Tuesday, October 07, 2008

For spacious skies

The Nobel Prize for Literature kerfuffle has gotten me thinking about, you know, the stuff I was trained to ponder. Or something. In a nutshell, in case you missed this breaking news story of the literary world (and if you did, who could blame you?), a member of the Nobel committee said that American authors are, quoting The Telegraph who quoted him, "'too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture,' dragging down the quality of their work" and "too insular." In all the commentary on this I've subsequently read and heard, person after person cites Philip Roth as an example of someone who is neither of those things and certainly deserving of a Nobel Prize. Which observations might strike someone, say, me, as entertaining, depending on your definition of "insular." Roth addresses universal themes, certainly, and clearly has the lifetime production of someone who might be considered for a Nobel, but so much of what he writes concerns the arguably insular, (semi) autobiographical community of Jewish American males of a certain disposition and background.

It's that word, "insular," that has caused great consternation and weeping and wailing and gnashing of pages among (American) critics and authors since it was bandied about this week. The committee member, the academy's permanent secretary Horace Engdahl, didn't so much imply as state outright that American authors are ignorant of the traditions of other countries, to the detriment of their work. One would then think that by insular he meant thematically myopic, but apparently he means geographically myopic or perhaps even geographically oblivious. Which, when you think about it, is sort of a good description of US foreign policy but not so much for American literature, I'd argue. And that's the conspiracy theory read on his comments: secretly the Nobel committee is rewarding authors whose work is not only not American, the authors themselves express distinctly anti-American sentiments. (Which is, you know, verboten, right, because everyone should love all things American. Duh!) In fact, this kind of unhappiness with the Nobel decisions has been going on for decades. In his Nobel acceptance speech, Sinclair Lewis said, in 1930, that on his way to Sweden, an American literary scholar "stated, and publicly, that in awarding the Nobel Prize to a person who has scoffed at American institutions as much as I have, the Nobel Committee and the Swedish Academy had insulted America." The American literary establishment, much like America herself, likes to call foul, loud and often. Perhaps that's our real insularity: we find it outlandish when someone calls us on our egregious tendency, however slight (and often it is not slight at all), to think ourselves at the center of things but rarely pay any attention to anyone else, because, you know, they're not at the center. With us. Ahem.

One a side note, I've been interested to see that most of the commentators list, besides Roth, the likes of Updike, Pynchon, DeLillo, or Oates in their defenses of American literature. One of these things is not like the other...only one woman, Oates, seems ever to be deemed worthy. Hmmmmm.....a topic for another day!

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