October 8, 2014

Before the Nobel Prize for Literature is announced, judge takes a moment to slam American authors

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This plaque is for the writers who worked in cafes.

This plaque is for the writers who worked as taxi-drivers and waiters.

The 2014 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature will be revealed on Thursday but before a new name is chosen, there’s just enough time for a bit of controversy to get everyone fired up for the announcement.

Horace Engdahl, a member of the Swedish Academy, has chosen this moment to speak out against creative writing courses and the “professionalisation” of the contemporary Western-writer. Speaking to the French newspaper La Croix,  Engdahl lamented a time when, as The Guardian translates:

writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard – but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective.

Engdahl’s argument isn’t a new one, and it’s one of the most regular criticisms thrown at MFA courses and the writers who undertake them: how can you write what you know, if you only know life in an MFA course?; where are you going to pick up experience if your only experience is the insular world of your creative writing workshop?

In fact, it’s more likely that Engdahl’s point is a continuation of comments he made in 2008, which also proved to be controversial. Back then, he complained that US literary culture was “too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” He clarifies this statement in his most recent interview, but his opinion still appears to be pretty low of American Letters:

Everyone reacted as if I’d said that the major American writers had no chance of winning the Nobel. I said nothing of the sort; I didn’t say that there were no worthy American writers. I said that American literary life, American criticism and teaching were limited today by too narrow an access to world literature, because the number of translations and their reach in the US is feeble. Everything is focused around their [US] writers and their language, like a hall of mirrors which reflects a perpetual, infinite image of America.

See, he didn’t say an American writer couldn’t win the Nobel, he just said that he didn’t like American writers! Or America, for that matter. Unless this is an elaborate rouse to throw us off course before DeLillo or Pynchon are awarded the prize, it points to aspects of American literary culture that Engdahl, and perhaps other members of the Aacademy, find problematic.

It’s true that the translated market in America —and England— could be in better health (although it’s not all bad, as my colleague Sal Robinson suggested recently). But Engdahl is now clearly drawing a line between what America reads, and how America writes.

It seems to him that American (and European) letters have become too self-referential and too inward looking: authors aren’t getting out enough, whether that’s outside the MFA course, or the confines of literature written in English. He criticized novels “which pretend to be transgressive” but these books “don’t transgress anything because the limits which they have determined as being necessary to cross don’t exist.”

But it’s evident that Engdahl’s argument contains its own bias. He states that it’s only on “our western side that there is a problem, because when reading many writers from Asia and Africa, one finds a certain liberty again”. This of course has led to speculation in The Guardian that the comments give us a clue to this year’s Nobel winner, and “could support the candidacy of the Kenyan Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o, and the Japanese Haruki Murakami, both favourites at Ladbrokes.”

Speculation aside, what’s certain is that Engdahl has revealed the Nobel Prize for Literature to be like a literary version of the Eurovision song contest (albeit on a global scale). It’s an annual opportunity for other countries (OK, mainly just Sweden) to tell each other what they think of one another’s literature and wider culture. America, like Britain in the Eurovision, always does badly. It’s nil points for America, maybe a couple of points tossed out to Europe and a mighty twelve for the countries of Asia and Africa.

American and British literary culture should be more outward facing, and more work in translation would only be a good thing. But the Nobel Prize committee should also beware that they don’t end up “looking like an odd mixture of grumpy old man and Nordic romantic” as Robert McCrum puts it in The Guardian. That attitude in itself can have its limitations. Indeed that attitude can be like a hall of mirrors which reflects a perpetual, infinite image of only a certain kind of writer.

Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.

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