Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Nobel Prize for Lit or American Fictionistas Need Not Apply

Tonight, at the end of my graduate fiction class, as we were circulating next week's stories and concluding a very brief discussion of Gloria Naylor's "Mattie Michael," from The Women of Brewster Place, one of the students mentioned that on Thursday, the Swedish Academy will award the Nobel Prize in Literature. (The prizes in physiology or medicine, i.e., biomedical research, and physics, have been awarded already, the former to someone who unfortunately had passed away between the award decision and the announcement. Tomorrow the chemistry prize winners will be named. On Friday the Peace Prize will be promulgated, and Monday will bring a new economics winner or winners.)  Usually the grad students don't mention the Nobel Prize in Literature until after the fact, but this student and several others were excited about the pending notice, and one mentioned that it was unlikely that an American fiction writer would honored, which reminded me of this Salon article, "Why American Novelists Don't Deserve the Nobel Prize," by Alexander Nazaryan, that Reggie H. forwarded to me yesterday (or was it today? It's all a blur!).

Before I address the article, let me say that I hope a POET or someone who primarily writes poetry wins the prize this year. There are many extraordinary poets living and writing these days, many outstanding ones doing so within the Euro-American orbit, and many outside it. One such worthy, Adunis (Ali Ahmad Said Asbar) (1930-, born in Syria), was supposed to visit the university a few weeks ago but was too ill to join us; in his place came another such worthy, Raúl Zurita (1950-, from Chile), about whom I have posted several times.  Although I have zero influence with the Swedish Academy (although reading their guidelines, I realize that given my academic post, I can write a letter nominating someone, not that anyone affiliated with that institution will read it, but...), I sincerely hope and will send positive vibes that they spread the love around genrewise and honor a poet. Or someone who writes what's now commonly called creative nonfiction but which I guess might also be labeled imaginative, non-journlistic, non-scholarly prose. There are lots of fine examples of that genre too. And there are always the playwrights.

Now, back to Nazaryan's article. He notes that no American since Toni Morrison in 1993 has won the Nobel Prize in literature, and goes on to say American fiction writers don't deserve the honor because, qua former Swedish Academy permanent secretary Horace Engdahl, they/we are "too isolated, too insular," they/we don't look outside the borders of the US, they're/we're narcissistic, etc. Nazaryan slams Harold Pinter for his still valid Nobel Award ceremony speech (I mean, does anyone thinking clearly doubt that the US's invasion of Iraq was anything but illegal and criminal?), but then goes on cite the Ladbrokes tip on winners (Thomas Pynchon is in first place), after which he reduces all of contemporary American fiction writers to a tidy, ugly category, the "Great Male Narcissists," drawn from a David Foster Wallace essay. (Yes, him--what is the force field this writer has over so many literary journalists?) Que up trashing MFA programs. Cite a TS Eliot essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (you know, "dissociation of personality," etc.)  Then Nazaryan makes the outrageous claim that Jhumpa Lahiri is a South Asian female "Great Male Narcissist." (Mr. Nazaryan, please just read "The Third and Final Continent" if you need to be abused of this notion.) Anyone who doesn't fit into this formula is of course ignored. You can read the rest and gag.

Anyways, this got me to thinking: have the recent Nobel Laureates in Literature all the antithesis of "isolated," and "insular"? Do they not write about the "self," "themselves"? Do they write about life outside their native countries or societies? Let's look. The last 10 Nobel Laureates in Literature, going backwards, have been 2010: Mario Vargas Llosa (primarily fiction, Peru); 2009: Herta Müller (fiction, Germany/Romania); 2008: J-M. G. LeClézio (fiction, France); 2007: Doris Lessing (fiction and imaginative prose, UK); 2006: Orhan Pamuk (fiction, Turkey); 2005: Harold Pinter (drama, UK); 2004: Elfriede Jelinek (fiction and drama, Austria); 2003: J. M. Coetzee (fiction, South Africa); 2002: Imre Kértesz (fiction, Hungary); 2001: V. S. Naipaul (fiction and imaginative prose, Trinidad & Tobago/UK).  That is a very male, fiction-weighted, Europe-heavy list, ahem.

Now, I can say authoritatively that every single one of these authors initially wrote first and foremost about life in their native countries.  In the cases of Vargas Llosa, Müller, Pamuk, Jelinek, and Kértesz, they have tended to write about almost nothing else, though Pamuk's and Kértesz's works are historically inflected in very interesting ways, and Vargas Llosa's novels moved from to personal to grander, broader social and political themes, with some of the more recent books set outside Peru, such as The Feast of the Goat, which treats the Dominican Republic under Rafael Trujillo. Jelinek's works are extremely insular (and unreadable). Müller writes about emotional, psychological, social, and political isolation and insularity (quite beautifully). Pinter's works, while ostensibly set in the UK, could take place in many different places, but a central theme for many of them social and psychological isolation, and, especially in the later works, play on and with selfhood and its discontents--but, as I said, are not geographically bounded, for the most part. Lessing's realist works, while geographically situated, turn primarily on themes and tropes more so than place. Coetzee wrote primarily about South Africa (how could he not?), but his later works range widely in many senses; geographically, from Russia (The Master of Petersburg) to a fictional island and the UK (Foe), to the US and Australia (Diary of a Very Bad Year).  His masterpiece Elizabeth Costello is set in a range of places, including Heaven, or something like that realm. Intellectually they range as widely. LeClézio's work, after his first few books, seems set all over the place, but having skimmed a few of his novels, I'm not sure I buy any of them; they strike me as exercises in exoticism. But I haven't finished a single one, so I could be very wrong. Naipaul's writing ranges all over the place, but is essentially ALWAYS about V.S. Naipaul. He has no other subject, which is why after A House for Mr. Biswas and Miguel Street, two jewels, I cannot bear to read his work. I personally have no problem with any of these writers' approaches; what matters is the work they produce. Insular or outward-looking, isolated in its focus or catholic, if it's great work, it's great work.

All of which is to say that the criticisms of American fiction writers are not exactly fair if you look 1) at broader spectrum of who is writing and publishing fiction in the US today and what those works address and 2) at who has received the Nobel Prize, at least in the last 10 years, though one could go further back, and whether those works defy the critiques above. I get what Nazaryan and others like Engdahl are saying, but I just think they've settled on a hobbyhorse that doesn't really capture how rich American fiction writing truly is, especially if you go beyond the biggest (mostly male) names Nazaryan cites. And as the above international list suggests, these writers all started by writing about the societies they've spent most of their time in. Some of them, in fact, effectively have written the same novel, about that same place, over and over. I don't have any problem with anyone doing that, so long as the variations are compelling. That's all that matters. But back to fiction. The Swedish Academy missed Robert Bolaño, who did range across countries and ideas, and there are other fictionists like Wilson Harris, Maryse Condé, Nuruddin Farah, A. B. Yehoshua, Shariar Mandanipour, Margaret Atwood, Javier Marías, Dubrakva Ugresic, Haruki Murakami, etc. very deserving of the prize. As for Thursday...who do you think will be honored?

1 comment:

  1. Well, John as we now know, it was Transtromer, an author like Lessing, who has been on short lists so long, one almost forgets about them.

    I am EXTREMELY disappointed that Adonis wasn't chosen - although perhaps that indicates some nod toward the 'Arab Spring'/'Jasmine Revolution might be made with the Peace Prize later this week. But the Academy truly REALLY needs to get over its European self - and soon. It risk facing irrelevance (and considering the number of extraordinary writers it has passed over for.....let's say 'lesser lights' huh?....that time may have already arrived.