The Nobel Committee has no clue about American literature.

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Oct. 3 2008 12:10 PM

Nobel Gas

The Swedes have no clue about American literature.

When Saul Bellow learned that he had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1976, he reacted to the news in the only way a great writer can or should: He tried hard not to care. "I'm glad to get it," Bellow admitted, but "I could live without it." This month, as the Swedish Academy prepares for its annual announcement, Bellow's heirs in the top ranks of American literature—Roth, Updike, Pynchon, DeLillo—already know they're going to live without the Nobel Prize. Horace Engdahl, the academy's permanent secretary, made that clear this week when he told the Associated Press that American writers are simply not up to Nobel standards. "The U.S. is too isolated, too insular," Engdahl decreed. "They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining."

It did not take long for American writers to rise to the bait. The Washington Post's Michael Dirda pointed out that it was Engdahl who displayed "an insular attitude towards a very diverse country": It is a bit rich for a citizen of Sweden, whose population of 9 million is about the same as New York City's, to call the United States "isolated." David Remnick noted that the Swedish Academy itself has been guilty of conspicuous ignorance over a very long period: "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 lectures."

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All of these criticisms are, of course, true. But the real scandal of Engdahl's comments is not that they revealed a secret bias on the part of the Swedish Academy. It is that Engdahl made official what has long been obvious to anyone paying attention: The Nobel committee has no clue about American literature. America should respond not by imploring the committee for a fairer hearing but by seceding, once and for all, from the sham that the Nobel Prize for literature has become.

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. It was nearly 200 years ago that Sydney Smith, the English wit, famously wrote in the Edinburgh Review: "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?" 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.

Just look at the kind of American writer the committee has chosen to honor. Pearl Buck, who won the prize in 1938, and John Steinbeck, who won in 1962, are almost folk writers, using a naively realist style to dramatize the struggles of the common man. Their most famous books, The Good Earth and The Grapes of Wrath, fit all too comfortably on junior-high-school reading lists. Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Prize, in 1930, wrote broad satires on American provincialism with nothing formally adventurous about them.

Such writers reflected back to Europe just the image of America they wanted to see: earnest, crude, anti-intellectual. There was a brief moment, after World War II, when the Nobel Committee allowed that America might produce more sophisticated writers. No one on either side of the Atlantic would quarrel with the awards to William Faulkner in 1949 or Ernest Hemingway in 1954. But in the 32 years since Bellow won the Nobel, there has been exactly one American laureate (not counting writers from other countries who became American citizens) *, Toni Morrison, whose critical reputation in America is by no means secure. 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. When Engdahl declares, "You can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world," there is a poignant echo of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard insisting that she is still big, it's the pictures that got smaller.

Nothing gives the lie to Engdahl's claim of European superiority more effectively than a glance at the Nobel Prize winners of the last decade or so. Even Austrians and Italians didn't think Elfriede Jelinek and Dario Fo deserved their prizes; Harold Pinter won the prize about 40 years after his significant work was done. To suggest that these writers are more talented or accomplished than the best Americans of the last 30 years is preposterous.

What does distinguish the Nobel Committee's favorites, however, is a pronounced anti-Americanism. Pinter used the occasion of his Nobel lecture in 2005 to say that "the crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless" and to call for "Bush and Blair [to] be arraigned before the International Criminal Court of Justice." Doris Lessing, who won the prize last year, gave an interview dismissing the Sept. 11 attacks as "neither as terrible nor as extraordinary as [Americans] think," adding: "They're a very naive people, or they pretend to be."

It would be nice to think that the Swedish Academy was not endorsing such views when they selected Pinter and Lessing or the similarly inclined José Saramago and Günter Grass. But 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.

Correction, Oct. 9, 2008: This article originally stated that there has been exactly one American laureate since Bellow won the Nobel in 1976. In fact, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Czesław Miłosz, and Joseph Brodsky have all won Nobels since then. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at the New Republic.

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