As a followup to the essay that I wrote about about the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2004, I wrote the following for the now defunct Underground Literary Alliance website in 2005. After I wrote this essay, it got depressing to write basically the same essay every year so I stopped doing it until the Horace Engdahl kerfuffle broke out and I revisited the subject in 2009. Sadly, I suspect that it might be some time before these essays are irrelevant. We'll find out this year's winner tomorrow.
Last year, I wrote a Monday Report for the Underground Literary Alliance entitled “No Nobel For You, Yankee Doodler!” which argued that no American author should expect to win the world’s most prestigious literary prize since American literature was no longer worthy of world class consideration. In the face of British playwright Harold Pinter winning this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, we could pretty much rerun that article again. But we won’t. We don’t want anyone to think we’re happy that contemporary American literature isn’t worthy of attention by anyone outside the USA anymore (hell, most of it isn’t even worthy of attention by anyone inside the USA anymore either--what we have is a regional literature, Manhattan literature, passed off as a national literature and that’s the crux of the problem). Instead, we want to propose a solution.
This year, things looked up for the Americans initially. Ladbrokes and literary bloggers had Joyce Carol Oates at 7-1 odds to win, Phillip Roth at 9-1, and Don DeLillo in the running as a White Noise dark horse. Alas, it was not to be. Those wacky 15 Swedes (there should be 18 in the Swedish Academy that decides the award but three members have quit in protest over the years, including this year’s well-publicized departure of Knut Ahnlund, who thought last year’s winner Elfriede Jelinek to be undeserving of the prize) apparently decided the matter based on literary quality instead of prolificacy (sorry, Oates), kicking historical figures in the nuts when they’re long dead and can’t defend their reputations (as Roth did to Charles Lindbergh in his last novel), and hype based on past glories (ah, DeLillo). But cheer up red, white, and blue hacks! You might not need ideas or have to be interesting or be able to tell a good story after all. It might be a good bet that the criticism that this year’s Nobels have a tinge of anti-Americanism (for example, Pinter correctly views the Iraq War essentially as an armed robbery/confidence scheme), may incline those Swedes to throw a mercy award to an American next year.
However, the Underground Literary Alliance would suggest that whining about Eurocentricism and anti-Americanism is not the best way to bring the Nobel Prize in Literature back to the land of the free (at least as free as the Patriot Act lets us be). Instead, we suggest that a better approach is for American writers to stop worrying about academic careers and pleasing corporate masters and instead start writing imaginative works full of interesting ideas that are socially relevant beyond the borders of New York City. I mean I like New York City and rich people as much as most Americans but that doesn’t mean our national literature has to be exclusively devoted to such topics (leave them to Bret Easton Ellis). Why not a novel about a plumber in Iowa? A grocery store clerk in Montana? A garage band in Ohio? (O.k., I already wrote a novel about the last topic but the first two suggestions remain unwritten as far as I know). Of course, one might have to leave an MFA program to experience life beyond the academy, but that’s all right. It’ll be good for you. And American literature.
Alas, until American literature becomes relevant again (even to fellow Americans), we might have to forego competing for the Nobels and leave them to more deserving writers such as Indonesian master Pramoedya Ananta Toer or Vietnamese novelist Duong Thu Huong. So, my fellow Americans eligible to nominate writers for the Prize, such as past laureate Toni Morrison and professors of literature, please don’t keep nominating our current crap writers. It’s embarrassing. Instead, just like in baseball--our national pastime remember?-- let’s focus on rebuilding for a few seasons instead. Let’s clear away the cutesy creeps like the McSweeneyites (at least to the margins of American literature from the center they currently occupy, presumably due to the intellectual bankruptcy of corporate publishers)! Let’s put the old fossils like Updike out to pasture (if they want to keep writing, that’s fine, but let’s stop pretending they still matter)! Let’s pay attention to the good academic writers such as Mark Winegardner even when they aren’t writing sequels to past classics (The Godfather Returns)! Let’s put the Beats, Kathy Acker, and other deserving writers into our official literary histories and anthologies! Let’s publish great writers from the underground and elsewhere, and not people whose only qualification is that they know (usually in the biblical sense) people in the publishing industry! Let’s tear our critics away from the corporate promo trough and have them look beyond what Rupert Murdoch and other beancounters think is good literature! And for Uncle Sam’s sake, instead of the great “hopes” of American literature bragging about never having read Don Quixote or Moby Dick, let’s take them out of the writing workshop and have them spend a few years reading the classics! O, yankee doodler dandy, let us be worthy of the great tradition of Poe and Melville, Dickinson and Twain, Whitman and Hughes, Hemingway and Faulkner, O’Connor and Wright, Miller and Wilson (R.I.P.), to just name a few, again!
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