Tuesday, October 4, 2011

America the Parochial: Why our writers don't deserve a Nobel in literature

And how a lady cartoonist has out-gunned them all

Writing in Salon on the eve of the announcement of the Nobel Prize for literature (coming Thursday), Alexander Nazaryan has an interesting critique of American literature, finding it as self-centered and provincial as American foreign and industrial policy. Henry Luce famously declared the 20th century to be the American Century. This is not the 20th century, it's the 21st. Time for America to grow up and take its place in the world as a state among other states rather than playing king of the mountain time and time again.

Nazaryan says:
We’ve become an Oldsmobile in a world yearning for a Prius. Our paint is flaking. Nobody wants our clunkers.

Stockholm has been trying to tell us this for a long while, and we would do well to listen. Between 1950 and 1959, every one of the 10 Nobel winners was a European male. Between 2000 and 2009, three women won the prize, as well as five non-Europeans. They have given it to Caribbean poets and Chinese absurdists. An American-born male hasn’t won since John Steinbeck in 1962. The last white American male to win the prize was Joseph Brodsky in 1987 — and though he wrote in English, his poetic training and intellectual sensibility are purely those of the Soviet émigré he was. Saul Bellow was born in Canada.
A bit later:
Four years after Morrison won the Nobel, David Foster Wallace predicted the current rut in which our literature finds itself in a New York Observer evisceration of John Updike’s “Toward the End of Time.” Though he took particular issue with Updike’s autumnal output, Wallace parceled blame to all of the Great Male Narcissists, with their hermetic concerns and insular little fictions. The following is Wallace’s estimation of Updike, but it could just as easily be said about anyone else in the postwar American pantheon: “The very world around them, as beautifully as they see and describe it, seems to exist for them only insofar as it evokes impressions and associations and emotions inside the self.”

Our great writers choose this self-enforced isolation. Worse yet, they have inculcated younger generations of American novelists with the write-what-you-know mantra through their direct and indirect influence on creative programs. Go small, writing students are urged, and stay interior. Avoid inhabiting the lives of those unlike you ...
I can't help but think of Nina Paley, a cartoonist for f*cksake! who managed at one and the same freakin' time to go interior, and to encounter a whole new world, that is, new to her and to America: India, Hinduism, and The Ramayana. It's all there in in Sita Sings the Blues. Really. And it works.

Look around, fellas, look around. The kids are reading comics from Japan and watching Japanese cartoons. Is there a message here?

1 comment:

  1. An interesting observation. It makes me think of some of the recent "neo-neorealist" films which, while occasionally interesting, seem to suffer from a legacy of "write what you know". These filmmakers are trying NOT to do that, yet their approach is so cautious, timid, so eager to proclaim "I'm not trying to project myself into their consciousness! I can never do that! I'm not that presumptuous, don't worry!" that I think they end up neutering themselves.