Kirsch can argue that, at this single point in the century, Europeans were re-appraising America as a cultural producer on par with themselves. But doing so severely damages the notion that Europeans are compelled to withhold awards from Americans because they are jealous of America. The fact is that it was precisely at this point—immediately post-WWII—that American culture rushed in to overwhelm Europe and, by Kirsch's logic, should have promoted a massive wave of reactionary self-congratulation among the European elite. If Europeans pointedly overlook Americans at those times when they are jealous of US hegemony, then why did three receive Nobels between 1948 and 1954?

Why, we must ask, does Kirsch ignore these basic facts? Because he needs to construct the European view of American literature in such a way that it becomes the mirror image of Kirsch's triumphalist, exceedingly neoconservative view.

This is, I think, a fair approximation of how Kirsch thinks about American literature: American mass culture, American politics, American technology, American economy, etc. are dominant in the world. Therefore, a literature which takes on these things (as American literature does) is the world's dominant literature. QED.

The problem with this is that saying we're the best because we think about big stuff, all of which happens to be our stuff, doesn't really address the charge of insularity. If we think about big themes but all of the examples happen to be American, we're still not looking at the big picture. If we talk about big issues but we only talk to Americans, we're not really addressing that big an audience. 

America has long juggled together two ideas: that we are exceptional, and that we are the model for the rest of the world. It's rather like the idea that we are all made in God's image, but God is still the only god. It's not quite a paradox, but it is difficult to emphasize both ideas equally. Sometimes we're happier to be unique; other times, we'd rather be trying to make everyone fit our image. Kirsch can't really decide which America he prefers—the America that's great because of its exceptionalism, or the America that's great because it's conquered the world and is everywhere. Either America should be kicking ass every year in the Nobel Prizes, or it should look down on them (because who is Europe to bestow awards on us?). It should be no surprise that Kirsch oscillates irregularly between these two positions throughout his diatribe.

Look, the Nobel Committee has not been good at catching all the best writers, and has often stumbled, choosing writers who would later be rightly forgotten. Somewhere around the internet there is an alternate Nobel list which makes the real list look very silly; it simply points out who could have received the award in the years when it was given to a nobody (e.g. instead of Karl Gjellerup and Henrik Pontoppidan in 1917, maybe Joseph Conrad). But the Nobel Committee's ineptitude has only really demonstrated a prejudice on behalf of Scandinavia; it has ignored great writers from everywhere else almost equally.

I think Europeans don't understand the American dialectic I just described. But the writers they have awarded so far are among our best at synthesizing both sides of American identity. The writers mentioned above who are in consideration for the Nobel are fairly bad at making this synthesis. Roth, DeLillo and Pynchon in particular have trouble balancing these two ideas. And Adam Kirsch, like many American critics, is just as bad in understanding that this balance is necessary to be a great American writer—one who can speak to the world as an American representative and a world figure. It might even be necessary to win a Nobel.

More: A NYT article basically repeats Kirsch's arguments, although it demonstrates an even greater resentment of the political leanings of the Nobel Committee, even expressing frustration with the fact that the Committee often awards writers who stand up to their home country's repressive regime (the examples given are Pamuk and Coetzee). McGrath, the author, also bristles at what he sees as a "drift not just to the left but away from the conventions of narrative realism. This may be what Mr. Engdahl, himself a post-structuralist literary critic, was referring to when he complained about 'trends in mass culture' dragging down American literature: we tend to write, for the most part, about the world we live in, without resort to the devices of myth or fable or allegory, all of which are popular in Stockholm these days."

I'm glad Mr. McGrath cares so much about the fate of realism, but is that really the term that best fits Roth and DeLillo? Is Underworld a work of American realism in the same way that, say, Theodore Dreiser is? Can you imagine for a second a world that could contain both Dreiser's and DeLillo's characters? I can't. Or how about Roth, whose latest novel is narrated from beyond the grave (or now, as Roth has apparently told Leonard Lopate, from under intense sedatives)? And just what is this about Americans preferring to avoid allegory? Wasn't one of Roth's recent books titled Everyman? WTF? And as for Updike and Oates, isn't it kind of silly to confine writers of such diverse talents to being described as "realists?" I personally think there is quite a lot of either's work that would be justifiably classified as fables or allegories.

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