Pictured: Horace Engdahl. Courtesy Aftonbladet.
So, little known fact: every year, a handful of members of the Swedish Academy get together to discuss who should be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Yes, other groups cover those pesky sciences and the good ol' Peace prize, but the only real art that is focused on by the Nobels are books. I say this is little known because, in America, it is. And rightly so.
Before the most recent prize was awarded, member of the Academy Horace Engdahl made disparaging comments as to the state of American fiction (also read for Kirsch's excellent summary of the circumstances behind the award, as well as the Nobel Prize for Literature's American history). These remarks were stupid and ignorant, stupid in that they displayed a stubborn failure to grasp the actual state of modern fiction, and ignorant in that they were just plain wrong. Furthermore, Engdahl's Academy managed to top itself by subsequently awarding the prize to a Frenchmen.
Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio is an almost laughably faithful example of the "worldliness" that Engdahl has expressed a desire in. Good for him. But, as Kirsch points out, so is Philip Roth, and there is no doubt that France is an equally (and, I would argue, more) insular culture than the United States. Just look at the trouble they've had internalizing immigrants. I won't argue that Le Clézio is a poor choice for the Prize, as I cannot say that I have read any of his work. Why? I don't speak French, the only language he is willing to write in, despite his adept grasp of a number of others. Yes, there are translations, and I plan on reading one of his novels as soon as I get the chance. However, he doesn't write in English not because he can't, but rather because he chooses not to, referring to it as "colonial." Meanwhile, English is spoken by hundreds of millions more people than French, and last time I checked France was colonizing Indochina in the 1950s, just as late in the game as any British colony.
This sentiment fits in perfectly with that of Engdahl's and the Academy. Because the prize is awarded by a Swedish organization (which, mind you, is a country of 9 million, 80% of whom are ethnic Lutherans-that's insularity), you kind of get the sense that they're trying to preserve the old notion of European hegemony. That's not the case anymore, though. English language books HAVE to be recongized, and seeing as they're mostly coming out of the United Kingdom and the United States, one would think that America would play a large role. The last time the Nobels recognized a truly great American author was Saul Bellow in 1976, and there have been many, many authors worthy of consideration since then. Until the Swedish Academy and Engdahl come back to reality, the Nobel Prize for Literature will continue to play second fiddle in the literary community to national prizes such as the Pulitzer and the Man Booker. It is a waste of the unique opportunity to highlight the standout work of the international community, a community that is not complete without the United States just as it would not be complete without France, Sweden, or any other nation.
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