Share this article

print logo

Jeff Simon: Still more loathing of American literature from the Nobel

The middle finger of the Swedish academics remains metaphorically raised to contemporary American literature.

That is one inescapable conclusion from Thursday's announcement that the Nobel Prize for Literature went to Kazuo Ishiguro, the ultra-English novelist whose family arrived in England from Japan when he was five.

It isn't that Ishiguro isn't a worthy writer. He is. That is crystal clear immediately to anyone who has ever seen the films made from his two best book s-- Merchant-Ivory's "The Remains of the Day," containing one of the finest performances repression virtuoso Anthony Hopkins will ever give (opposite Emma Thompson); and "Never Let Me Go," the sci-fi tale of love among the clones starring Andrew Garfield, Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Charlotte Rampling.

He is even more powerful between covers.

But it's imperative that last year's award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan be seen for what it is and not what the civilized might hope it was. It didn't signify a sudden inclination of Swedish intellectuals to redefine literary endeavor in the 21st century. (In response to last year's Nobel, I read some people this year who hoped this year's winner of the Nobel Prize for literature would go to filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard.)

What it indicated is how deep the loathing is for all current American writers of the late 20th century and early 21st. Some years ago, a secretary to the Swedish Academy -- those who decide the Nobel Prize for Literature -- gave the game away when he pronounced all of contemporary American literature (apart from the pitifully few awardees) to be too insular to be awardable. With all the pomp of know-nothing bureaucrats the world over, he announced that Americans somehow didn't take part in the international "literary conversation."

To put it the way the social media might put it, American literature just wasn't much good at "trending."

Some of us were startled to think that the object of a great writer is to figure in the world's literary "conversation" -- you know, just like a book club. I never would have thought, for instance, that Nabokov and Borges (to take two famous Nobel rejects) thought their function was to have to converse with the books of other living writers. If they did, it would be hard to imagine, in their prime, writers who showed up more often than they in the conversations of others.

But let's get real here. The subject is raw anti-Americanism. Here, in full bewildering profusion, is one American writer's list of the peers the Swedes have had to ignore in America and have, therefore, consigned to Nobel oblivion. You'll find it on Page 383 of Philip Roth's "Why Write?:Collected Nonfiction 1960-2013" (Library of America, 452 pages, $35.: "Ralph Ellison, William Styron, Don DeLillo, E. L. Doctorow, James Baldwin, Wallace Stegner, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Penn Warren, John Updike, John Cheever, Bernard Malamud, Robert Stone, Evan Connell, Louis Auchincloss, Walker Percy, Cormac McCarthy, Russell Banks, William Kennedy, John Barth, Louis Begley, William Gaddis, Norman Rush, John Edgar Wideman, David Plante, Richard Ford, William Gass, Joseph Heller, Raymond Carver, Edmund White, Oscar Hijuelos, Peter Matthiessen, Paul Theroux, John Irving, Norman Mailer, Reynolds Prize, James Salter, Denis Johnson, J. F. Powers, Paul Auster, William Vollmann, Richard Stern, Allison Lurie, Flannery O'Connor, Paula Fox, Marilynne Robinson, Joyce Carol Oates, Joan Didion, Hortense Calisher, Jane Smiley, Anne Tyler, Jamaica Kincaid, Cynthia Ozick, Anne Beattie, Grace Paley, Lorrie Moore, Mary Gordon, Louise Erdrich and Toni Morrison (who, in a moment of Swedish weakness, did win a Nobel.)

Let's cede that for a long time, the view from Across the Atlantic at America must have been horrifying at times. But all this has become a permanent announcement of just how crashingly irrelevant the Nobel Prize for literature has become. In the cases of the late Updike and or Roth himself in his old age, that's especially apparent. In his final years, no one was more involved in the "literary conversation" than Updike -- so much so that the Nobel citations of international winners often read as if they had been cribbed from Updike's previous reviews of them.

Roth's book "Shop Talk" in 2001, literally contained literary conversations with the likes of Primo Levi, Aharon Appelfeld, Ivan Klima and Milan Kundera. Roth's joke about it all is "I wonder if I had called 'Portnoy's Complaint' 'The Orgasm Under Rapacious Capitalism' if I would thereby have earned the favor of the Swedish Academy."

In what Roth calls the "idiotic amusement park that is not universal" that is culture in the Western world, his kind of American writers can't clear their throats loud enough anymore to get Swedish approval.

They'll go for a great folk poet of popular song first (Dylan). Or a great short story writer from Canada. (Alice Munro). Or an English writer so traditional, in some of his books, that he might be the spiritual son of E.M. Forster (Ishiguro.)

Ishiguro is a fine writer--especially if the Swedish Academy has spent all those decades avoiding giving the prize to J. G. Ballard.

The Nobel Prize for Literature may not have quite reached the foolishness of Reality Television but, if it keeps on going the way it is in "the idiotic amusement park that is not universal," it may just get there yet.



There are no comments - be the first to comment