Tuesday, September 30, 2008

OK, isthmussy and smartass maybe, but insular and ignorant?

One more word outa this guy and I'm gonna start wearing my flag lapel pin again.

STOCKHOLM, Sweden — The man who announces the Nobel Prize in literature says
the United States is too “insular” and ignorant to compete with Europe when it
comes to great writing.
In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, Horace Engdahl said
Tuesday that “Europe still is the center of the literary world.”
Engdahl is the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which selects the
literature prize winner. He is expected to announce the winner in the coming
Engdahl says the U.S. “is too isolated, too insular” and doesn’t really
“participate in the big dialogue of literature.”
Since Japanese poet Kenzaburo Oe won in 1994, the selections have had a
distinct European flavor. The last American winner was Toni Morrison in 1993.


  1. The only good thing to be said about the Nobel is that they once gave it to Samuel Beckett. On the other hand they also gave it to Pearl S. Buck and Winston Churchill...

  2. LOL, of course you're a smartass, Franl. I don't e-hang out with dumbasses!


  3. Why so upset, Horace? Guess you've never read anything by Americans A.M. Homes or Edward P. Jones, who just might be the best fiction writers writing in English today.

  4. Hi John,

    This is what I said in my forum announcement this week:


    We begin this week with what we can only hope is a thoughtless statement from the Swedish Academy by permanent secretary Horace Engdahl, a statement reducing the Nobel Prize selection procedure to a sports grudge match and himself to a fanatical Fenway groupie. He basically said to all American writers, "Yankees suck!" If he does not see any problem with what he said, if he thinks it is an astute opinion, then what we have is petty national politics that would disgrace any respectable worldwide committee, even the ones geared toward national competitions, the Olympic committee for instance. Is it truly the Nobel Prize any longer, or just by name? Apparently, there has not been and there will not be any worldwide search for the most deserving recipient. If there is no apology forthcoming, there is no more prestige.

    Here is an excerpt from Alfred Nobel's will:

    The whole of my remaining realizable estate shall be dealt with in the following way: The capital, invested in safe securities by my executors, shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.

    The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.

    There is no mention of competition, especially at the national level.



  5. Comments like these are usually about the mirrors is the speaker is looking into. Provincial and insular describes a lot of European writing, too, maybe more.

    Ignorant? He might have something there, since a lot of Americans really ARE shockingly ignorant what goes on in the rest of the world, presumable literary, too. Quick, fellow Americans, name two great Australian poets, three great Canadian authors, and two great Dutch authors? No? Then maybe there's some truth to the charge. Speaking as an American who's lived a lot overseas, I've often thought so.

  6. "He might have something there, since a lot of Americans really ARE shockingly ignorant what goes on in the rest of the world, presumable literary, too. Quick, fellow Americans, name two great Australian poets, three great Canadian authors, and two great Dutch authors? No?"

    This is an indictment of the American READER (or, the culture, broadly). What about American WRITERS?

    Come on, Vonnegut wasn't long overdue? Updike? Roth? You could even make a strong argument for younger writers like Chabon, Franzen, McCarthy, etc.

    Horace Engdahl's comment is wholly without merit. It's as ignorant (ironcially) and prejudicial as the claim that all black are criminals.

  7. Anonymous9:04 AM

    Hi, Greg -- I can answer you quite quickly on the Canadians and the Dutch fiction writers.

    Great Canadians: Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood

    Dutch: Cees Nooteboom

    Australian FICTION writers: Tim Winton, Kate Grenville (I'm not much on contemp poetry)

    I've read everything the Canadians have ever written, and good novels/short stories by the Dutch and Australian writers.

    America is insular, true, but it's probably because we have so much good stuff RIGHT here. And also because only 3% of the world's fiction ever gets translated into English, and what arrives here is often published by small academic presses. You can't blame Americans for not being able to read what isn't easily available.

  8. Good answers, Susan. You win the unredeemable prize yet to be determined. Kudos, at the least. Thanks for coming up with Kees Nooteboom, one of the very writers I was thinking of when I posted my challenge. I was thinking of Atwood and Munro on my Canadian list, but also some others, such as Davies. One great Australian poet who remains shockingly unknown in the US is Judith Wright; shocking because her concerns are so very resonant with certain threads of US poetry, plus she was just that damn good.

    The truth is, a lot of American insularity does depend on what we import back in, after we've exported out the massive fruits of our entertainment industry, from movies to music to books. I've lived in Europe and Asia, and I daresay that American writers are pretty well-known and available over there, while the reverse is not always true over here. Americans are used to being the big gorilla in the room, in the arts as well in other arenas of culture such as NATO. We tend to not like to hear that we're ignorant of something, or that we're not the big gorilla.

    Greg, your comments miss the point (BTW of course Vonnegut et al. were long overdue, that's a given). The point is:

    Writers ARE readers. Writers read. Writers and readers are not separate categories.

    One of the fundamental aspects of being a writer is reading a lot. Writers write, and they read. Writers read what's available, just as other readers do. So writers are just as apt to miss things, if they're not available in translation (not all of us have time to learn multiple languages), as your average reader, and just as apt to not know what they've missed. So assuming that writers are somehow immune to the effects of parochialism is utter balderdash.

    One might also mention how book reviewing in American media, with some lovely and rare exceptions, tends to focus 90 percent or more of its effort on American authors; that can easily become parochial, because it can easily be assumed that there isn't anything else worth covering, or the newspaper would have covered it. Right? Wrong. Column-inches in papers, magazines, etc., still are prime turf that economic issues dominate. (I'm sure Frank has many stories along these frustrating lines.)

    And BTW, Horace is a boob. None of my comments should be interpreted as supportive of his idiocy. Having said that, I will speak up for the truth of my own perceptions, which I have done here.

    Americans ARE parochial. That isn't to say that Europeans aren't ALSO parochial.

    One could also ask for a list of great African, Indian, and South-east Asian writers, and again one would largely expect mostly silence. "Foreign literature" is still largely considered by most writers to be the domain of specialists, and something your average writer or reader is expected to go out of their way to research, especially if translations aren't readily available.

  9. Quick Question (not directed at anyone, more because I'm struggling with it as a Canadian reviewer who is often told great books from beyond our borders don't cut the mustard and turn off the advertisorial dollars, those little Stick/S things that make the paper NTM government-funded periodicials, well, whatever they is or ain't).

    What is the difference between "parochial" and "protectionist?"