Literary America: “Too isolated, too insular”

(8 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

A couple days ago, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy — the body that decides who will be the laureate for the Nobel Prize in Literature — stated Europe was the center of the literary world and America was “too isolated, too insular”.

This is what Horace Engdahl said in an interview he gave exclusively to the AP:

“Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world … not the United States.”

Engdahl believes American writers are “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture” and that negatively impacts their writing. Basically, he believes we Americans are too provincial. Engdahl said:

The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature… That ignorance is restraining.”

Engdhal believes that Europe is a safe haven for writers and it attracts writers from other countries because Europeans “respects the independence of literature”. He said:

“Very many authors who have their roots in other countries work in Europe, because it is only here where you can be left alone and write, without being beaten to death… It is dangerous to be an author in big parts of Asia and Africa.”

Now understandably, the literary community in the United States have reacted negatively to these remarks. The Independent reports in “Nobel judge: There’s nothing great about the American novel” that:

Literary cruise missiles immediately blasted off from the United States. “Put him in touch with me and I’ll send him a reading list,” said Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the US National Book Foundation.

David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker magazine, suggested it was the Swedish Academy which had been convicted by literary history of ignorance and bad taste. Some of the greatest, and most admired, writers of the past century were denied the Nobel Prize, he said – including several Europeans.

“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,” he said.

Mr Augenbraum added: “Such a comment makes me think that Mr Engdahl has read little of American literature outside the mainstream and has a very narrow view of what constitutes literature in this age.”

Now put aside the prestige, the gold medal and diploma, and the $1.3 million in prize money and ask yourself — is America “too isolated”?

I believe America is isolated from much of the world and most Americans, myself included, are insulated from much of what goes on in the world. Part of that is geography — being in the New World versus being in the Old World. Part of that is being in a large country with a large economy that was once at the top of the financial food chain. Multi-lingualism isn’t common in the United States and I believe much of my country’s population view outsiders with suspicion and some with fear or hatred.

America is changing. Spanish is becoming a second language in the United States. Demographically, Americans with fair skin and European ancestry will be in the minority in the coming decades. The Bush years have accelerated the decline of American prestige in eight short years. Something that had previously been been predicted would have taken to the end of the century.

But, even if you accept Engdahl assessment that America is “too isolated” and “too insular”. Is he being arrogant or just stating a fact when he claims that “Europe still is the center of the literary world”?


Cross-posted from the European Tribune.



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  1. Not only is literary America too isolated and too insular, but I believe the rest of America is too.

  2. that I can speak to the world of literature, but I agree with you that we are, as a rule, isolated and insular. The word hubris comes to mind when I think about how most US citizens view the rest of the world.  

  3. Europeans “respect the independence of literature”.

    I think the good  gentleman was being too kind. What he really meant to say was that Europeans “acknowledge the existence of literature.” Literature, a culture of literature, simply does not exist in America.

    It makes me sad to say that, as time goes on, I find myself identifying more and more with my ancestral homeland, Europe,  and less and less with the country where I was born.  I feel “Crusty the  proud American” dissolving into faerie dust as “Crusty the  ‘good European'” slowly comes into focus. As I said,  this makes me  so  very sad.  

  4. The comments here are a more reasonable contribution to the debate than the petulant academic responses.  

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