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.