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LQD: "Too isolated, too insular"

by Magnifico Thu Oct 2nd, 2008 at 01:36:42 PM EST

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"?

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See Upstate NY's diary on the same topic.

A vivid image of what should exist acts as a surrogate for reality. Pursuit of the image then prevents pursuit of the reality -- John K. Galbraith
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Oct 3rd, 2008 at 02:47:19 AM EST
I've commented in Update NY's essay. I left this one up because I got frowny faces when I said I delete diaries.
by Magnifico on Fri Oct 3rd, 2008 at 03:50:12 AM EST
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Others - I'm putting the comment here because there is some discussion in the other thread and none here...

Well, it's unfortunate there was an overlap - your diary is well written.

A vivid image of what should exist acts as a surrogate for reality. Pursuit of the image then prevents pursuit of the reality -- John K. Galbraith

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Oct 3rd, 2008 at 04:34:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think America is to some extent culturally isolated, or self-contained. But  isolation doesn't get in the way of literature. Brits will always want to cite Jane Austen and her small world of a few families in an English parish, or one could point to Chekhov's world: universals through particulars.

The isolation in itself can even be a feature, not a bug. Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn stories fascinated me as a kid partly because of that self-contained Mississippi world complete with all its mysterious (to me) references, and that is still part of the pleasure I get from looking at them again. Or to take a more recent example, cultural isolation is a central theme of one of the greatest novels to come out of the Americas in the past half-century, Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Oct 3rd, 2008 at 05:16:33 AM EST
The way I read it this is not about the writers, but about the literary culture: They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature... It's not whether the themes or settings are provincial as in the examples you point out.

A vivid image of what should exist acts as a surrogate for reality. Pursuit of the image then prevents pursuit of the reality -- John K. Galbraith
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Oct 3rd, 2008 at 05:26:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm not really talking about the themes or settings, so much, as the conception of what a proper literary novel is supposed to be.

That is, the notion has come about in recent years that good novels should <exaggeration> have no plot and focus primarily on the beauty of individual sentences from a semi-poetic semi-gibberish perspective </exaggeration>.

The result is what many avid readers consider boring and unreadable.  Whether it's aware of what is going on the rest of the world is irrelevant considering this basic problem.

by Zwackus on Fri Oct 3rd, 2008 at 05:54:26 AM EST
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Sorry, got a bit confused as to which thread I was in.
by Zwackus on Fri Oct 3rd, 2008 at 05:56:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
[ET Moderation Technology™] repost under the appropriate thread and I'll toggle/delete this one :-)

A vivid image of what should exist acts as a surrogate for reality. Pursuit of the image then prevents pursuit of the reality -- John K. Galbraith
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Oct 3rd, 2008 at 06:00:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, there's truth in that. The dialogue being, in the US, concerned more with the American Novel. It's once again the drawback of a great strength, which lies in the sheer size of a single-language one-culture country.

One should point out however that, in Europe, translation is almost overwhelmingly from English => national languages.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Oct 3rd, 2008 at 08:39:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
He's wrong on the one hand and right about translation.

But, let me add one thing here: I go into book stores in Europe. I walk into Feltrinelli. Bertelsmann owns some. What kind of translations do I find? One thousand books by Banana Yoshimoto do nothing for me.

In the USA, we have a very small number of translations. 400 a year in fiction. The vast majority of these are published by small presses such as Dalkey Archive or Open Letter, etc. This enables an American like me to read a writer such as, for instance, Giorgio Manganelli, in translation, and then when I'm in Italy and I want to find his book in the original to enjoy it in Italian, it's not only nowhere to be found in bookstores, but many Italians haven't heard of him.

The US is no doubt suffering from too few translations, but that doesn't mean writers in the USA are insular. Many have read their European contemporaries and have great respect for them. There is a very precise relationship between Euro literature and American literature, and the conversation has been going on over a century. Writers reveal their influences and note the exchange from across the pond. It's easy to track.

This week I'm hosting Bragi Olafsson here in Buffalo who is reading from his novel, The Pets, a new American translation. Culturual exchanges such as this happen frequently. Is it a problem that Engdahl is unaware of thiss imply because Olafsson's book is being published by a small press, Open letter?

What great contemporary European writers have we missed in the USA?

by Upstate NY on Fri Oct 3rd, 2008 at 01:57:38 PM EST
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