Translating the Nobel Prize Decision

Like a slugger pointing to the bleachers before a home run, Horace Engdahl telegraphed where the Swedish Academy was going: The 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature will be awarded to the French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio. (Le Clezio's bio.)

French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio. (AP)

And to a lot of readers, at least on this side of the Atlantic, it's going to seem that the Swedes have followed Wee Willie Keeler's advice: "Hit 'em where they ain't."

Le Clezio is well known in France, of course, but not in the United States. Last week, Engdahl -- who is permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which awards the $1.4 million prize -- tried to explain to the Associated Press why the last American to win the Nobel in literature was Toni Morrison in 1993. Since then, nine of the recipients have been Europeans, including last year's winner, Doris Lessing of Britain.

"The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature," Engdahl said. "That ignorance is restraining."

Engdahl's remarks were not well received by Americans, to put it mildly.

On "Prairie Home Companion," Garrison Keillor made fun of his name and mocked Swedish literature as mainly novels about people who brood for a long time until, finally, something heavy falls on them.

Other American authors offered to send Engdahl a reading list. And, indeed, there are plenty of U.S. authors who have been perenially hailed as strong candidates for the prize, including Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Joyce Carol Oates and Don DeLillo. Internationally, there has been a lot of betting (literally, at Ladbroke's) in recent years on Amos Oz of Israel (though it would have been awkward to announce him as a winner this year, when the announcement fell on Yom Kippur) and on Haruki Murakami of Japan and Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru.

But, still, what is one to make of Engdahl's comments that American literature is too "insular" and that we "don't translate enough?"

I plead innocent on the first charge and guilty on the second.

I think the idea that American literature is insular is bogus. It says a good deal, perhaps, about European views of our foreign policy. But it has little to do with the reality of "our" literature, whatever that is. These shores teem with writers from all over the world, and American literature (again, whatever that is, today, because so much of it is written by people who were not born in America, or who have significant roots somewhere else) pulses with diversity.

Case in point: Le Clezio (!), who lives part of the year in New Mexico. Book World has had its eye on him for a long time. In a 1994 review of two of his novels, The Prospector and The Mexican Dream, our reviewer wrote that "Before there was multiculturalism, there was the work of Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio."

But on the question of translation, Engdahl has a point. Again, taking Le Clezio as an example, some of his books are available in English, including Terra Amata, War, The Giants and The Book of Flights, which were mentioned by the Swedish Academy in its citation of him as an "ecologically engaged author." But many of his works have not been published in English translations, including, as far as I'm aware, his 2007 memoir/essay Ballaciner.

Maybe we should brood on this for a while. Until something heavy falls on us. Like a Nobel Prize.

By Alan Cooperman |  October 9, 2008; 9:10 AM ET Alan Cooperman
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Although with this choice the Nobel committee can have it both ways, they can claim that Europe is still the center of literary work as well as multicultural since the French writer lives part time in the US and in Central America and grew up Nigeria.

At the same time President Sarkozy claimed that Le Clezio has honored the French Nation and its language.

What a joke, what hypocrisy!

Message to Nobel say it loud, say it proud: 'ethnocentrism is us.'

It's the prize that has become parochial, not the literature.

Posted by: toby | October 9, 2008 11:52 AM

"But, still, what is one to make of Engdahl's comments that American literature is too "insular" and that we "don't translate enough?" "

It's not true and this is obvious to any one who reads literature in America.

Engdahl is playing around with Anti-Americanism which is a popular sport among the Euro intellectuals of the left.

What he doesn't say is that many weriters around the world pay SWeedish translators to translate their books into Sweedih so that members of the committe like Engdahl could read them.

How many of them are able to read works in Russian, Armenian, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, the Ibo language?

Where do they come off lecturing us?

Posted by: Trilingual reader | October 9, 2008 12:57 PM

No american no good!!!???
Do not be sore loosers!
Just try harder...

Posted by: Gerard | October 9, 2008 3:33 PM

Great writers and great literature transcend their language and their national origin. They write about the human condition which describes us all. It matters not one iota if politicians claim them as their own, they belong to us, the people.

Posted by: Dreamer | October 9, 2008 4:47 PM

So does this mean that the British don't translate enough either, not to mention the Australians, Canadians, Jamaicans, South Africans, New Zealanders, and so forth, if so many of this guy's books are not available in English? Are they translated into Swedish?? What about into Spanish? Are the Spaniards and the Latin Americans also falling down on the job?

Posted by: Karen | October 9, 2008 4:59 PM

"The U.S. is too isolated, too insular."

Engdahl might very well be ignorant of the most interestig American lit (I'd cast a vote for Pynchon to win the Nobel lit prize, myself). But keep in mind that his criticism was a broad attack on U.S. literary culture, not just its authors.

One example of the sort of insularity I believe he is referring to: Every other predominantly English-reading country in the world has a literary award that is open to immigrants (and in some cases even to non-residents). America seems to be unique in its narrow acceptance of who may qualify for its one notable literary prize.

In some sense it is fitting that a resident of New Mexico won the Nobel Prize for Literature, since he is not eligible for the Pullitzer.

Posted by: Johann Tienhaara | October 9, 2008 6:12 PM

Le Clezio is an outstanding writer who is truly global citizen. I wager that most of the comments above are by people who have never read any of his work, which makes comparisons with American writers difficult. I lived in France for seven years and read some of his books, which are excellent. I would say that he is as deserving as the others, but there is no denying that the Nobel process is highly political.

Posted by: Don | October 9, 2008 6:28 PM

" Every other predominantly English-reading country in the world has a literary award that is open to immigrants (and in some cases even to non-residents). America seems to be unique in its narrow acceptance of who may qualify for its one notable literary prize."

Of course the Pulitzer prize for fiction (established by Joseph Pulitzer, himself an immigrant) is open to immigrants. For instance Jhumpa Lapriri won one year.

Posted by: Karen | October 9, 2008 6:51 PM

Last year The Times said "French culture is dead"...i think france is always still a reference in culture and Le Clezio prouved it.

Posted by: Andrew | October 9, 2008 8:00 PM

as a professor of French literature and cinema in the US, I can say that I've read Le Clezio, and he is no Philip Roth. He is not even an Yves Bonnefoi. And he doesn't belon in the same breath as Toni Morrisson.

Le clezio is for people who have the same taste as he. But that isn't Morrisson or Roth or Kundera, or Oz or even Oates. These people touch people of many walks of life, with many interests and desires. Le Clezio is good, but not that good.

Posted by: joe | October 9, 2008 8:41 PM

As a professor of German literature in the US, I can say that I've read Le Clezio, and while only Philip Roth is Philip Roth (whatever that means), he is certainly much more challenging than Joyce Carol Oates.

I wouldn't say that American writers are provincial - I greatly enjoy Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo or younger writers like Paul LaFarge. However, there is no doubt that this country in general, and its market for literature in particular, are insular. American publishers have an abysmally low translation rate, and in consequence, many great authors who write in a language other than English are virtually unknown here. That is nothing to be proud of.

Posted by: Stephen | October 9, 2008 9:24 PM

"Trilingual reader" wrote: "Engdahl is playing around with Anti-Americanism which is a popular sport among the Euro intellectuals of the left. What he doesn't say is that many weriters around the world pay SWeedish translators to translate their books into Sweedih so that members of the committe like Engdahl could read them."

Engdahl speaks (and reads) Swedish, English, French, German and Russian; and calling him a "leftist" betrays complete ignorance about the man.

His criticism of American literature as "insular" may or may not be on the mark, but it is perfectly literary in its content. It's not about politics. Indeed, the general refusal to even countenance the idea that he may have a point (worth listening to, if not agreeing with) I think speaks volumes about the problem at hand.

Check the comment by "Stephen" below, as well.

Posted by: A Swede | October 9, 2008 11:41 PM

I am not particularly happy that M/Engdahl made such an incomplete statement; there was no point in his having done so. To make his point, all that needed to be done, without saying a word, was to continue to ignore American writers. Still, though, as long as we continue to insist on the universal merit of writers such as Pynchon and Roth (et al), we will continue being at least highly suspect of the charge of insularity. Face it: We're good; just not sufficiently world class. Even American literary humility (meaning writers with some sense of transcendent human history) is transparently arrogant. The european left is not taunting us as much as they are warning us. It isn't a matter of "us against them" as much as it is a matter of "us against us."

Posted by: Frenchlieut | October 9, 2008 11:47 PM

"How many of them are able to read works in Russian, Armenian, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, the Ibo language?"

Please, do you really think these guys don't speak more languages than Swedish? It's a country with 9 million inhabitants, everyone speaks at least two languages. And if your an academic in that line of work, speaking four or five languages is not at all uncommon.

One in four Nobel lauerates has been English speaking! How can that not be enough?

Posted by: American girl in Stockholm | October 10, 2008 2:23 AM

The original post leaves out two remarks by Mr. Engdahl which may throw some light on the Swedish Academy's way of thinking: that "Europe is still the center of the literary world" and that American writers are "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture".

So an ideal American writer, to the Academy, is one who is aloof (instead of being part of his society) and must demonstrate at least some deference to the European literary establishment -- or otherwise behave according to a European sense of what America should be, raising American issues which Europeans view as being of great importance.

I have never read any of Toni Morrison's books, but how else could we explain her win in 1993 when she is all but regarded in her own country as having written two or three great books amid her otherwise schmaltzy output? Certainly she would not be alone in this situation (some dismiss Steinbeck with even more vigor), but why, of all American writers, many of whom fit this hit-and-miss bill, was she picked as the most significant American author since the seventies? Was there a political element of tokenism motivating the decision? Did her books about poor black women stand out in the eyes of the Swedish Academy because of their literary merit, or because they underlined what the panel deemed to be an overlooked hot-button issue in America?

This certainly would fit in with the Nobel reputation for pursuing a political agenda since its inception.

As much as Mr. Engdahl's comments might be viewed as a jab at American foreign policy, there is something else that I would say is at stake here. I myself am Canadian, and Canadian commentators have picked up this news as well. But whereas Mr. Engdahl's analysis might have originally been limited to American authors, many of the Canadian commentaries on this have added an implied "North" before "American" -- thereby including Canada as a target of Mr. Engdahl's dismissal.

Considering how our foreign policy and reputation abroad are diametrically different from those of the U.S. (despite the occasional uniformity that proximity requires), how can we explain that in this case, instead of joining in the America-bashing, we added ourselves as co-victims alongside the United States?

I suspect this has much to do with Mr. Engdahl's assurance that Europe is still at the centre of the literary world. If this vision turns America into the hinterland, what does that make Canada? Hinterland of the hinterland? If American writers, coming from one of the most robust cultures in the world, are summarily dismissed, how much of a chance does a Margaret Atwood have?

The matter, then, is not purely a political matter of foreign relations, but also has geographic implications. This would explain the charge of "insularity" -- which goes beyond the availability of foreign-language books in translation.

This however raises the question: What is wrong with insular literature? Why is it that besides the informal requirements of "be prolific" and "live long enough" (which might explain why Proust never won it), "participating in the big dialogue of literature" should be a prerequisite for being awarded a Nobel for Literature? What is the "big dialogue" anyway?

Is a work of literature whose subtleties can truly be understood only by those who have first-hand knowledge of its context necessarily inferior -- especially if the context is met with a yawn in the stuffy European literary scene?

This might explain why some Canadians felt victimized, instead of vindicated, by this slight against American culture: A certain subset of Canadian culture seeks such insularity as a bulwark against the peril from the south. To not give in to the irresistible advance of American mass culture, a siege mentality has set in.

Yet, at the same time, we cannot artificially embrace European literary traditions, for this would negate the particularities of the Canadian situation -- its geography, its climate, its politics. Some players in our culture might turn towards England (or, in Quebec, France) for an inspiration, but a sense of betrayal quickly develops in the larger public if the European, as for American, influence becomes too great to conceal. So here is our dilemma: become "international" (meaning either European or, mostly, American in practical terms), which erases the Canadian-ness of our culture, or retreat into parochialism and thus, insularity. In our case, hence, the Engdahl comment basically means, "damned if we do, damned if we don't."

This makes me fear that the Nobel vision of what literature ought to be is "international" (while remaining political in one way or the other in the eyes of the Swedish Academy) and in many cases elitist -- as there seems to be a major dichotomy between the reality of an American artist (one who has an impact on his/her society, presumably through, yes, mass culture) and the Nobel/European concept of what an American artist ought to be. The Academy looks for the latter, and, failing to find one, proclaims such worthy artists do not exist. This is akin to pronouncing that Western films are dead because no living actor is a carbon-copy of John Wayne.

This cliché-ridden view apparently sustained by the Academy seems to extend to its very notion of "literature" -- which has traditionally encompassed plays, poetry, novels, history and even philosophy, but failed to acknowledge such gifted writers (Jules Verne and Raymond Chandler, to name a few) who produced their masterpieces in more popular or off-beat genres.

So it would appear that for a while at least, no North American author will win the Nobel. Considering that their list of past winners includes so much deadwood, that's probably no great loss.

Posted by: Alex | October 10, 2008 4:58 AM

I'm Spanish and happy to be European. I live between London and Rome and, most importantly, I lived in France for years. And until now I had never heard of him. And I read books. So some Europeans are surprised too.

However, I'm also surprised by the reaction of some Americans. The U.S is a single country. You seem to forget that. This is not golf, it's literature. However, I agree with you that there are so many non-Europeans who should have been given the prize by now.

Posted by: Jaime | October 10, 2008 6:54 AM

Please correct the spelling of Haruki Murakami's name.

Posted by: Christine | October 10, 2008 10:50 AM

Fixed. Thanks. My bad.

Posted by: producer | October 10, 2008 12:33 PM

"Alex" wrote: "This certainly would fit in with the Nobel reputation for pursuing a political agenda since its inception."

What reputation? Not only are you able to analyze the prize given to Toni Morrison without having read any of her works, you're apparently also an expert on Swedish cultural politics on the same merit...

The Swedish Academy is solely responsible for picking the recipient, with zero input from the Nobel Foundation. The Swedish Academy was founded by royal decree in the 1700s, and if anything has always been regarded in Sweden as conservative to the point of parody (members are still paid in silver medallions). If recipients seem to have had a leftist slant politically of late -- and I agree -- that's more likely to be because contemporary writers generally tend to the left, all over the world. Why that is, is another matter, but the Academy is hardly to blame.

Anyhow, I agree Philip Roth would be an excellent choice, or at least I think he is an excellent writer. But that's completely beside the point. Engdahl's comments about insularity were, as he repeatedly explained, and whether one agrees with them or not, not about the quality of individual authors and had nothing to do with any one individual's chances of winning the Nobel Prize. It was about why he, personally, views Europe as being more at the center of contemporary literature than the United States, and how this could in the larger perspective damage U.S. literature and its chances of gaining a global audience. I read his remarks as an invitation to what could be a very interesting discussion, rather than as an insult.

As disturbing as popular anti-Americanism in Europe (incl. Sweden) is, I don't think the incredibly thin skin many Americans have, and the immediate resort to whinging on about pinko-commie literary elitism, is doing anyone a service either.

Posted by: A Swede | October 10, 2008 1:48 PM

"Of course the Pulitzer prize for fiction ... is open to immigrants. For instance Jhumpa Lapriri won one year."

The Pullitzer for fiction is only available to U.S. citizens.

Jhumpa "Lapriri" [sic] is a U.S. citizen and lived most of her life in the U.S., received most of her schooling in the U.S., etc.

The Pullitzer Prize is *not* open to U.S. residents. Thus Le Clezio, a New Mexico resident, is excluded from entering.

The British Man Booker, Scandinavian Nobel, Canadian Governor General's Awards and Australian Miles Franklin Award are all much more inclusive. Some of them are restricted to residents of their respective countries. Others are even less restrictive.

The Pullitzer alone requires citizenship.

And it should also be noted that becoming a U.S. citizen is far more involved than becoming a citizen of the other "English reading" countries.

Thus my original comment that the U.S. has no literary awards open to immigrants. This is one of the areas where I agree with Engdahl -- the U.S. literary scene *is* insular and isolationist.

Posted by: Johann Tienhaara | October 10, 2008 2:26 PM

In response to "A Swede":

I have been reading many of the reactions to Mr. Engdahl's comment, including a very insightful article in the International Herald-Tribune which expanded on the recent political slant of the Prize, especially as they seem to be given to authors with "a record of America-bashing".

Quoting from the article: "In other words, the Nobel selection process is hardly the lofty and purely literary exercise - the "big dialogue" - that Engdahl suggests, and it never has been. Whatever else the prize may be, it is not a guarantee of literary excellence. Critics are always pointing out that the list of writers who never won, which includes Tolstoy, Proust, Borges, Joyce, Nabokov and Auden, is far more impressive than the roster of those who did."

Another piece in "The Guardian" argued that "it's impossible to deny that the decisions often have political undertones", going as far as claiming that "Updike's defences of the Vietnam war and Roth's refusal to politicise his novels may have harmed their chances".

That same article also referred to the Academy's artistic preferences, namely, that "winners have, especially in recent years, been those who represent some kind of formal innovation: either of subject-matter... or structure.... All, at some level, are experimental writer - as, from what an English reader can discern, is Le Clezio.

"In contrast, the greatest contemporary Americans operate, though at remarkable levels of poeticism and psychology, in traditional forms. By the definitions of the Nobel committee, which likes its novels to be really novel, the prize that Roth or Updike might win has already been claimed, in 1976, by Saul Bellow."

Speaking of Bellow, how ironic that in later years he provocatively requested that we identify "the Tolstoy of the Zulus", and that the Swedish Academy, through Mr. Engdahl, would essentially say that the Zulus were not all living in Africa, and that some of them liked nothing better culturally than Britney Spears singing "God Bless America".

Under normal circumstances, I would not jump to the defense of American culture, high-, middle-, or low-brow; much of it is alien to me. Still, Mr. Engdahl's accusations are in themselves so ludicrous and, by proxy, insulting to Canadian culture, that I felt they warranted this intervention on my part.

The endeavour of the body to which he belongs is a rather pointless affair -- how can one claim to compare completely different cultures? -- but he went further than that by dismissing the literary output of, more or less, an entire continent.

Looking over the past laureates, we certainly can discern a pattern. No American won the Prize before 1930, and during the same time period, only one winner, a London-educated Indian, came from outside Europe -- and his citation read "he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West". Not of India -- of the West.

Very well, it was just another indication of the colonial mentality of the time. I'm more than willing to accept this explanation -- except when we see its continuation today, with Mr. Engdahl's insistence that Europe is still the centre of the literary world, as though nothing had changed.

To this day, the list of American winners has included only two universally accepted choices as deserving winners -- Hemingway and Faulkner (and perhaps Sinclair Lewis). Hemingway's themes were safely universal in an American sort of way. But Faulkner's introduction, as noted elsewhere, read: "William Faulkner is essentially a regional writer, and as such reminds Swedish readers now and then of two of our own most important novelists, Selma Lagerlöf and Hjalmar Bergman. Faulkner’s Värmland is the northern part of the state of Mississippi and his Vadköping is called Jefferson." The only reason why Faulkner won, one would infer from this, is because the Swedes could understand it just by imagining Uppsala standing in for Savannah -- thereby rendering the "regional" (or "insular", as Mr. Engdahl would undoubtedly have it) aspect completely meaningless by being so conveniently bypassed.

Despite reading French fluently I have never read anything by Le Clézio. Nonetheless, by an amazing coincidence I do remember, a few months ago, coming across a second-hand copy of his first work, "Le Procès-verbal", in a bazaar where most books were twenty-year-old tax codes or romance paperbacks. I read the biography on the first page, and from the start I realized the author was Nobel material: Exposure to various cultures through his background and travel, with clear psychological interests and even a definite number of influences. This is the type of apparent erudition and well-traveled nature which the Swedish Academy craves -- and the reason why I did not pick up the book. But apparently his work is not available in English. What does that say about the "universality" of his writings, as opposed to the "insular" nature of the American literary scene?

The transatlantic condescension goes both ways; for every Bernard-Henri Lévy going to the U.S. thinking he's a latter-day Tocqueville, we get a Time Magazine article claiming that French culture (or at least a completely superficial American impression of it) is dead. Nothing new there.

And that's the problem with Engdahl's remark -- it fits all too nicely in this pattern. Whereas he represents a body which is supposed to measure all things equally, he has engaged in a broad-stroke dismissal of the literary output of one major country, citing -- crime of crimes! -- its corruption by mass culture, along with its insularity. Maybe the Nobel Prize in Literature is a fool's errand. But can we for once dispense with the holier-than-thou rhetoric?

Posted by: Alex | October 10, 2008 4:35 PM

It amazes me that Americans are amazed by Engdahl's remarks, when they are so obviously true. Americans just don't read much literature from abroad compared to people in most countries in the world. We don't have to-- everyone speaks English, right?

The fact is, we have a huge domestic market and Americans are insular, don't have passports, and don't like to read translations or about foreigners. Even American amazement at Engdahl's remarks or Le Clezio's selection is insular. It implies, "WE don't read these guys, so they can't be worth reading." Never mind the fact that Americans just don't translate things into English-- we feel we have enough books already, I guess!

In Europe, where I lived for 25 years until recently moving back to the U.S., bookstores are full of books from widely different cultures, all translated into the local language. Le Clezio is one of the best-known and most popular French writers. I haven't read him myself, but he is certainly no more obscure to Europeans than Roth or Pynchon (both of whom I detest, so maybe the Nobel committee simply shares my taste). The difference between those bookstores and the nave-gazing U.S. version is striking.

I agree with our trilingual Swede, above. American insularity is America's loss.

Posted by: Quadrilingual American (really) | October 12, 2008 11:21 AM

I mean navel-gazing

Posted by: Quadrilingual American (really) | October 12, 2008 11:23 AM

In response to Quadrilingual American:

I will not dispute the insularity of the English language itself; it's a point that has been made before, and, might I add, far less controversially than the way Mr. Engdahl has chosen to state it.

However, while the U.S. is the most populous country where English is the official language, it does not have a monopoly on the language. Yet Mr. Engdahl did not make a case against English-language countries in general (this would certainly go against the fact that in this century, the Nobel has gone to English-language writers half the time) but the United States in particular (and, some assumed, Canada by extension for reasons of geography, cultural influence, and trading patterns).

Coming from French Canada myself, I can attest that there is a certain arrogance being displayed by English, and this country offers a splendid example of this. Only in English Canada will you find the idea that discussing "Canadian culture" involves 95 percent of English-language works and token French-language inclusions.

For an example of this, look no further than Margaret Atwood's seventies-era "Survival", one of the first and most influential books on the subject of Canadian literature (not English-Canadian literature). Out of the full (300 page-ish) book, French-language literature is neatly segregated into its own chapter, beginning with Atwood's caveat lector that her French is rudimentary and, as a result, that she stuck to works which had been translated into English.

In other words, French-Canadian literature being studied only AFTER it had gone a first time through the prism of the English-Canadian cultural establishment, which could pick-and-choose which elements of French-Canadian culture it considered important, regardless of whether the reduced portrait that remained was in any way representative of, or faithful to, the original. As a matter of fact, one of Atwood's most quoted authors in the French-Canadian section was mentioned elsewhere as selling more in English than in his original French -- perhaps because of Atwood's books.

Sorry for the digression, but it was necessary to move my point -- the insularity of English is by no means limited to the United States. This isn't to say, however, that the U.S. isn't self-satisfied with its own cultural achievements -- I'd say it is. But whose fault is it?

Assuming the UK or other English-speaking countries are not similarly insular (the Nobel roster, as mentioned above, would seem to prove the point), we can assume that Foreign-language literature is being translated into English. But is it a safe assumption? Another article on the subject of the insularity of English ( includes this fascinating statistic: "Of the 100 best-selling paperbacks in the United Kingdom in 2004, only two were translations." An imperfect measure, to be sure -- nobody would think of giving John Grisham the Nobel unless they had phone-ins to determine the winner --, but it would seem that English-language readers' interests are, in this respect, similar on both sides of the Atlantic.

If anything, it just confirms not only the insularity of the English language, but the elitism of the Swedish Academy, i.e. choosing winners according not to what people read, but what they ought to read. Take Le Clézio, for instance. Upon his winning the Prize, a few articles had as sole purpose to track down how many of his works were available in English-language translations. The result varied from practically nothing to a spotty collection of works in varying editions with no consistent pattern. According to those articles, few bookstores had his works in stock.

Following the announcement, in fact, one *university press* put out a press release saying they had already published two of his books; hardly the type of publisher with a catalogue widely available to the general public.

Yet it is the elitism of the Nobel in Literature which makes Mr. Engdahl's argument on American insularity particularly incongruous. Nobel-caliber writers are not ordinary writers, nor are they ordinary citizens whose life is shaped by the front page of "USA Today". By Mr. Engdahl's standards, Nobel-caliber writers ought to be elitists themselves, by spurning their own mass culture. While most of the U.S. (and, perhaps, the rest of the English-speaking world) might be insular, if anyone takes part in the "big dialogue of literature", it is they.

But does the "big dialogue" really exist? And if some writers do not take part in it, as Mr. Engdahl claims, is it really a bad thing? Whoever said that culture had to be universal and interchangeable (i.e. remaining accessible just by replacing Paris with Tokyo or London or Moscow or Buenos Aires or...)? Why does Mr. Engdahl go on to claim that Europe is still the center of the literary world -- and that this MATTERS -- if this "big dialogue" exists? What message does that send to South American or Asian or -- indeed -- North American writers? "Conform to a European artistic standard or risk being left out?"

So we get a fascinating discussion where English as a language is indeed insular, but where (North) America alone gets blamed for it, while Mr. Engdahl reassesses Europe's position as a shining beacon of literature. Could it have to do with the fact that the United States, unlike Britain, unlike Australia, unlike South Africa or little dots in the Caribbean, poses a threat to the Swedish Academy's own standards of what constitutes Great Literature?

If this is so, it has nothing to do with the literature itself but with politics, pure and simple. America -- especially, one run by the Great Unwashed -- has gotten too big for its spats, and it must be answered with scorn -- it must pay. That's what Mr. Engdahl meant, and nothing else.

Posted by: Alex | October 12, 2008 5:45 PM

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