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American Writers to Emulate Nobel Chief's Splendid Humanity (Not)

Filed under: The Squib Report   Tagged: , , , , ,

I’ve been moving some my books around this week, some of which are by David Foster Wallace and others of which are by recent Nobelists, among them Doris Lessing, Naguib Mahfouz, Orhan Pamuk, J.M. Coetzee. Every time I handled one, I would think about the Nobel, and I would think about Horace Engdahl, who is the top member of the award jury. And I realized that something about Engdahl’s rebuke to American writers last month was still nagging at me (even though I have already weighed in), and I think I finally recognized what it was.

What bothers me, I realized, was the timing, indeed the appalling lack of sensitivity implied by the timing. Wallace committed suicide on September 12; Engdahl made his comments on September 30. His take on American letters may or may not have merit; less ambiguous is the fact that American letters had lost a particularly bright light just 18 days earlier.

The astonishing thing is that (as far as I saw) there was little connection made between Wallace’s suicide and Engdahl’s comment in the media. Did anyone even notice that these two events sit fairly uncomfortably aside one another? I’m not saying Wallace was headed for Nobel status; far from it, he wasn’t that kind of writer. But Engdahl even went so far as to say that American writers are “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture,” an observation that could easily be taken as a veiled reference to Wallace—and yet the sentiment that perhaps Wallace’s death made this an awkward moment to point fingers at America’s literary deficiencies went relatively unexpressed.

As sometimes happens, the United States gets treated differently. A hypothetical: if one of Indonesia’s top young writers were to perish in a plane crash, say, and two weeks later the head of the Nobel committee were to single out Indonesia for having an immature literary culture, the ensuing embarrassment might well be substantial enough that the self-appointed critic would be obliged to step down from the position. Less dramatically, people would make that connection very quickly and consider the speaker insensitive. But Americans are not accorded that kind of tact these days.


Merit is obviously not the sole consideration, otherwise the Committee would have awarded the prize to Updike years ago. In light of Engdahl’s rotten comment, those of us who admire Updike, Roth, Oates, and other great American writers, may as well resign ourselves to the reality that they will not receive the Nobel. In other words, the Nobel Prize for Literature is a joke!

Far be it for me to disagree! My father was the sort of person who had an intellectual understanding of the prize’s deficiencies but an emotional commitment to their worth. Much for the same reason, I suppose, that the Nobel still holds great sway. I see it more like you do.

To be honest, I’m OK with the Nobel honoring a certain kind of “great” writer that fits a certain humanistic mold, and there being plenty of great writers (no scare quotes) that never come near the mold (Mailer, say). It’s like the Oscars, you can have tremendous movies that wouldn’t make any sense as Oscar winners, and that’s OK.

But having said that, it’s like Remnick said, give out your awards, fine, but spare us the lectures. Giving awards to the clique you like and then putting down the ones who don’t conform flirts with tautology.

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