The annual exposure of my ignorance of literature

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.


  1. Nepenthe says

    Well, if it makes you feel any better, I gather that it’s usually not worth it to read literature in translation. Chinese to English is especially difficult and if you’re going for poetry it’s a complete waste of time.

  2. Chiroptera says

    Well, if it makes you feel any better, I gather that it’s usually not worth it to read literature in translation.

    Well, I disagree with this: I have enjoyed a lot of works translated into English.

    ‘Course, then it becomes a question of whether you’re reading an excellent novel written by the original author, or an excellent novel written by the translator based heavily on the original author’s work.

    On the other hand, what do I care, as long as I’m reading something that I enjoy (and maybe even makes me think)?

  3. flex says

    By no means am I qualified to judge literature, which probably makes my next remarks appear unduly pretentious, but I do make an effort to read a good deal of non-American literature.

    What qualifies as good literature to the critics often seems to me to be unclear, foggy, and opaque. My suspicion is that much like modern art, the artists and the critics have developed their own codes for certain ideas, and unless a person is educated in those codes the concepts appear muddy and obtuse.

    Of course, the longer a situation like this exists, the easier it is for the writers and critics to assume that a particularly unintelligible author is really being brilliant because they only understand a fraction of what was written. Which leaves open the very real possibility of a Sokal style hoax.

    There are incredible writers who can be tough to read; but for every Joyce and Pynchon, there are hundreds of writers who are obtuse without cause.

    Personally, I’m not all that thrilled with Kundera, but I love Eco and I’ve read everything he’s written (including the scholarly stuff). I also thoroughly enjoyed Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain. All of which I’ve read in translation.

    Keep in mind, too, that the Novel Literature prize is not given to the clearest and most accessible writing, but to the writing which the committee feels to be the greatest contribution to literature.

  4. Chiroptera says

    …but I love Eco….

    Then you might enjoy Perez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas. For the joke at the end if nothing else.

  5. flex says

    Considering I’m currently re-reading The Count of Monte Cristo for about the fifth time….

    I’ve only read The Fencing Master by Perez-Reverte. I enjoyed it immensely. Which means I really should have searched out more of his work.

    I’ll look for The Club Dumas at my local bookstore next time I drop in.

  6. Corvus illustris says

    The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.

    This is the usual cheap shot from the Europeans (with literature standing in for a number of other national things that they don’t much like either). Insularity is part of the national character; we might be forgiven for it if we had a smaller army and less economic clout (even now). Heck, it might even be found quaint and charming. And we’re stereotyped too: when the late first Mrs Corva and I were students in central Europe many years ago, we got reactions like “we didn’t realize that some Americans were like you” (the USArmy gives a good cross-section but–um-not necessarily a good impression). Of course the Nobel committee is more sophisticated …

    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.

    Fortunately, there is no formal mechanism for seceding; all Mr Kirsch can hope for is the analogue of Vaughan Williams’ refusal of the accolade. The problem will come in refusing all those kronor.

  7. Corvus illustris says

    Can’t we just bomb the Swedes?

    The second Mrs C, who is only one generation removed from Göteborg, really wishes you wouldn’t. Besides, aren’t the selections made by Norwegians, or is that just the peace prize?

  8. says

    I second Mano’s recommendation. It’s really wonderful stuff. The Captain Alatriste stories are his weakest work. The Queen of The South is also wonderful, as is The Nautical Chart.

    If you like those, you might want to try Caldwell and Thomason’s “The Rule of Four”

  9. Jared A says


    I thought your major problems with Marilynne Robinson had to do with how she writes a persuasive essay. I’ve never read her books, but I can see how your main gripes with her argumentative style (which seem like fair points to me) would not translate to her fiction writing. Some of the best fiction is opaque, steeped in ambiguous metaphors, and difficult to pin down.

  10. trazan says

    The Norwegians give the peace prize to the european union. Really? That’s wrong on so many levels. I can’t say if it’s worse than Kissinger, though.

    The “Swedish academy”, of which prof. Horace Englund is a member, decides who gets the prize for literature. In 1974 two members of the academy recieved a shared prize. You could refuse a prize like Sartre did.

    Please don’t bomb me.

  11. Corvus illustris says

    I can’t say if it’s worse than Kissinger, though. Here in the land that runs drone-borne assassinations, we don’t see how it’s worse than Obama.

  12. trazan says

    Some very nice comments there. I’m impressed that Per Wästberg (if that’s really him) commented.

  13. Jared A says

    The Parks article reads not unlike a Michael Crichton piece on global warming. Wästberg’s takedown is glorious.

  14. Nepenthe says

    Of course, I should have clarified. Many translations are excellent books in their own right and certainly works worth reading, but they are fundamentally different than the originals, especially where the “greatness” of the original depends on peculiarities of language. (For example, tone features heavily in a lot of Chinese poetry, but there is no way for any translator, no matter how skilled, to capture that in English.)

  15. Mano Singham says

    It is not the metaphors I mind, it is that her metaphors do not seem to illustrate but to exist for their own sake. It is true that I have not read her fictional works, but if one is maddeningly obscure in one kind of writing, then I am not going to hope for much in another form.

  16. Rodney Nelson says

    Robinson has written three novels. The first, Housekeeping, is quite readable. IMHO it’s good, possibly even great literature. I found the second book, Gilead, to be a slog. It’s written in epistolary style and, again in my opinion, that’s because Robinson couldn’t fit a plot to the book. Her third book, Home, is a sequel of sorts to Gilead and I have no intention of reading it.

  17. Jared A says

    Thanks for the recommendations. After writing my comment I went over and looked on amazon to see what she had written. With regards to mano’s post last week on star ratings of products I was not able to get a good handle on whether they are worth reading, but what you are saying seems to be somewhat in line with what I saw there, too (specifically the 2,3, and 4 star ratings all seemed to agree, with differing value judgements).

    I wonder if my “to read” list will ever be short enough for me to start voluntarily adding books to it again. Gifted books are mandatory reading, and I’m currently underwater…

  18. mnb0 says

    “And the sad thing …”
    Dunno. I happened to read Sigrid Undsted (1928) and Pearl S Buck (1938). They were available in the local library. I was not impressed.

    “Americans seem to feel that it is not enough”
    Great. Lots of European movie buffs feel that not enough European movies win Oscars. So what?

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