Comedy and Literature
Film and Literature

The Big Dialogue of Literature

By now, everyone attuned to the literary news is no doubt aware of Horace Engdahl's comments that "Europe still is the center of the literary world" when it comes to the awarding of the Nobel Prize, that "The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature," and that American writers are "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture."

On the one hand, it seems likely that Engdahl's remarks were motivated by a non-literary (and entirely justified) dissatisfaction with American political and military actions over the last eight years, a dissatisfaction widely shared across all of Europe these days. Engdahl assumes, wrongly, that American writers, American "culture" more generally, are somehow complicit with these actions or at least haven't done enough to express their solidarity with European critics of American hubris as embodied by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. To this extent, one might grant Engdahl some forbearance, since his attitude probably reflects a momentary unhappiness with the United States that will surely abate with the passing of the Bush administration.

But on the other hand, Engdahl's comments do reflect some underlying assumptions about both American literature and the role of literature more generally that certainly warrant scrutiny. For one thing, while I suppose it is possible for writers to become "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture" (especially if we take "mass culture" to be something other than "culture" itself, a separate realm driven by the same mindless forces that drive the American government), most depictions of "mass culture" in American fiction tend to be critical of that culture, if not outright satirical. Insofar as Engdahl has read much contemporary American fiction, it would seem he hasn't read it very well. Especially among those writers who might be seriously considered for the Nobel Prize--Roth or Pynchon or Barth--"mass culture" is an object of concern and ridicule, not something these writers seek to reinforce. That Engdahl would think otherwise does call his qualifications for the job of awarding a literary prize--the most esteemed literary prize of them all--into question.

One would have to presume that Europe remains "the center of the literary world" because its writers do not have such an unseemly obsession with their own nations' culture, but of course this hardly seems credible. However, since Engdahl provides no additional enlightenment about what it actually means to be the world's literary center an alternative presumption would seem to be that Europe is central because, well, the Nobel committee most often awards the prize to European writers. I admit both a professional and personal bias toward American fiction in my own reading habits, but to the extent Engdahl is claiming the greatest contemporary writers are to be found on the continent of Europe, I must further admit I find the notion thoroughly unsupportable. There are certainly some very fine writers in Great Britain, but most of them are undoubtedly obscure to someone like Horace Engdahl (writers such as Tom McCarthy and Rosalind Belben), and among them are decidedly not the "name" writers Engdahl probably does have in mind--Martin Amis or Ian McEwan. There are also excellent writers in France and the German-speaking countries, and I have recently found myself particularly taken by several Eastern European writers whose work I had not previously read, but again the notion that any of these writers are "greater" than Roth, Pynchon, Coover, or Stephen Dixon seems to me palpably absurd. And that such now deceased postwar American writers as John Hawkes or Stanley Elkin or Gilbert Sorrentino were never even remotely considered for the Nobel Prize only highlights the essential cluelessness of those at the "center" of the European literary world.

The comments that have received the most attention in the print media and on literary blogs are Engdahl's suggestions that American writers are "too insular" and "don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature." Most people have interpreted this to be a criticism of American writers for not reading enough translated work, or for focusing on domestic "issues," but I find the claims as worded to be virtually incoherent. Either Engdahl is asserting that not enough American writers are contributing to some ongoing "dialogue" about literature separate from their own writing, or the allegation is that they don't conceive of their writing as a contribution to "the big dialogue of literature." As far as I'm concerned, both notions are equally preposterous. The first requires that we think of world literature as some kind of super seminar in which writers are the invited panelists and collegiality the expected behavior. It seems to substitute "dialogue" among writers for literary criticism.

Most likely, of course, Engdahl means something like the second. American writers are too "insular" in that they don't offer their work as part of a cross-cultural discourse that Engdahl is defining as "literature." They are too "isolated" to see the value of this discourse. But literature isn't a "dialogue" monitored by self-appointed arbiters who decide what part of the conversation deserves a prize for its insight. It isn't an attempt to "say" anything, except circuitously or by accident. I'm tempted to construe Engdahl's scolding of American writers for their insularity as just another expression of impatience with the "merely literary," with writing that isn't morally or politically useful, but I doubt he really meant to go quite that far. He is simply reiterating a commonly-held, if implicit rather than thought-out, view that literature is more about dialogue and discussion and nicely articulated platitudes. less about art and aesthetic consummation, which indeed often occurs in isolation and, in literature, as a "dialogue" only between the author and his/her text.

One reason that poets are so infrequently awarded the Nobel Prize has to be that it is much harder to value poetry primarily for its relevance to "the big dialogue." Poetry more clearly foregrounds the aesthetic ambitions of literature, and even those who read novels for the "something said" are often willing to concede that this model is overly reductive as applied to poetry (when such readers even admit to reading poetry--many simply confess they don't "get" it). But since the Nobel Prize seems to be decided according to the criterion that a writer "say" things (that, and the implicit requirement that the prestige of the prize be spread around a little--every once in a while a Chinese or Arabic writer--to enlarge the "dialogue"), poetry, or, God forbid, experimental writing, is nevertheless going to be left at the door. Such exclusion of writing that in its necessary inwardness doesn't meet the blandly humanitarian standards of the Nobel committee is just one of the reasons why this literary prize, the biggest, is also the most idiotic.


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