Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Are Non-Europeans Too Dumb?

If one believed Horace Engdahl, not only are we insular slobs but incapable of reading.

Nobel judge: U.S. too ignorant to compete

STOCKHOLM, Sweden (AP) -- Bad news for American writers hoping for a Nobel Prize next week: the top member of the award jury believes the United States is too insular and ignorant to compete with Europe when it comes to great writing.

Counters the head of the U.S. National Book Foundation: "Put him in touch with me, and I'll send him a reading list."

As the Swedish Academy enters final deliberations for this year's award, permanent secretary Horace Engdahl said it's no coincidence that most winners are European.

"Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world ... not the United States," he told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview Tuesday.

He said the 16-member award jury has not selected this year's winner, and dropped no hints about who was on the short list. Americans Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates usually figure in speculation, but Engdahl wouldn't comment on any names.

Speaking generally about American literature, however, he said U.S. writers are "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture," dragging down the quality of their work.

"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."

His comments were met with fierce reactions from literary officials across the Atlantic.

"You would think that the permanent secretary of an academy that pretends to wisdom but has historically overlooked Proust, Joyce, and Nabokov, to name just a few non-Nobelists, would spare us the categorical lectures," said David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker.

"And if he looked harder at the American scene that he dwells on, he would see the vitality in the generation of Roth, Updike, and DeLillo, as well as in many younger writers, some of them sons and daughters of immigrants writing in their adopted English. None of these poor souls, old or young, seem ravaged by the horrors of Coca-Cola."

Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the foundation which administers the National Book Awards, said he wanted to send Engdahl a reading list of U.S. literature.

"Such a comment makes me think that Mr. Engdahl has read little of American literature outside the mainstream and has a very narrow view of what constitutes literature in this age," he said.

"In the first place, one way the United States has embraced the concept of world culture is through immigration. Each generation, beginning in the late 19th century, has recreated the idea of American literature."

He added that this is something the English and French are discovering as immigrant groups begin to take their place in those traditions.

The most recent American to win the award was Toni Morrison in 1993. Other American winners include Saul Bellow, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway.

As permanent secretary, Engdahl is a voting member of and spokesman for the secretive panel that selects the winners of what many consider the most prestigious award in literature.

The academy often picks obscure writers and hardly ever selects best-selling authors. It regularly faces accusations of snobbery, political bias and even poor taste.

Since Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe won the award in 1994, the selections have had a distinct European flavor. Nine of the subsequent laureates were Europeans, including last year's winner, Doris Lessing of Britain (though Lessing often writes about her life in southern Africa). Of the other four, one was from Turkey and the others from South Africa, China and Trinidad. All had strong ties to Europe.

Engdahl said Europe draws literary exiles because it "respects the independence of literature" and can serve as a safe haven.

"Very many authors who have their roots in other countries work in Europe, because it is only here where you can be left alone and write, without being beaten to death," he said. "It is dangerous to be an author in big parts of Asia and Africa."

The Nobel Prize announcements start next week with the medicine award on Monday, followed by physics, chemistry, peace and economics. Next Thursday is a possible date for the literature prize, but the Swedish Academy by tradition only gives the date two days before.

Engdahl suggested the announcement date could be a few weeks away, saying "it could take some time" before the academy settles on a name.

Each Nobel Prize includes a $1.3 million purse, a gold medal and a diploma. The awards are handed out December 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896.


What I find most exceptional about this story, after the obligatory nationalism of the American response to this article, is not merely Engdahl's ignorance of the US (a huge problem in Europe, where the dominant perception of America is driven by the actions of our least intellectually-gifted political leaders), but the manner in which the non-Western world is constricted within the framework of conditioning the Nobel prize for literature to having ties to Europe. It is ironic that the continent whose intelligentsia is the most vehemently critical of imperialism is itself a literary colonial headquarters as a contingent for recognition of the world's most prestigious writing prize. Some might even call Engdahl's attitude about Africa and Asia unhealthily paternalistic (just ask Zhang Kangkang [one of the greatest living literary figures in China] about how the West ignores most of her writings). I am sure there are many authors in India and Uganda without money to vacation and "exile" themselves in Europe who are regularly ignored by the likes of Engdahl.

I also cannot help but wonder if Engdahl's attitude is indicative of the view of the rest of the Nobel committee on literature. If such is the case then aspiring Nobel laureates should get their European passports, because unless you pay proper tribute to your ex-colonial rulers you will be relegated to the status of ignorant savage, so sayeth the motherland's literary Hugh Trevor-Ropers. So much for the non-Europeans.

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