Friday, September 10, 2010

Nobel Season Is Upon Us!

With autumn rapidly approaching, this year's winner of the world's most prestigious literary award, The Nobel Prize In Literature, will soon be announced. Last year's winner was Herta Muller, a European writer. Shortly before last fall's announcement, I wrote the following article to warm up for doing some freelancing again (by the way, I'm still freelancing so if you have any editing/proofreading/writing needs, then please get in touch--no, I'm not so desperate that I'll shave your back or something; writing-related work only please). The article was never published though, and I came across it the other day and thought that I'd run it here since sadly it still remains relevant. Let's hope that some day it won't be!

Horace Engdahl Was Right

Last autumn, Horace Engdahl, then permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, the group charged with selecting the Nobel Prize in Literature, stated that the reason the United States has not produced a Nobel laureate in literature since 1993 was that "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."

Secretary Engdahl's frankness was met with a reaction from Americans that ranged from hostile to patronizing. David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, sniffed that the Academy just didn't recognize great literature when it read it, citing Joyce, Proust, and Nabokov as examples of lionized literary legends unrecognized by the Swedes, and Harold Augenbraum of the National Book Foundation offered to send Engdahl a summer reading list so he could brush up on his American literature.

A few days later, Engdahl, seemingly surprised by the reaction by this spasm of nationalistic pride by the Yankee literati, reassured American writers who still harbored dreams of winning the large European prize that he wasn't prejudiced against Americans: "It is of no importance, when we judge American candidates, how any of us views American literature as a whole in comparison with other literatures."

A few months later, Engdahl quietly turned over the permanent secretary position to fellow member Peter Englund. One wonders if the furor his words raised had anything to do with his decision.

Nevertheless, in their rush to malign Engdahl and make snide remarks about value of the Nobel in literature, defenders of American literature overlooked an important aspect of Engdahl's comments.

He was right.

In fact, if anything, Engdahl put things mildly. American literature today isn't so much insular as it is inbred.

First of all, in recent decades, higher education has placed a stranglehold on it. While the market for literature seems to decline (the National Endowment for the Arts reported that the percentage of adults who read a book other than for work or school dropped yet again in 2008), creative writing Masters of Fine Arts programs continue to grow. Though universities seem happy to take the money of these aspiring Hemingways, we as a society cannot seem to find a need for these newly-pedigreed writers afterward beyond having them teach creative writing to more aspiring Hemingways (and perhaps the occasional Faulkner as well). At some point, like with all games of musical chairs, the music will stop. And, even for those who find a chair, when they're seeking tenure, how daring as writers will they be, and if they're not daring writers, how can they be expected to ever be worthy of the Nobel?

Unfortunately, the number of charitable organizations and government bureaucracies outside of higher education that support writers don't seem to be much help either. If anything, they contribute to the inbreeding since most of the award panels are composed of writers who seem to award other writers on the basis of friendship rather than merit. Rick Moody once served on a panel which awarded his friend Jonathan Franzen $20,000 from the NEA as a creative writing fellowship. This was, of course, in 2002, the year after Franzen's novel The Corrections had already become a bestseller. Apparently, Moody and the other committee members believed Franzen still needed the taxpayer money.

Perhaps this cozy give and take (mostly take) emerges because of the continuing concentration of American publishing in New York City, which is another reason American literature remains inbred. In fact, in 2004, all five of the fiction finalists for the National Book Award lived in New York City. This was pointed out as a cute fact in the press release by the NBF, but served as confirmation that what we have is a regional literature masquerading as a national literature.

Of course, most Americans don't even notice what's become of the national literature. If they're reading at all, they're reading about sexy vampires who prefer to eat bears to humans or about Ivy league academics foiling Masonic conspiracies in the nation's capital, and not the sort of material Engdahl and his American critics sparred over. Not surprisingly, the publishing industry follows suit, preferring to spend money on publishing novels by soap opera actresses and other celebrities instead of books by authors who can actually read (not to mention write).

All of these factors combine to intensify the inbreeding and consequently make the chances of an American author winning the Nobel less each year.

There is hope however. Good literature can be found in America, but one has to dig. It's produced occasionally from the commercial publishers, nurtured by university presses, even written by MFAs who've decided to develop their own style, and, most of all, rooted in the underground of the independent small press, including self-publishers. All of this, however, rests far beneath the notice of the average newspaper book review editor, an endangered species themselves, so it's unlikely Engdahl and the rest of the Swedish Academy even know such writers exist. In any case, writers such as Alabama's scruffy but delightful Karl Koweski generally have bigger problems to worry about than not being nominated for a Nobel.

On Thursday, the 2009 recipient will be announced. Assuming the Academy doesn't toss American literati a bone in order to apologize for Engdahl's honesty, it will be yet another year without a Nobel in Literature for an American. But, unless Americans stop blaming the messenger for revealing some unwelcome truths and look honestly at the message itself, this may only be the beginning of a long Nobel drought for American literature.

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