Don’t Be “Insular,” Pick an Author in The L Magazine’s Nobel Prize Pool

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10/04/2008 12:00 AM |

People are lately indignant about the Swedish Academy’s Horace Engdahl saying that America is not “the center of the literary world” (quel horror!), that our writers are “Too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture,” and that “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature… That ignorance is restraining.”

This, of course, is true, even if the wire-service story linked to above goes out of its way to bash the Academy’s (often surprising) choices. (I also love indignant people talking about how the Swedish Academy loves picking left-leaning writers because of their “anti-Americanism.” Not, like, “because they are Harold Pinter or Jose Saramago and obviously those people win the Nobel,” or anything. This is hilarious.)

Because, of course America doesn’t “participate in the big dialogue of literature.” It’s not that he’s saying American writing is bad (most writing is), it’s just that with the exception of our major writers our literary concerns are domestic. (To say nothing of the incestuous inward-gazing scenesterism of much of American publishing and letters.) Our literary culture is more or less self-sustaining and self-obsessed, and will only become more so as more and more generations enter MFA programs as students, become instructors and never leave. It’s like a no-kill salmon farm, sustained by interchangeable vanity-venture “small journals” instead of cannibalism.

And, to actually address a specific point Engdahl said, which very few counterpunchers have: No, we don’t translate enough. Four hundred original translations of fiction and poetry a year. What right, exactly, do we have to demand representation in a global fiction prize? (Incidentally, a lot of the favorites for the prize actually do translate quite a lot. Our big authors are often advocates for others and marvelous critics, but rarely with such a worldly or historical outlook.)

However, there is a way out of it: claim an author in The L’s Nobel Prize for Literature Pool! Educate yourself about the great authors of the world, and feel all cool and whatever the opposite of insular is, when you win.