Nobel Judge: There's Nothing Great about the American Novel

By Lichfield, John | The Independent (London, England), October 2, 2008 | Go to article overview
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Nobel Judge: There's Nothing Great about the American Novel


Lichfield, John, The Independent (London, England)


There is no argument like a literary argument. You can criticise a nation's politics, or its cuisine, or even its dress-sense, but to describe a nation's books as "ignorant" is fighting talk.

If the authors are American and the insult is offered by the head of the committee which awards the world's most prestigious book prize, expect a vicious, transatlantic war of words.

Horace Engdahl is permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, the body which chooses the Nobel Prize for literature. 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."

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.

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