Horace's Ars America

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A brief break from the economic meltdown and the election, if I may, to turn attention to the 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature, the winner of which will be announced tomorrow in Stockholm. In an interview with the AP last week, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Horace Engdahl, grumbled that American literature is substandard; that American writers are "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture"; that "The U.S. is too isolated, too insular"; and, of course, our writers are "ignorant." According to Engdahl, Americans "don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature."

It's an ill-informed little rant, but not entirely surprising coming from a blowhard like Engdahl. It is probably worth noting that none of Engdahl's books have been translated into English—who would know his name, who would listen to his cluelessness, if it not for the Nobel committee? A handful of Derrida-obsessed Swedes, I suppose. And yes, this is the very same Horace Engdahl who presided over the Swedish Academy's selection of overrated party hacks like Elfriede Jelinek, Harold Pinter, and Dario Fo.  

American critics haven't taken the slight lying down. New Yorker editor David Remnick told the AP: "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. 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."

And, for reasons of party loyalty, they rather famously overlooked Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. According to socialist academic and former Academy member Arthur Lundkvist, Borges was blocked from the prize because of his association with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Such associations were considered unbecoming a Nobel laureate. In 1971, however, Lundkvist and his fellow arbiters of literary (and political) merit bequeathed the prize to Pablo Neruda, a self-identified Stalinist. Favorite bit of Neruda verse? How about this bit of agit-schlock, from 1953:

We must learn from Stalin / his sincere intensity / his concrete clarity / Stalin is the noon / the maturity of man and the peoples / Stalinists, Let us bear this title with pride!

Writing in Slate, critic Adam Kirsch argued that "the real scandal of Engdahl's comments is not that they revealed a secret bias on the part of the Swedish Academy . It is that Engdahl made official what has long been obvious to anyone paying attention: The Nobel committee has no clue about American literature."

Incidentally, the Swedish media is guessing that the prize will be given to Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, or Don DeLillo—Americans all.

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  1. If the Squareheads don’t appreciate American Exceptionalism in literature they can go fuck themselves.

  2. That’s the most outrageous thing I’ve ever heard. Don’t those heathens know that Jesus wrote the Bible, and he was an American!

  3. In an interview with the AP last week, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Horace Engdahl, grumbled that American literature is substandard; that American writers are “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture”; that “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular”; and, of course, our writers are “ignorant.” According to Engdahl, Americans “don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.”

    Yeah, well, YOU sold iron to the Nazis. Jerks.

  4. Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, or Don DeLillo

    Any of them would be a deserving choice. Deep bench.

  5. Warren, once again my friend, you are in over your head. It is only the LSD inspired Mormon Jesus that was American. The Real Jesus was Roman Catholic. You know, from up close to Italy. WOP being the Latin Italian acronym for “Son Of God.”

  6. the vitality in the generation of Roth, Updike, and DeLillo, as well as in many younger writers

    I agree those writers are excellent. Who would you guys say is part of the younger generation though? I’m curious. Hit&Runners usually seem pretty well-read to me.

  7. “And, for reasons of party loyalty”

    MM’s Swedish, isn’t he? What party was (is?) MM a member of? Not a party opposed to this guys party is it?

    I honestly haven’t liked any “modern” American writers other than Bukowski or O’Brien (Leaving Las Vegas).

    It is probably true that we don’t translate enough and we don’t participate in enough cultural dialogue. I saw a French film the other day (Tell No One) in which the soundtrack was about 80% American songs. That shit is unthinkable here (a major US movie with 80% French songs).

  8. Lundkvist and his fellow arbiters of literary (and political) merit bequeathed the prize to Pablo Neruda, a self-identified Stalinist.

    and people wonder why we talk about the “leftist Ivory Tower”.

    Any Duranty-esque paeans to Stalin’s show trials in that poetry?

  9. I saw a French film the other day (Tell No One) in which the soundtrack was about 80% American songs.

    That was a good movie.

    you see, MNG, in between swillin’ Miller and beating my wife in the trailer park, I have time for culture.

  10. I think Updike, Oates and Roth are just terrible. As Bukowski would say they are bullshit New Yorker (the magazine) types playing stylistic word games with no courage or innovation.

  11. Buk quote about those New Yorker types: they sound like a grandmother on the phone.

    TAO
    I may disagree with you a lot but I’ve never imagined you as willing Miller and beating your wife at the the trailer park. I mean, I’ve always imagined you as more a PBR man ;). Keeding, keeding.

    I agree totally, I thought it was a great film.

  12. Pinter’s a hack? he was dead on calling for Bush and Blair to be put on trial…

  13. Neruda is a recognized as a really great writer though, and I would’nt disqualify the guy for a lit award because of his stupid politics (I mean, a shitload of great artists were drawn to communism). In fact, that’s what makes the snubbing of Borges MM describes so appalling.

    I will say I’ve never “gotten” most of Neruda’s stuff.

  14. MNG,

    Try Roth’s “The Plot Against America.”

    You’ll lie awake thinking about it.

  15. Neruda is OK because at least he was primarily a love poet, which isn’t really a party political sort of thing.

    Anyway, the academy lost whatever credibility it had left when it picked Harold Pinter over Tom Stoppard, also probably for political considerations.

  16. I always understood that we suck a literature because all the good writers work on TV and movies.

  17. a literature

    and that blogging has detroyed written language

  18. We must learn from Stalin / his sincere intensity / his concrete clarity / Stalin is the noon / the maturity of man and the peoples / Stalinists, Let us bear this title with pride!

    Yeah, I think that one got left out of the Neruda collection I have.

  19. Has anyone here actually bought a book SIMPLY BECAUSE the author got a Nobel Prize?

  20. Kolohe, that’s the only way to make money in the writing biz.

  21. We suck at literature? If so, then the rest of the world must really suck. Our cultural hegemony isn’t just about Happy Meals, people.

  22. Yeah, well, YOU sold iron to the Nazis. Jerks.

    Its interesting how the Swiss, who were for the most part anti-German are vilified for whatever appeasements they committed in self-defense, while the Swedes who were generally pro-German get a total pass for almost complete and total collaboration.

    Try Roth’s “The Plot Against America.”

    I will one day give this book a read. Given how good a writer Roth is I’m sure that technically it is good. But all the while I while I will view it as a work of fiction, occurring in some alternate universe in which Charles Lindbergh was actually a Nazi anti-semite. I will simply pretend that he is talking about some other Charles Lindbergh, not the one who devoted a considerable portion of his fortune to bringing Jewish refugees to America.

  23. occurring in some alternate universe in which Charles Lindbergh was actually a Nazi anti-semite.

    *claps hand over mouth*

  24. Right now I am reading Watchers. I normally do not read graphic novels but this one was recommended by someone I have a great deal of respect for. I must say it is brilliant; it is deeply philosophical and literary. I think Alan Moore is British even though most of this book takes place in the United States. If I am wrong someone let me know. But talk about a new (relatively speaking) twist on great literature. The idea of a graphic novel being great literature has got to get the upper-class-twit-of-the-day’s panties in a bind. But this book is! The book has already gotten a (very much deserved) Hugo Award.

  25. What the fuck does that mean, joe?

  26. I mean Watchmen

  27. I can’t believe I made that mistake, i have the book right here! ARGHHH

  28. It means you should read the novel.

  29. No

  30. Has anyone here actually bought a book SIMPLY BECAUSE the author got a Nobel Prize?

    Yeah I picked up a copy of Par Lagervist (spelling probly wrong)’s The Sybil because he got a Nobel in the early 50s. But I was 15 and mostly into shoplifting so it may not have been a ‘bought’ situation. Book was ungreat.

    Agree about Updike, Delillo and Roth as excellent writers and significantly better than many Laureates. Never read Oates.

  31. Because of his numerous scientific expeditions to Nazi Germany,[citation needed] combined with a belief in eugenics, Lindbergh was suspected of being a Nazi sympathizer.

    Lindbergh’s reaction to Kristallnacht was entrusted to his diary: “I do not understand these riots on the part of the Germans,” he wrote. “It seems so contrary to their sense of order and intelligence. They have undoubtedly had a difficult ‘Jewish problem,’ but why is it necessary to handle it so unreasonably?”[67]

    In his diaries, he wrote: “We must limit to a reasonable amount the Jewish influence? Whenever the Jewish percentage of total population becomes too high, a reaction seems to invariably occur. It is too bad because a few Jews of the right type are, I believe, an asset to any country.”

  32. Lindbergh was a racist, only vaguely anti-Semitic, but nowhere near a Nazi sympathizer.

  33. On another note, we would have been better off if it had been Lindbergh and not FDR.

  34. How can Engdahl be such an ingrate? It was an American band, Led Zeppelin (sp?), which wrote a famous tribute to Scandinavian culture, The Immigrant Song. The song celebrates the cultural achievements of the Scandinavian peoples in the key cultural areas of invading, looting, raping and pillaging.

    And there’s no need for Engdahl to be so pessimic about American culture. There are many opportunities for cultural exchange. Consider Elin Nordegren, the former Swedish model who is now the wife of American golfer Tiger Woods. Elin can teach Americans like tiger about the fine points of Swedish culture, and Tiger can teach Swedes like Elin what it’s like to make love to a *real* man.

  35. It means you should read the novel.

    Ummmm….

    I will one day give this book a read.

    Are you trying to tell me that all the reviews I have read or heard, which told me that the novel describes an America where Charles Lindbergh is the President of an an America with a Nazi regime with extensive persecution of Jews (if not extermination camps) are wrong.

    Like I say, I’m sure the story is a well written yarn with plenty of ripping good stuff.

    What I don’t expect to find is is much that resembles historical fact (but who would read a novel for that?).

    Lindbergh, like most progressives (surprised?) (and the Swedes referenced above) admired the Germany of the 1930s for its discipline and devotion to cooperative and community enterprise. Once they got a glimpse of Hitlers bizarre militarism and psychotic racial theories most of them bolted as fast as they could (much like FDR’s “brain trust” bolted from its love affair with Mussolini once Il Duce invaded Abyssinia).

    Whatever grievances Roth has about his youth he cannot lay them at the feet of Lindbergh.

    joe, as you should know, complex people need complex narratives (think Jefferson, the slaveowner, it gets closer to home for me, John Bartram, choke). I get the impression that Roth has not delivered that here.

    I promise that I will read the novel within the month.

  36. …I’m guessing you’re just fucking around, but Led Zeppelin isn’t American. In fact, it was insisted that they spell it that way so “dull Americans” wouldn’t pronounce it like you’re pulling somebody.

  37. Well, maybe President Bush can make them honorary Americans or something.

  38. It is too bad because a few Jews of the right type are, I believe, an asset to any country.

    This is not that far from what some of my parents friends, well to do Jews in Northern Virginia, Maryland and DC, thought in the 1930s as well.

    The resistance to Jewish immigration in the 1930s by established well to do Jews is a sordid tale.

    Perhaps Philip Roth will get around to telling the story some day.

  39. Roth is generally great, but The Plot Against America is incredibly badly made and ignorantly conceived — in a way that embodies a host of Lindbergh-era antisemitic stereotypes.

    If that were his intention, it’d be a fantastic metafictional satire.

    But it’s not. It’s fucking horrifying.

  40. In defense of Sweden, they came *this close* to having a great playwright. Henrik Ibsen, the great Norwegian playwright, died in 1906, one year after Norway became independent of Sweden. If only Ibsen had died a couple of years earlier, Ibsen would have died a Swede (or at least a Norse-Swede), and Sweden would be able to claim him.

    Ah, the fickle vagaries of fate!

  41. MM – You don’t think Strindberg qualifies?

  42. Hogan,

    Fair enough.

    And there’s also the Swedish musical group Crucified Barbara. Their contributions to culture include the arias “Play me Hard” and “Rock and Roll Bachelor.”

  43. Isaac,

    Are you trying to tell me that all the reviews I have read or heard, which told me that the novel describes an America where Charles Lindbergh is the President of an an America with a Nazi regime with extensive persecution of Jews (if not extermination camps) are wrong. No. I am not telling you that.

    joe, as you should know, complex people need complex narratives (think Jefferson, the slaveowner, it gets closer to home for me, John Bartram, choke). I get the impression that Roth has not delivered that here.

    Heh.

    All right then.

    Within the month.

  44. I am familiar with the works of Pablo Neruda.

  45. 2008 nobel prize for literature goes to maurice sendak for his “brilliant portrayals of the spirit and resistance of the people under cruel authority”

  46. Michael Moynihan,

    A handful of Derrida-obsessed Swedes, I suppose.

    FWIW, Derrida has had and still has far more of an audience in the U.S. than in any other country.

  47. Neruda is OK because at least he was primarily a love poet, which isn’t really a party political sort of thing.

    Yes it is! It always is! That’s all it ever is! Not okay! Not okay!

  48. If that were his intention, it’d be a fantastic metafictional satire.

    This is what I’ve been led to expect from the reviews I’ve seen and heard. Hey, joe, they were the ones that said it.

    Frankly, I’m still wondering why if Philip Roth is pissed off because a bunch of Irish and Italian kids beat him up in North Jersey in the 40s he’s blaming some old Swedish-American Lutheran guy from Minnesota for it.

    Sorry, joe, if that isn’t what the story is about the reviewers shouldn’t have said it was.

    I’ll let you know in a month, email’s good, right?

  49. Of course, Engdahl’s comments invalidate an award that didn’t need much too invalidating.

    The Nobel Prize is a politcal award. Everyone knows that.

    However, I tend to gravitate to foreign writers simply because they seem to use their imagination more, much like writers in the American South. To most Americans, any form of magical realism, or an open ending gives them a headache. It confuses the fuck out of them. American writers seem obsessed with the vulgar neurotic, which was already covered in detail by early modernist writers.

    The South has always produced the best writers in America, in my opinion. There’s simply more to write about, and there’s less posturing.

    I still hold the Beats responsible for dumbing down literature in America.

    In the end, the award is merely an opinion, and no one can absolutely say who should, or shouldn’t have been given one. The Committee can place whatever ridiculous restrictions on it that they so choose.

    It’s just a little club for academics to make themselves feel superior. It’s not worth getting offended over. Europe has been calling American literature dumb since it began.

    Ultimately, it should be about an individual’s work, not whether or not they talk about global issues, or seem too “insular.”

    There are many insular works that I hold dear.

    Although, I find the worst kinds of novels to be history based novels. God, what dreadful reading.

    If I want to learn about global issue, then I’ll read an honest discussion on it, and not some pseudo-poetic impression by a fanciful writer.

  50. Not to throw another turd in the punchbowl, but I never really liked DeLillo. His writing always seemed too…self-aware. Like Chuck Palahniuk, but only not entertaining.

    But given that we are exceptionalists, I just don’t get why we should *care* that the Swedish academy disses our stuff.

  51. “Horace’s Ars”

    I can’t beleive it’s gone over 50 posts and no one’s picked up on that.

  52. Everyone was waiting for your arrival, Aresen.

  53. I just don’t get why we should *care* that the Swedish academy disses our stuff.

    But we still care what the Swedish Bikini Team thinks, right?

  54. I’ve read 1.5 Updike books (3 of them halfway through). I find Glenn Close’s treatment of rabbits much more humane.

  55. Hey, Aresen, it’s been forty years since I rode a godamn horse. I know how it is with you guys and the mounties and how everything has to come by dogsled, but down her in the States we have these new-fangled auto-mobeels and all.

    You guys have indoor plumbing yet?

  56. Isaac Bartram | October 9, 2008, 12:05am | #

    Hey, Aresen, it’s been forty years since I rode a godamn horse. I know how it is with you guys and the mounties and how everything has to come by dogsled, but down her in the States we have these new-fangled auto-mobeels and all.

    I guess we’ll get some now that you ‘Maricuns have provided the big three with a $25 Billion bailout.

    You guys have indoor plumbing yet?

    Had to get it. They stopped printing the Sears catalogue. (God I hated using the shiny pages.)

  57. However, I tend to gravitate to foreign writers simply because they seem to use their imagination more, much like writers in the American South. To most Americans, any form of magical realism, or an open ending gives them a headache. It confuses the fuck out of them. American writers seem obsessed with the vulgar neurotic, which was already covered in detail by early modernist writers.

    There is a well spring of imagination in American fiction; the only problem here is your unwillingness to take Gene Wolfe, Kate Wilhem, Damon Knight, Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany, Thomas Disch, etc. seriously for no other reason than they do not fit the bill of what rises to the level of high status in the anemic world of academic literature.

    If we are talking about the merits of fiction,
    confronting our nature, interesting, stylistic approach to narrative, nothing I have read of Harold Pinter’s work can even vaguely touch Wolfe’s The Death of Doctor Island. You enjoy reading fiction that reveals a deeply sophisticated mind at play, look no further than a Walcott to call our own Samuel Delany, I recommend the Driftglass collection of short stories and novelas.

    In the Man visiting Earth from Mars for the first time and evaluating what he sees, it is really pathetic the degree status wins over merit.

  58. Way back up in the thread, there were laudatory remarks about a French film, “Tell No One.” It should be noted it is based upon an American work of literature by Harlan Coben.

    Any why hasn’t anyone noted Cormac McCarthy as a great American (or at least a great Texan) writer??? I thought Europeans liked cowboy stories too . . .

  59. What an incredibly unimportant issue.

  60. Who cares? The only Nobel prizes that matter are the natural sciences ones. Literature occasionaly goes to a deserving writer and occasionaly goes to a crappy writer for political reasons. The only prize worse is peace which goes to actual mass murderers instead of mass murderer apologizers.

  61. CORMAC MCCARTHY IS NOT A TEXAN. ::arranges unkempt self:: He wasn’t born there and he doesn’t live there now.

    I still hold the Beats responsible for dumbing down literature in America.

    ::Claps::

  62. Alan, thanks for the recommendations.

    I’ll check them out.

  63. Suprise: A French guy won, but he lived in the US for a few years.

  64. I liked Roth’s “Plot Against America,” but I didn’t think it was Nobel quality.

    I second whoever said that Cormac McCarthy should get a nobel.

  65. Isaac,

    Sorry, joe, if that isn’t what the story is about the reviewers shouldn’t have said it was.

    Oh, don’t apologize.

    Or, rather, save your apology for Roth.

  66. Isaac, do you really think Philip Roth would write a book in which a complicated historical figure was rendered as a simplistic villain in a melodrama?

    And if he had, do you really think I’d be mooning over that book?

    You underestimate the man.

  67. Left-wing politics may have helped their case with the Nobel academy, but there’s no question that Neruda and Pinter deserved the award on grounds of literary greatness.

  68. Bertold Brecht was a communist. So?

    It seems that the charge of “partisanship” here is that people WEREN’T discriminated against for the their politics.

  69. joe, I guess I’ll find out when I read it. I’ll get back to you then.

    Like I said, all I know is what the reviewers said.

  70. Oh man, oh man, oh man. Read it fast, because I can’t wait to talk to you about it. It’s going to knock you on your ass.

    Actually, you’re going to read it fast regardless of what I say.

    What I think is so impressive about that book is that even as the huge events and themes are going on, it’s first and foremost a very personal, humane book about a kid, and a family, and a neighborhood.

  71. “Are you trying to tell me that all the reviews I have read or heard, which told me that the novel describes an America where Charles Lindbergh is the President of an an America with a Nazi regime with extensive persecution of Jews (if not extermination camps) are wrong.”

    Accurate except for “Nazi regime” and depending on one’s definition of “extensive”. The book’s President Lindbergh is a more moderate fascist and anti-semite. His administration has cordial relations with Hitler’s regime but remains neutral in the war. Lindbergh’s fictional veep, Burton Wheeler (Dem senator from Montana), is depicted as much more vicious and pro-Nazi.

    “The Plot Against America” is not one of Roth’s better novels. If you’re wondering where to start, read “American Pastoral”.

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