In Defense of American Literature

There's been a dust-up in the literary world as Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said yesterday that American authors are too "isolated," "insular," and "ignorant" to compete for the Nobel Prize this year. Predictably, the American literary establishment is outraged, with folks like David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, urging consideration of both the boomer generation (Updike, Roth, DeLillo) and younger writers dealing with issues of culture and identity.

The executive director of the National Book Foundation, Harold Augenbraum, countered, "One way the United States has embraced the concept of world culture is through immigration. Each generation, beginning in the late 19th century, has recreated the idea of American literature."

Indeed. Though the Nobel Prize is usually awarded to older authors with a long career behind them — such as last year's deserving recipient and a personal favorite of mine, Doris Lessing – Engdahl's comments about American literature couldn't have been more parochial or, yes, "ignorant." Consider our newly minted Pulitzer Prize winner, Junot Diaz, who experiments with two languages, street slang, and mythology to write about the Dominican immigrant experience. There's National Book Award winner Ha Jin, who survived China's cultural revolution to write in exile in the United States. And then there are wonderful authors, such as Annie Proulx and Denis Johnson, who have mastered both the novel and the short story with tales that open up whole new corners of the North American experience, from the icy shores of Newfoundland to the addled road trips of the drug addicted.

I could go on, but suffice to say, the United States is an immense country with an immense, diverse culture, and we're lucky enough to have a literary tradition that encompasses much of it. Our literary writers should be translated more, that's true. While the French government devotes over $13 million annually to translating its writers and promoting their work abroad, the U.S. provides only $200,000 for such projects. Considering the work we should be doing to improve our cultural and political image abroad, that's not enough.

cross-posted at TAPPED

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