Secretary of the Swedish Academy thinks American lit is too intimate with American mass culture

American literary culture as a whole just got a bracing blast of genre ghettoization: Horace Engdahl, of the Swedish Academy which makes the selections for the Nobel Prize in literature, has a few choice words for American literature. John Lichfield reports in The Independent‘s book section:

In an interview with an American journalist this week, he dismissed the writing of the US – the land of Melville, Hemingway and Fitzgerald – as “too isolated, too insular”. “They don’t translate [foreign books] enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature,” he said. “That ignorance is restraining.”

American writers were “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture,” he told the Associated Press. “Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world.”

The specific criticisms quoted are not wrong. It is true that from an intellectual and aesthetic standpoint, not enough foreign language books are translated into English and published in the English language (and this is true for the entire English-speaking world, not just the US). And he’s also correct that this ignorance is restraining. And certainly trends in mass culture have undue influence over literature. (One could have a whole other argument over whether postmodern techniques helped or hurt in that regard.)

What goes unmentioned in his criticism, at least as quoted in the various articles about this fuss, is the dominance of English-language literature in the publishing lists of the non-English-language European publishers. Whatever claims one might wish to make for the Eurocentrism of high-lit, publishers in what he sees as the Homeland of world literary culture relentlessly import English language lit, sometimes to the near-complete exclusion of literature written in the local language.

While I don’t, for the most part, disagree with his criticisms of American lit, for whatever reason European publishers import it in very large quantities. And further, in non-English-language markets dominated by Anglophone product, writers in the local language often are strongly influenced by the imports.

So which literature is more impaired? One that exports too much and imports little? Or one that exports little and imports too much? In an ideal world there would be a free exchange of literary ideas, but the cost of translation and the perceived market for translated books gets in the way of that.

I presume that if asked about science fiction, Engdahl would view it as evidence of American lit’s overfamiliar relationship with mass culture.

Reuters quotes Michael Chabon as hoping SF writers (and others) are selected:

American novelist Michael Chabon lists writers he would like to see win, led by Ursula K. Le Guin and including Michael Ondaatje, Cormac McCarthy, J.G. Ballard and [Philip] Roth.

It doesn’t look like Le Guin is going to get her chance to thank the Academy just yet.


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