he Nobel Prize in literature has become the “most ludicrous” award in the world of letters, said Stephen Marche in the Toronto National Post. When little-known French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio last week was named the winner of this year’s Nobel, the news did little to restore the award’s fading luster: Obscure names have been on a hot streak lately. But more damaging by far were anti-American comments made days earlier by Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the organization that chooses the winners. In an interview, the Swedish Academy’s Engdahl took a swipe at American writers in general, declaring that they “don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” The U.S., he said, “is too isolated, too insular. That ignorance is restraining.”
The Nobel committee clearly “has no clue about American literature,” said Adam Kirsch in Slate.com. European intellectuals have always seen U.S. culture as provincial and backward, and the Nobel panel often has reinforced that stereotype by honoring folksy American authors such as Pearl Buck and John Steinbeck—passing over our best writers in the process. In the past three decades, only Toni Morrison’s 1993 selection has interrupted an outright American drought. “Unless and until” the Swedes hand the prize to Philip Roth or another worthy American, we should ignore “the sham” that the process has become. Engdahl has proved himself unqualified to be a global tastemaker, said David L. Ulin in the Los Angeles Times. His assertion that “Europe is still the center of the literary world” betrays “a cultural blindness as pervasive as anything he accuses American writers of.”
But Engdahl’s point about America’s cultural isolation isn’t all wrong, said Michael Coffey in Publishers Weekly. We simply don’t read much literature in translation. Nor do Americans read much fiction that’s as experimental as Le Clézio’s, said Mark Lawson in the London Guardian. In fact, the country’s best writers may be losing simply because they’re too traditional for the Nobel panel. While the judges “certainly aren’t indifferent” to a candidate’s home country, “what really gets them going” is formal innovation.
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