I like to think of myself as fairly well read but the season of Nobel-prize winning announcements has just ended and of all the prizes, the literature prize is the one that reminds me each year of how wrong my self estimation is because I have never even heard of almost any of the winners. And the sad thing is that even though I tell myself that I should read those authors and widen my knowledge of great world literature, I almost never carry through on that promise, even though the winners are universally hailed as great writers.
Well maybe not universally hailed. Jason Farago says that the award of the 2012 Nobel Prize for literature to Chinese author Mo Yan has resulted in predictable griping in the US of American authors being slighted, with Philip Roth being trotted out once again as someone who is more deserving of the award than recent winners. I have read quite a few works by Roth and though he does not seem to quite know how to end his stories well (except for Portnoy’s Complaint) I have generally enjoyed them. But I have never considered his works to be great literature.
Farago says the source of this sense of grievance is the provincialism that Americans display when it comes to literature, and thus they are always surprised when it turns out that the rest of the world is aware of, and considers highly, authors that they have never heard of, and they feel insulted when this is pointed out. There have been 11 American winners since 1901, which is not too shabby but low compared to the other Nobel categories, and Americans seem to feel that it is not enough and the current nearly two-decade drought (Toni Morrison was the last American winner in 1993) is fuelling dark suspicions that the literature committee is stacked against them.
[T]hings came to a head in 2008, when Horace Engdahl, then the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, speculated that the reason his organization didn’t award American writers was that:
“The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.”
Everyone from the chiefs of America’s major publishing houses to the editor of the New Yorker rose to the bait, telling Engdahl to push off back to Stockholm. Critic Adam Kirsch thundered:
“America should respond not by imploring the committee for a fairer hearing but by seceding, once and for all, from the sham that the Nobel Prize for Literature has become.”
But Engdahl, impolite though he was, had a point. Only 3% of all books published in this country have been translated from a foreign language, and that includes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. When it comes to literature, Americans really are provincials. And you can see that provincialism in the writing that his opponents praise: formally retrograde, frequently narcissistic, and with none of the insight or rebelliousness that might make anyone beyond our shores take notice.
But what really took me aback was this sentence by Farago:
There are, of course, dozens of American writers in the first rank of world literature – even if I’d be much happier to see a Nobel go to Marilynne Robinson or John Ashbery than to Roth or the other usual suspects.
I have no idea who John Ashbery is but come on, Marilynne Robinson? The person whose writing I have been making fun of repeatedly (see here, here, and here) because her maddeningly opaque writings about god, religion, and the soul makes it almost impossible to figure out what the hell she is saying? She is so bad that I even bequeathed on her the title of ‘fog machine‘.
So one of the few literary authors whom I am aware of and whose style I detest is seen by Farago as a potential candidate for this award. It’s clear that the Nobel literature committee is not going to be contacting me for recommendations. And perhaps that’s just as well.