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The Nobel and Literature’s Third Rail

No country is an island, a poet might say, but the insularity of the U.S. has raised some hackles.
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Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy that awards the Nobel Prize in literature, startled American readers, authors and prize hopefuls a few weeks ago when he labeled the U.S. "too isolated, too insular."

We don’t translate enough foreign writers, he said; we don’t participate in the meaningful global dialogue in literature; and our authors are too sensitive to the plot lines of American mass culture.

“That ignorance,” he concluded, “is restraining.”

His critique, though, seemed to go beyond discussion of, say, Philip Roth’s Nobel worthiness to a more fundamental accusation of insularity in American society.

Similar arguments have been made by domestic commentators and academics: Americans since Sept. 11 have shirked international cooperation in wars, climate treaties and defense pacts while passing at home on foreign films, foreign-language study and passport applications. Our earliest forebears, dating back to George Washington, even honored isolationism as a noble goal and not a nasty word.

But the sentiment stings coming from the Scandinavian gatekeeper of a literary prize — a man whose sudden ability to agitate us seems disproportionate to the fact that most of us had never heard of him before (when he’s not announcing Nobel winners, Engdahl is a literary critic and historian in Sweden).

“If it had come from an insider, it would have ended up a kind of family conversation,” said Ilan Stavans, who teaches literature and Latin-American culture at Amherst College. “But because it’s coming from outside the family, it is about the family in general, how the family’s perceived outside.”

Stavans, for one, is pleased someone outside has dared to say such things. We’re so worked up over Engdahl’s accusation — when plenty of other potshots fired from abroad have been shrugged off — because, as Stavans put it, “people attack comments when they feel threatened by them, when they feel vulnerable.”

Look past the backlash this month in American publishing circles (one writer has argued that if Engdahl thinks we don’t participate in the “big dialogue” of literature, we should stop participating in the Nobel itself). Stavans and some historians and political scientists argue there is a legitimate debate to be had about the touchy issues of American exceptionalism and anti-Americanism lurking at the edges of Engdahl’s comments — and, for example, throughout this election season.

It’s possible the Swede was wrong about American literature, but he did have a point about American society. Whether he was the right man to say it is another matter.

Subsumed by Our Own Navel

“There is an old argument, which I subscribe to,” said Ian Tyrrell, a history professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, “that the more important the U.S. has become in the world, the less interested it’s been in other people because it’s projected its influence outward rather than receiving influence inward.”

Tyrrell, who wrote a book on the U.S. titled Transnational Nation, sees throughout the United States a tension between engagement and disengagement, between wanting to rally international cooperation to spread democracy and fight terrorism, but an opposition to the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto treaty.

He points too to the disengagement in declining foreign-language study since the 1960s and in the foreign news coverage that often focuses solely on locales that directly affect us, such as Israel or Iraq.

“I think we are a country made of a million little pieces that come from different parts of the world,” said Stavans, who is working on an anthology of American immigrant literature. “But that doesn’t make us interested in those parts of the world, which is sad.”

What we are often interested in, in this year of a presidential election, is what defines us as Americans and makes us different from the rest of the world. “Barack Obama,” Sarah Palin has famously repeated to flag-waving fans at political rallies, “is not a man who sees America the way you and I see America.”

Underscored is a line between “small-town American values” and elite, outward-looking otherness, a division that may do more to feed Engdahl’s stereotype of the insular American than advance the discussion of America’s real place in the world. Is the U.S. in the world, Tyrrell asks, and not of the world?

George W. Bush spent little time in it, outside the States, before becoming president, and Palin herself didn’t own a passport until two years ago.

Confusing her message, her running mate John McCain recently chided opponent Barack Obama for having “never been south of the border,” suggesting that at some level we recognize the value of international exposure even as we mock it.

“This is a culture of immigration, but I guess at some point we have to come to terms with this notion of American exceptionalism that always comes up,” said Steven Kellman, a University of Texas, San Antonio professor of comparative literature (and himself the winner of a book award).  “To what extent is the U.S. unique in the world? This comes up in almost all political oratory, with at some point someone saying, ‘This is the greatest country in the world,’ often without really defining what makes greatness.”

It’s not, Kellman points out, our standard of living, our rate of literacy or our life expectancy, all of which are higher (if not “greater”) in other countries.

Kellman thinks the dominant American culture is at the moment undergoing a particularly provincial — sometimes bordering on xenophobic — stretch, one that Tyrrell compares after Sept. 11 to America in the wake of World War I. Sauerkraut, he reminds us, was at the time temporarily re-named “liberty cabbage,” the Great War’s version of “freedom fries.”

Past anti-foreigner and insular movements, Kellman says, have been followed in American history by an opposite reaction of revulsion and reaching out, with, for example, the creation of the Fulbright Program following World War II.

“I’d like to think we’re on the verge of that, that perhaps the pendulum has swung too far,” Kellman said. “After a period of cowboy diplomacy that succeeded only in alienating the United States from the rest of the world, Americans are realizing that isolationism and insularity are not in the national — or human — interest.”

If nothing else, Stavans adds, our economy is today teaching us that.

Arts, Letters and Politics — Oh My!

But what does all this have to do with world literature?

Kellman, who has for years served on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, is ready to grant Engdahl’s premise about American insularity but not its extension to American literature. Most of our great American writers, he says, have been adversarial to the dominant culture — which appears, to some extent, to be what Engdahl is looking for.

Jeffrey Meyers, a biographer who has written about the literary politics of the Nobel Prize, sees a clear distinction between American foreign policy and American culture — and he finds more context to Engdahl’s comments inside the Nobel committee than in America itself.

“America is going through a bad time,” he said. “We look bad in the wars, we look bad with Bush, we look bad with Condi Rice, we look bad with Dick Cheney and we look bad economically; we do look bad, but that’s different than the culture. Philip Roth isn’t George Bush, and to get the two mixed up is ridiculous.”

That is exactly what he thinks the Nobel committee has done, replacing literary merit with political statements through years of selections. Such politics may be more logically communicated through the Nobel Peace Prize, although Alfred Nobel (who was an expert on dynamite, not literature) did specify that the literary prize should go to “the most outstanding work of an idealist tendency.”

Opposing repressive governments in general — and, lately, the United States in particular — has been a good way to earn the literature committee’s favor, Meyers believes. Going to jail, he says in all seriousness, is the absolute best way to do this.

Many who subscribe to the theory of anti-American bias point to recent English-language winners and vocal U.S. critics Doris Lessing and Harold Pinter, who used his Nobel acceptance lecture to accuse Bush of war crimes.

“Certainly,” Meyers said, “America has a lot to answer for during the last eight years — I wouldn’t defend much of it under the Bush administration — but don’t think the Nobel Prize is the bat to use to bash America.”

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, who was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in literature a week after Engdahl’s comments, embodies the global perspective Engdahl says American writers lack: A French national, Le Clézio had a British father, lived as a child in Africa and today splits time among three different countries (including the U.S.).

Engdahl commented, at Le Clézio’s announcement, that today’s great writers “find stimulation from displacing themselves from their culture of origin to other cultures.”

This seems like an odd criteria for the prize: exiling yourself from your native country.

Meyers, though, says he would rather have a bad Nobel than no Nobel at all. In some ways, the whole flap has done exactly what good literature is supposed to do — force us to examine our values and what role we want writers (never mind writing prizes) to play.

“We have to recognize these are all somewhat arbitrary decisions, but what each of them does is make us think about alternative possibilities,” Kellman said. “What exactly are we looking for in great writers?”

One of the earlier American Nobel laureates, William Faulkner, spent most of his career writing about one small corner of Mississippi. “But his greatness,” Kellman said, “was in making that seem like a real microcosm of the entire world.”

Stavans says now is a particularly good time — with dramatic changes looming in the economy and on the political stage — to re-conceive of great writers as not just entertainers.

“I think that gap between how things are and how the writer wishes them to be,” Stavans said, “is a healthy way in a democracy that enables us to see that what we have achieved is not enough, that we have to be critical of who we are.”

Had Engdahl put it that way, perhaps he would have been better received.