For the nineteenth time in nineteen years, the Nobel Prize in Literature has gone to a writer outside of the US. As with most people in this country, the members of Still Eating Oranges were previously unfamiliar with the work of Chinese author Mo Yan. If he is as talented as last year’s winner, Tomas Tranströmer, then we have reason to be excited. As usual, though, a certain group (comprised mostly of Americans) has come out to criticize the Nobel committee for snubbing Cormac McCarthy or Joyce Carol Oates or Philip Roth. Those familiar with this annual tradition will remember that Roth, in particular, has become the cause célèbre for angry American pundits. The US has not had a laureate since Toni Morrison, the logic goes; and so there must be bias afoot.
Recently, The Guardian’s Jason Farago wrote a piece on this phenomenon. Therein, he recalls an infamous, almost legendary 2008 comment made by Nobel spokesman Horace Engdahl: “The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” Every year, US publications trot out this quote as evidence of the Academy’s favoritism; but Farago sides with Engdahl. He decries our country’s writing as “formally retrograde”, “frequently narcissistic” and lacking in “insight or rebelliousness”. He remarks that a new avant-garde theatrical work by 2004’s winner, Elfriede Jelinek, would likely be returned for improvements in a US MFA program. It’s no secret that US writers’ workshops stifle experimentation, but Farago is hinting at a far deeper problem.
The thing is that with the exception of Tomas Tranströmer (who was old and Swedish), everyone who’s won the Nobel in the last 10 years was very politically engaged and writing either about imperialism / East - West relations, and /or about WWII / the Holocaust, and / or about feminism. When you consider the fact that most are immigrants, or come from Jewish immigrant families as well (the only exceptions to this are, again, Tomas Tranströmer and this year’s winner), you start to see how the claim that American literature is too ‘insular’ does kind of make sense. The problem is not MFA CW programmes, or excessive realism - writers with very different writing styles have won, it’s the lack of interest in engaging with anything outside the bubble of white middle class American-ness. I do enjoy reading Carver or Roth or Updike, even Salinger, but most of the time they all write about the same kind of people and the same culture (and often I get the sense that they assume that culture is in some way ‘universal’ although it’s really not?).
Coetzee actually writes in Elizabeth Costello about the feeling of winning an award just because you were from a specific country. I think your point’s accurate though. I tell my students how you write is important, and it is, but once you’ve gotten to a certain level of skill with the how, then what you write becomes important again, separates you from the good writers who aren’t challenging their readers (and themselves) philosophically, culturally, politically, etc.