Monday, October 27, 2008

Nominee for Inclusion in a New Dunciad

Sam Tanenhaus.

Behind those hyperlinked letters above, you will find a clinic in how to take an ill-chosen metaphor and belabor it into a limp mass of muddled logic and lusterless images. Thank you, Sam Tanenhaus.

Fortunately, he drops the metaphor by the second page, but the damage is already done. I think what happened is that he doesn't actually like Widows that much—who calls a book they like "predictably ingenious? Maybe he doesn't even like Witches much either, But Tanenhaus has a canyon-sized man-crush on Updike, so he wants to give him a superlative review, but therefore needs to tie the works that he likes—i.e. the things he talks about first—to the Eastwick books, making this awkward and forced metaphor of wizardry necessary.

But this is no excuse—in fact, it's an aggravation of the inherent awfulness of the original sin—ham-handed, clod-footed writing.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

From The Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy

It was as if these men and boys had suddenly dived into past ages, and fetched therefrom an hour and deed which had before been familiar with this spot. The ashes of the original British pyre which blazed from that summit lay fresh and undisturbed in the barrow beneath their tread. The flames from funeral piles long ago kindled there had shone down upon the lowlands as these were shining now. Festival fires to Thor and Woden had followed on the same ground and duly had their day. Indeed, it is pretty well known that such blazes as this the heathmen were now enjoying are rather the lineal descendants from jumbled Druidical rites and Saxon ceremonies than the invention of popular feeling about Gunpowder Plot.

Moreover to light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of man when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout Nature. It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against that fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, Let there be light.

The brilliant lights and sooty shades which struggled upon the skin and clothes of the persons standing round caused their lineaments and general contours to be drawn with Dureresque vigour and dash. Yet the permanent moral expression of each face it was impossible to discover, for as the nimble flames towered, nodded, and swooped through the surrounding air, the blots of shade and flakes of light upon the countenances of the group changed shape and position endlessly. All was unstable; quivering as leaves, evanescent as lightning. Shadowy eye-sockets, deep as those of a death's head, suddenly turned into pits of lustre: a lantern-jaw was cavernous, then it was shining; wrinkles were emphasized to ravines, or obliterated entirely by a changed ray. Nostrils were dark wells; sinews in old necks were gilt mouldings; things with no particular polish on them were glazed; bright objects, such as the tip of a furze-hook one of the men carried, were as glass; eyeballs glowed like little lanterns. Those whom Nature had depicted as merely quaint became grotesque, the grotesque became preternatural; for all was in extremity.

Hence it may be that the face of an old man, who had like others been called to the heights by the rising flames, was not really the mere nose and chin that it appeared to be, but an appreciable quantity of human countenance. He stood complacently sunning himself in the heat. With a speaker, or stake, he tossed the outlying scraps of fuel into the conflagration, looking at the midst of the pile, occasionally lifting his eyes to measure the height of the flame, or to follow the great sparks which rose with it and sailed away into darkness.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A New Dunciad

The Dunciad, by Alexander Pope: Wikipedia entry; full text (of the A edition)

Nominee for inclusion in a New Dunciad: Lee Siegel

"A brain of feathers, and a heart of lead." - Book II, line 28 in the version cited above

dunciad alexander pope

[Nomination for inclusion in a New Dunciad may be a recurring feature. There is just such a variety of hard-headed stupidity on the internet, even among people writing about literature.]

A Pact, by Ezra Pound

I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman—
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root—
Let there be commerce between us.


Pound's poem would make an interesting amendment to Bloom's anxiety-of-influence system, or at the very least an interesting response. Studying the point at which the young poet's relationship to her forerunners turns from the purely agonistic to something more appreciative, at the very least, if not amicable. At what point is a poet able to say "I am old enough now to make friends"? What changes are then effected in that poet's work? Does this cease the work of "misreading," or is it only carried on under new terms? These are questions that require concrete application to be useful, but it seems to me that they might be fruitful questions to ask.

Friday, October 10, 2008

American Conservatism and Anti-Intellectualism: A Response to David Brooks

You might forgive David Brooks for thinking that the history of American conservatism started with William F. Buckley. In today's column, he begins,
Modern conservatism began as a movement of dissident intellectuals. Richard Weaver wrote a book called, “Ideas Have Consequences.” Russell Kirk placed Edmund Burke in an American context. William F. Buckley famously said he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard. But he didn’t believe those were the only two options. His entire life was a celebration of urbane values, sophistication and the rigorous and constant application of intellect.
Yes, he qualifies his history with the bland modifier "modern." But the point is, for David Brooks, there is no other conservatism, because, at least in America, there is no intellectual conservatism until Buckley. For David Brooks, conservatism is only vital when it is intellectual—though if you pushed him on what "intellectual" means, I'm not sure he'd have a very solid answer, maybe something like "based on ideas." But if he were self-perceptive, he'd recognize that it means "led by people like me, who write and think, and don't govern."

Which is really the key difference between National Review-brand conservatism and Palin-brand conservatism, not, as Brooks thinks, between an original, pure-hearted conservatism that "disdained the ideas of the liberal professoriate, but... did not disdain the idea of a cultivated mind" and a latter-day post-lapsarian conservatism that threw the intellectual baby out with the liberal bathwater. But the difference isn't temporal—isn't a before and after.

The real story is this, and it's tragic how little of it Brooks or any of his compatriots understand is this:

National Review and these "life of the mind" Burkean conservatives—Kirk, Hart, Brooks, even Buckley—never really ran the Republican Party, and they never really built its governing policy. They were court philosophers, maybe used to attract young conservatives who took the ideas these men generated as the real soul of the Republican Party, but who could be turned into regular old political operatives after awhile. That Brooks reads Reagan's presidency in this fashion: "Ronald Reagan was no intellectual, but he had an earnest faith in ideas and he spent decades working through them" is hilarious, but at the same time very sad, because Brooks wasn't the only person duped by Reagan's supposed warmth toward intellectuals. In a way we all were, liberal and conservative alike, because I think very few people saw how little restraint there was within Republican governance, how utterly reckless its most basic policies were. We allowed ourselves to think that Burke or Hayek or someone had at least something to do with what Republicans intended for the country.

But there has never been a real whisper of Burke or even Hayek in the Republican Party's actual day-to-day operation or in the policies of the Republican presidents in the period Brooks refers to as "modern conservatism." There was never a fall from intellectual grace, when the Republican Party started demonizing the very notion of thinking. The people who wanted to make thinking central to the Republican Party simply never succeeded.

You can say, I suppose, that Barry Goldwater proves me wrong—that at one bright shining moment, intellectual conservatism did control the party. But it seems to me that Goldwater's candidacy never really represented control of the Republican Party. Intellectual conservatives like to look at Goldwater's epic failure in 1964 created the ashes from which a resurgent conservatism rose, and they assume that the conservatism that did triumph in 1968 was made up of those ashes, or at least incorporated those ashes. I think that's completely incorrect—Nixon did not, in any way, fulfill the promise(s) intellectual conservatives saw in Goldwater. And neither did Reagan or Bush I or II.

I think we need to question severely the assumptions that have led us (liberals/progressives) to respond to contemporary conservatism as an ideology, with arguments and theories. There are, of course, "conservative" arguments and theories and philosophies, but I think they bear the same relation to the phenomenon of conservative governance as "nationalist" philosophies and arguments and theories do to the phenomenon of nationalism. To quote Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities, "nationalism has to be understood by aligning it, not with self-consciously held political ideologies, but with the large cultural systems that preceded it, out of which - as well as against which - it came into being."

I can't speak too well to the dynamics or the character of conservatism pre-WWII. However, in the introduction of The Liberal Imagination (1950), Lionel Trilling wrote, "In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition." Supposedly, Buckley and his camp changed that permanently. But looking around at conservatism as it actually exists today, you either have to say that their reign was very brief or that it never occurred. For David Brooks, at least the former preserves some pride.

More: Andrew Sullivan is going through this too, and I feel a lot worse for him than for Brooks, mostly because Brooks's version of the decline and fall of the Republican Party is mostly about how people stopped listening to him. Sullivan simply isn't self-centered like that.
What Rove never realized is that many of us fought hard for intellectual and moral respect for conservatism in college and grad school, only to have our efforts turned into a joke by the crassness of the Party Of Rove. There were only a few self-described conservatives at Harvard when I was there, and I spent a great deal of time losing friends, breaking up dinners, offending professors because I was a) right of center and b) obviously academically serious. And now I'm supposed to defend Sarah Palin? As vice-president? I mean: seriously?
I'm not sure Rove never realized that—it's more likely that "Rove" (meaning basically all top-level Republican strategists since Nixon's '68 campaign) never cared.

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.

Monday, October 6, 2008

From The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

"It is a good lesson—though it may be a hard one—for a man who has dreamed of literary fame, and of making for himself a rank among the world's dignitaries by such means, to step aside out of the narrow circle in which his claims are recognized, and to find how utterly devoid of significance, beyond that circle, is all that he achieves, and all he aims at. I know not that I especially needed the lesson, either in the way of warning or rebuke; but, at any rate, I learned it thoroughly; nor, it gives me pleasure to reflect, did the truth, as it came home to my perception, ever cost me a pang, or require to be thrown off in a sigh."

Norton Anthology: Misc. Great Poems

Ben Jonson, "On My First Sonne":
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sinne was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy,
Seven yeeres tho'wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I loose all father?, now. For why
Will man lament the state he should envie?
To have so soone scap'd worlds, and fleshes rage,
And, if no other miserie, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask'd, say, here doth lye
Ben. Johnson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake, hence-forth all his vowes be such
As what he loves may never like too much.
A heart-breaking work, for sure. For a touch of levity, though, a Dartmouth-related anecdote: You'll notice that Jonson spells his name the way we commonly spell that surname, though not usually his. (The Norton standardizes it to "Jonson," btw.) Well, evidently other people have that trouble and more too: there is an academic legend that I've seen reported in a number of places that Jeff Hart, the long-time adviser to The Dartmouth Review, assigned a paper for his 18th century English class on Samuel Johnson, but received from one student a paper on Ben. The student was relieved to find only two marks on his paper when it was returned: "Wrong Johnson" and "B+." Hart was known in his teaching days as "Easy Jeff."

George Herbert: There are three poems I'd like to share with you, although I am feeling a little lazy and don't want to bother formatting them here, so I'll just link to them: "The Pulley" is a fable in miniature of the way God's will basically has us coming and going—what's amazing about the poem is how it softens this very deterministic view of divine love into a state that seems infinitely better than the alternative—free will. The repeated punning on "rest" is the key to the poem and to the effect.

Both "Jordan" poems reflect on the vanity of artificial beauty, especially as it is cultivated in verse. Some immortal lines there—"Is all good structure in a winding stair?" or "Catching the sense at two removes?" or "Curling with metaphors a plain intention, / Decking the sense, as if it were to sell" or "There is in love a sweetnesse readie penn'd." Clearly a response to Donne's gaudily bruising metaphysicality, Herbert makes the case that intellectualizing one's way to God is a form of temporizing on the way to Him, of setting obstacles (in this case syntactic or semantic obstacles) before oneself in order to hold back from His will a little while yet, as if one were taking a "winding stair" to God. A very astute reading of Donne, and one which translates well to modernism, I think.

Henry Vaughan, from "The World":

I saw Eternity the other night, 
Like a great ring of pure and endless light, 
             All calm, as it was bright ; 
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years 
                     Driv'n by the spheres                                   
Like a vast shadow mov'd ; in which the world 
                     And all her train were hurl'd. 
The doting lover in his quaintest strain 
                     Did there complain ; 
Near him, his lute, his fancy, and his flights,                        
                     Wit's sour delights ; 
With gloves, and knots, the silly snares of pleasure, 
                     Yet his dear treasure,
All scatter'd lay, while he his eyes did pour 
                     Upon a flow'r.

Norton Anthology: John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

This would be a great acceptance speech to deliver if you get a lifetime achievement-type award. From Meditation XIV:
If we consider, not eternity, but perpetuity; not that which had no time to begin in, but which shall outlive time, and be when time shall be no more, what a minute is the life of the durablest creature compared to that! and what a minute is man's life in respect of the sun's, or of a tree? and yet how little of our life is occasion, opportunity to receive good in; and how little of that occasion do we apprehend and lay hold of? How busy and perplexed a cobweb is the happiness of man here, that must be made up with a watchfulness to lay hold upon occasion, which is but a little piece of that which is nothing, time? and yet the best things are nothing without that. Honours, pleasures, possessions, presented to us out of time? in our decrepit and distasted and unapprehensive age, lose their office, and lose their name; they are not honours to us that shall never appear, nor come abroad into the eyes of the people, to receive honour from them who give it; nor pleasures to us, who have lost our sense to taste them; nor possessions to us, who are departing from the possession of them. Youth is their critical day, that judges them, that denominates them, that inanimates and informs them, and makes them honours, and pleasures, and possessions; and when they come in an unapprehensive age, they come as a cordial when the bell rings out, as a pardon when the head is off. We rejoice in the comfort of fire, but does any man cleave to it at midsummer? We are glad of the freshness and coolness of a vault, but does any man keep his Christmas there; or are the pleasures of the spring acceptable in autumn? If happiness be in the season, or in the climate, how much happier then are birds than men, who can change the climate and accompany and enjoy the same season ever.
I find that Donne's Devotions and Emerson's Essays have a great deal in common, even tonally. I might be saying this because I missed a question on a practice GRE asking me to identify a passage from Meditation XVII—I attributed it to Emerson, believing that it fit in very well with the whole "What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel... access to this universal mind..." type of thing from "History". Anyway, this is the passage I missed. See if you find a resemblance too:
all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.
I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Borges was feeling the influence of this passage when he was writing his short story "The Library of Babel."

Norton Anthology: Edmund Spenser, The Shepheardes Calender

I don't care a great deal for Spenser's faux-archaisms, but this work is tremendously fascinating for purely formal reasons (though the poetry is sometimes quite good). Here's why:
When The Shepheardes Calender was published in 1579, each of the twelve eclogues was followed by a "Glosse," which contained explications of difficult or archaic words, together with learned discussions of—and disagreements with—Spenser's ideas, imagery, and poetics. The Glosses are by one "E.K.," whose identity has never been satisfactorily ascertained. Although certain scholars have suggested that E.K. was Spenser himself, it is equally possible that he was a friend.
So in other words, The Shepheardes Calender is a late 16th century Pale Fire. (!)

What makes the reading of it more interesting still is that in addition to the Glosses, you also have the accretion of footnotes from scholars (as in the Norton). And in the case of the Norton Anthology, E.K.'s Glosses and the editors' footnotes often run together and are formatted identically. Talk about challenging the idea of a singular author! And this doesn't even begin to account for the multiple voices that are in the actual body of the text, which is constructed as a series of dialogues among shepherds. It's a fascinating experience just reading the damn thing.

And then there are passages like this:
The vaunted verse a vacant head demaundes,
Ne wont with crabbèd care the Muses dwell.
Unwisely weaves, that takes two webbes in hand.
An excellent online version can be found here.

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.