Horace's Ars America


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.