Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Horace Engdahl's Ignorance

According to the Guardian, Nobel Prize comittee chair Horace Engdahl has out-of-hand dismissed any chances of Americans winning the Literature prize. He was quoted as saying: "The US 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."

Poor Mr. Engdahl. His own ignorance is keeping him from a treasure trove of great American literature. And if he's dodging any books that may seem excessively American, he may very well be missing out on the best our country has to offer.

A respondent called Sarka, commenting on this Guardian follow-up commentary, points out: "Universal or provincial? It's a silly argument. The American novels I love best are thoroughly American in themes and treatments, if in very different ways. The same goes for any other nation - don't tell me that the appeal of Dostoyevsky's novels is not partly their extreme unabashed Russianness..."

I think this nicely references the core paradox of storytelling: it is from the specifics rooted in a particular place, culture, time, and character that universality emerges. Carefully observed, passionately related details create a sense of realism, even in the most fantastical of stories, which makes the narrative come alive.

What makes a story seem universal is richness of specific detail. Details, not necessarily overwrought Victorian explication, but relevant observations of people, places and problems, grab the audience, and their empathic and mirror systems kick-in and allow them to relate to the narrative at a very core level. While one may never have been a soldier freezing on the Russian Steppe, or an immigrant laborer drunk in a seedy bar in Brooklyn, it is the relating of particulars about such people and places that allow us to feel as if their specific stories relate to universal themes.

American novels are best when they are American.

The Guardian mentions some obvious examples: Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike and Cormac McCarthy. But there are a number of other great American authors who are being overlooked, or who will achieve greatness one day and then be overlooked. Let me name a few so you can add them to your reading list: Thomas Pynchon, Chuck Palahniuk, Don DeLillo, Michael Chabon, Frank Turner Hollon, Craig Clevenger, Dave Eggers, Douglas Coupland, and David Foster Wallace (who sadly will now never get a chance at a Nobel).

Of course, genre fiction never gets considered, but Dennis Lehane is a great crime writer, and there are numerous American science fiction authors of high quality, such as William Gibson and Harlan Ellison. If none of Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, Isaac Asimov, or Arthur C. Clarke were given Nobel Prizes in Literature, probably no science fiction writer ever will be.

Kurt Vonnegut, who was not really a genre writer, but his genius was called into question by some who decided he was (and that that was necessarily bad), was also overlooked. So were Joseph Conrad, and "the poet laureate of skid row," Charles Bukowski.

Of course, there are many more great American writers. Please feel free to post comments with your recommendations. Outside the U.S., the Guardian quotes David Remnick as citing Proust, Joyce and Nabokov as overlooked, to which I'd add Murakami and Bulgakov (his greatest work being published posthumously may have been part of it, but other writers have received Nobels for their lesser works).

Either Mr. Engdahl is reading some particularly bad American writing, or he is simply unwilling to accept the fact that Americans, like any other people, can tell compelling and universal stories embedded in the context of their own unique experiences. Regardless of the source of his ire, I am skeptical of someone who can cast aside all literature from a nation of three hundred million people with nary a shrug. How is it that someone tasked with judging literature can be so ignorant of such a crucial element of storytelling: that personal, temporal, spatial and cultural particulars are precisely what cause a well-told story to come alive and resonate as universal?

I already consider the arts and sciences to be something far greater than game shows to be "won" by the cultural uebermenschen, but with people like Mr. Engdahl serving as judges, such competitions seem even more dubious to me. His sort of attitude may work well for Simon Cowell, but I'd expect more from an organization with such pretensions to relevance.


Seth said...

Great post!

One of my favourite writers for awhile now has been Christopher Brookmyre (http://www.brookmyre.co.uk). His stories use very American-cinematic pacing and tone, but the characters, plots and themes are very, very Scottish. That is much of his appeal for me - his seemingly effortless ability to convey the Scottish sense of identity in his stories. And all the things about them that are uniquely Scottish act as a contract to his more universal themes & characters, throwing them into sharp relief. Check him out.

Splintered Dreams said...

thanks for the list as ever..i would add william gaddis, since i reread "The Recognitions" every few years and find something more period and American in it every time, yet simultaneously contemporary. i can now reasonably expect the Lives of the Saints to make it to TV.

and just the other day while reading the grammar of Newspeak appended to 1984, i found that the language omits adverbs and replaces them with the suffix -wise, e.g. "goodwise" "fastwise," like the dryly-panned language of the principal in "JR."

i'm surprised you didn't rate John Kennedy Toole, but maybe you think him overrated. i'm still reading Confederacy of Dunces now and have yet to decide.