Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Nobel Prize for Literature

I initially had a suspicion that Horace Engdahl's comments about American insularity (which I wrote about a few days ago) were intended to provoke a firestorm of commentary and attention in the U.S. so that the eventual choice—which would be an American or a writer very familiar to Americans—would actually excite or interest more than a few people in this country.

I was very wrong.

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio has won the 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature, and I don't think he can be called a writer familiar to American audiences.

After reading Scott McLemee's round-up of some very intelligent critics' takes on the matter, I feel more strongly about what I said before: I think Engdahl's reaction was really addressing the crude exceptionalism that Adam Kirsch displayed in his response—that somehow because we dominate the world in so many things, when our writers tackle America—the American myth, the American heritage, American history, American culture—and try to square it off to fit in their ambitious books, they are being very insular. And when you look at the books and writers that get this kind of recognition—The Corrections, Underworld, Infinite Jest, American Pastoral—these are all books which are trying to contain or make sense of or just keep up with America. If they claim broader application for their books, it is only because their theories and depictions are applicable in America first.

I suppose the same can be said of Toni Morrison, who of course got a Nobel, but I think the point remains: this isn't about the number of translations our country produces a year, but about this persistent sense that if we are thinking about broad American themes, then we automatically get credit for thinking about issues that affect the whole world. In many cases this is even true, but not automatically, and where it is true, I think it needs to be shown more.


Walton Muyumba said...

After checking out your two posts on the Nobel Prize, I think that your critique of Kirsch is really smart.

But I think that Morrison was recognized because her novels (especially in exceptional works like Song of Solomon and Beloved, but also in very good novels like Sula, Jazz, and, the post-Nobel, Paradise) interrogate and illustrate the story of the Black Atlantic experience.

Morrison not only tells the oft marginalized narrative of African American experience, she does so through a merger of narrative techniques that suggest she is aware of novelistic tradition internationally, domestically, and in relation to African American oral traditions.

She not just telling American stories, she's telling them in the context of the history of Western modernity.

As much as I love Roth and DeLillo, their works rarely look outward, connecting the American narrative to the international circumstance. When they do place their narratives in the international context, (Operation Shylock and Mao II, for example) both writers mark their greatness.

By the standards that the Nobel committee chair offers, it is probably true that the important white American authors are insular. It don't think that this notion should be the final judgement however, Roth is as significant as Naipaul, DeLillo is as startling and smart as Coetzee.

Maybe we, American readers and critics, should spend more time promoting strong writers who explore the American story in relation to larger human contexts, possibly artists like Louise Erdrich, Sandra Cisneros, John Edgar Wideman, Yusef Komunyakaa.

What do you think?

Andrew Seal said...

Walton, you're absolutely right about Morrison, and you summarize her strengths very eloquently. I was thinking primarily of The Bluest Eye, which I would argue is less about the Black Atlantic experience and is less influenced by international traditions. This was ignorant of me, though, to characterize her by that one novel.

As for your last question, I absolutely agree--we should be sending writers like Junot Díaz or Sherman Alexie or Aleksandar Hemon out to Europe as representatives of American literature. I think it's incredibly disappointing (but very predictable) that American critics are reading "insularity" as basically "hickishness," because that means they can only respond by saying "our literature's better than yours" to Europe, which completely misses the point.

Francesco said...

All Nobel Laureates in Literature