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I think American literature mainly falls into two bins: commercially viable and not commercially viable. Commercially viable books are best sellers, wind up on Oprah's book club list, and made into movies. Not commercially viable books languish in obscurity if they are even published at all.

The problem for writers are that if one is to live off ones writing it needs to be commercially viable and that isn't the type of writing the Nobel committee is looking for. I concur that much of what is popular and gets read in the U.S. is pretty awful. The "good" writers that the literary establishment promote, are not the type of books I enjoy reading or find rewarding, so I too can see why Engdahl is underwhelmed.

I do think he has a rather narrow view and exposure to American writing, however. I think the writing that is truly literary isn't easy to find and it isn't going to be found on the NY Times best seller list, nor is it likely to be found their Book Review section. Most good literature is extra-establishement.

I'm sorry I missed your essay earlier. I went ahead and put one up as essay as well with my non-literary reaction. I took more umbrage with the claim that Europe was the center of the literary world, than with American being "too insular" which I agree with somewhat.

by Magnifico on Thu Oct 2nd, 2008 at 04:20:08 PM EST
Yep, you both came up with the Engdahl quote at the same time.

Just one reaction to what you say here, Magnifico: I don't think Europe is significantly freer from the need to be commercially viable. Publishing works pretty much as it does in the States. And respect for authors is no greater in the reading public here than it is in the States.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu Oct 2nd, 2008 at 04:38:53 PM EST
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Point taken. And, I'm not suggesting just because a literary work is commercially viable it is bad, nor do I believe that just because a piece is unsellable, it therefore then must be good.

What I do believe is what is commercially viable in Europe is very different from what is commercially viable in the U.S. I'm more than a decade-removed from academic literary circles, but my hunch is that in Europe, writing that has literary value may be more likely to have commercial value too.

by Magnifico on Thu Oct 2nd, 2008 at 04:55:08 PM EST
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Well, no, I think there's a distinct respect paid in America to authors of serious intent (I'm not getting into literary value judgements here). And they can be commercially successful: (again without literary judgement), Philip Roth springs to mind. Or, just as serious in intent but less patently "literary", more mainstream and successfully so, Jane Smiley or Anne Tyler.

I don't think the situation is significantly better in Europe. There's more lip service paid, perhaps; publishers work the vein of the "literary" category, for which there's a niche market. This means a fair amount of discovering seventeen-year-old female sex-maniac geniuses, brilliant young dandies, astounding first novels; and, to a great extent, authors stringing along from one book to the next on dwindling incomes precisely because they're not "commercially viable" ie the TV promotion circuit doesn't want them, and there's no subsidiary rights action (movie rights in particular) around their works.

Is there really a greater market here for what has genuine literary value? I'm not sure. The World of Books™ has consolidated and gone transatlantic since the 1980s, and many of the same criteria are applied.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Oct 3rd, 2008 at 04:07:08 AM EST
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First, let me say that I am not concerned at all with awards.

I am addressing his idea that American Lit. is too insular, which I reject. I find it also doubly troubling coming from someone who basically lauds writing with an ethnic, nationalistic or regional tinge.

For instance, think how topical and national recent winners such as Pamuk have been. Such value judgements as Engdahl's are weird precisely because the works chosen not transcend the national.

Nor should they. I want to read difference in literature, difference in culture, difference in nation. I don't care how parochial literature can be. There's as much depth in the story of an obscure Amazon tribe as there is in any supranational or globalist statement about humanity.

That being said, I'm back to the insular charge again. This insular charge is also packed with an accusation about pop culture. From reading Engdahl's comments, it becomes clear to me that he subscribes to this divide between low culture and high culture. By doing that he insists on the increasing rarification of literature which inevitably marginalizes it. Someone like Pynchon, for instance, sees culture as "a whole way of life" and not as the highest transcendent ideals of Western Civilization. That's why he's eminently capable of seeing pop culture and all its loaded symbolism as a powerful actor in culture. only someone who delves into the culture can critique it.

Pynchon does this perhaps better than any other living author.

And he has been recognized by many Europeans as being hugely influential in this sort of novel. Michel Hoellebecq, for instance, owes a debt to him.

Quite frankly, Engdahl's arguments just seem like ignorance to me.

by Upstate NY on Fri Oct 3rd, 2008 at 01:36:59 PM EST
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