October 09, 2009


Melissa W

The thing I find really laughable about the Jordan article is that she always complains about "American" authors not winning the award...as if there are no good authors writing in South America, Asia, or Africa. She's so fixated on America vs. the Nobel Committee. Irritating is what it is. I'd say 11 out of ~100 Laureates is a pretty good percentage of winners coming from a single sovreign nation.


"Herta Mueller won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature, but many U.S. literary critics and professors contacted Thursday had never read Mueller, if they had heard of her at all."

Kind of proves Engdahl's point, doesn't it?

Then there's this piece of nonsense:

"Since 1901, only 11 Americans -- including Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and John Steinbeck -- have been given the honor, though the count is complicated by writers who hold dual nationalities or immigrate to the United States, such as 1980 winner Czeslaw Milosz."

We are a nation of immigrants. We are a nation of dual nationals. It is our special gift. So to say these writers somehow don't "count" the way real amurricans should is insanely stupid. And sad.


I always find people who argue against the American insularity accusation always end up proving that Americans are insular. Hard to defend a country against insularity when only 1.5% of books published are translations.

The charge of european favor is odd - this America v. Europe. I saw this recently in LAT's review of Le Clezio's latest (a review that failed in every way imaginable - just the worst). Europeans don't 'root' for Europeans, favor themselves or feel a connection to each other like Americans do. No one in Italy or Spain or Denmark felt like 'they won too.' Just like no American would feel any triumph if a Brazilian author won. Many Americans think there is some monolithic European culture that is somehow favored by the committee. There isn't.


Clearer heads prevailing here. I've heard from quite a few people who haven't read the winners that the Nobel (in literature) is a sham because it doesn't award ENOUGH Americans (though, in total, we have won more Nobels than any other nation) and is anti-American (re: Engdahl's comments)--it's a lot of nonsense from young men who don't understand why Roth hasn't received it yet. See http://htmlgiant.com/?p=15814 as an example.


Doesn't it matter that the European portion of recent winners is so absurdly high? Their insularity has been on display as well.

As the Guardian piece notes.

victor crebolder

Here another prizewinner unknown to the big public. Let us be fair, being big, let us say a household name isn't the best of yardsticks around to value literary content, class and what not.

I gather she, Hertha Muller, will be an original voice in the middle of a pool of frogs, in the middle of a flock of sheep, in the middle of all those jealous writers not finding that one voice making you as if you had just invented the alphabet allover again, new, awesome, grand!


Well, what great American authors do people think are being unjustly ignored? I can only think of one: Pynchon.

I think American fiction is at a disadvantage in the Nobel race because so much of what we write about is only personal. American writers write about *their* childhoods, *their* divorces, *their* finding out they were adopted, etc. It's just personal and nothing more. There is no grappling with greater issues or themes, and no engagement with the larger forces of history.

Yet this is what writers outside of the US are doing, and doing very well. And it's this larger kind of literature - that uses the personal to illuminate the universal - that is (justly, I believe) favored by the Nobel committee.


Niall, but the American writers who would be in the race for the Nobel are writers who aren't limited to personal stories-- folks like Pynchon, McCarthy, Roth, etc. I think the finest writers are exempt from this critique.
But on the other hand, I'm uncomfortable with this dismissal of the 'personal' as well. Personal stories are often limited more by limited readings rather than a lack of intrinsic breadth of meaning. What I mean is, it's often the reader's fault that they can't discern the larger scope of a seemingly limited--often subtle-- tale. It's quite obvious for most people that War and Peace is about Big Ideas, but if a book like The Death of Ivan Ilyich were to be written today, some might see it as small and limited, and it's writer not engaged enough with the political world, the momentary zeitgeist, etc...


Poe -

I was trying to not be so brutal in my estimation of modern American literature. When I said, "only personal", I really meant "utterly banal". With this understanding, it's clear I'm not devaluing the personal as such. It's just that since the 70s in the US "the personal" has degraded into psychobabble and pseudo-introspection. If you want to see the difference, go read Houellebecq's "The Elementary Particles". On the one hand it's a book by an author abandoned by his hippie parents, who's not very good looking and so rarely gets laid, yet who cannot escape the petty meaningless of the few pleasures he enjoys. In other words, the book is starkly autobiographical and psychobiographical.

Yet it's also a rather profound meditation on what it means to be human, how humanity will end, and why that is not necessarily a bad thing.

I can't see Phillip Roth writing something like that. Nor has he.

Paul Lamb

As much as I would like to see Roth win just about the only prize left not on his shelf, I've never seen the Nobel as a source of nationalistic pride. (Even Olympic gold medals seem sullied when we have to count how many the U.S. has won compared to other nations.) If ever something could transcend nationalism, literature / reading / writing / pondering would be it, so whoever wins the prize is bringing recognition to one more facet of something we can all share and appreciate.


Re: "Yet it's also a rather profound meditation on what it means to be human, how humanity will end, and why that is not necessarily a bad thing."

I like The Elementary Particles quite a bit. But why should Roth, or any author who does not believe the above statement, write about it anyway? In fact, I like Particles in spite of its nihilism, and would have probably dismissed it as juvenile sub-Celinian misanthropy if not for the elegiac longing for humanity in the narrator's voice. Roth's often solitary characters always have a tense relationship with the rest of humanity, but neither they nor their author would ever posit that the race's demise "is not necessarily a bad thing." The Zuckerman novels are about, among other things, a writer returning to the world and finding a subject outside of himself (The Anatomy Lesson and The Human Stain both end with Z. abandoning his petty "personal" troubles and listening to other people's stories).


The Elementary Particles is not a nihilistic book. It's misanthropic, but that's another matter.

Roth can never seem to rise above shtick, no matter how hard he tries to. Roth writing about Roth has become so boring and conventional. It's like listening to Britney Spears sing about Britney Spears.


Actually Particles isn't even misanthropic. To be more precise, it's misandric.


The distinction between nihilism and misanthropy, especially as it relates to The Elementary Particles, is a good one, and I stand corrected. If the narrator hadn't revealed himself the way he did, I would have probably dismissed the book as just nihilistic.

However, the only way I can respond to such an absolute criticism of Roth ("never" rises above his shtick), is to reiterate that his characters often go through this drama of learning to see a world outside of their own petty struggles, and yes the novels are certainly about more than their author's own life. Even his "shtickiest" Roth-writing-as-Roth book, Operation Shylock, is a manifesto against fanaticism, a theme which sticks with me far longer than any gossipy Spears-like interest in the author's "real" life. His last few novels have been fairly lazy, so your criticism might apply at times; but Roth at his best has quite a bit to say about religion, history, and middle-class respectability.


You know, I'm sure Roth is trying. Perhaps if we were writing in Russia or Colombia he would be able to rise above the crushing weight of American triviality. Sadly, it was his misfortune to be born here.

Were it not for Pynchon, Paula Fox and Jim Thompson, I would write off most of post war American literature.


Niall, are you a new form of literature? Are you a character who has been invented for the Internet? If you deny it I will think 'Of course such a character would deny it.'



Konechno ya takoi kharaxter. Nu i shto?


Kind of proves Engdahl's point, doesn't it?

No, because his point was basically that american authors should be punished because the american public doesn't read enough in translation. The two things should have nothing to do with each other.

I've heard from quite a few people who haven't read the winners that the Nobel (in literature) is a sham because it doesn't award ENOUGH Americans

It isn't a sham becuase it doesn't award enough americans. It is a sham because it doesn't award enough South Americans, North Americans, Africans or Asians. Well, that and most of the picks are fairly forgettable.


As a non-American I couldn't really care less who wins a Nobel prize. It's not as if a book becomes in any sense better because of gaining an award. America seems a dangerously 'patriotic' place, with all the attendant self-righeousness, cultural insecurity and desperate need to feel better than the rest to alleviate that insecurity. It seems more than likely that's why some/many feel bothered about Americans not winning more Nobels, this morbid communal identity, of oneself as consciously American.


Niall, if you did not exist we would have to invent you. Excelsior!


Andrew -

Stop confusing us with France.

greg converse

Did Hertha Mueller win to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall? If so, what does that have to do with her writing?

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