Allow me to be upfront about my bias: I adore contemporary American fiction. To me, it doesn’t get much better than a John Updike short story or a Cormac McCarthy novel. Add some too-sweet tea and roasted pecans and you have yourself a perfect afternoon. I consider myself relatively well-read (despite my ongoing shame at not ever having read the Koran), and I find the best of American fiction to be beautiful, philosophical, and deeply relevant. Yet, apparently my literary patriotism has not swayed the Nobel Prize in Literature committee, who has not awarded a prize to an American since 1993, when Toni Morrison claimed her 10,000,000 kroner (see her wonderful acceptance speech below). As this article from The New York Times reports, this year’s prize went to a Swedish poet, Tomas Transtromer. Though I know very little about Mr Transtromer (other than his last name’s comical semblance to certain robots in disguise), I am nonetheless disappointed that the many worthy American authors have been bypassed yet again.
The debate about American writing and the Nobel Prize’s disdain for it stretches back to at least 2008, when Horace Engdahl famously alleged that the United States is too “insular” and that Americans’ “ignorance is restraining.” At the time Engdahl led the prize jury that chose each year’s winner, so these were fightin’ words indeed. This context makes Transtromer’s victory that much more difficult to bear, as he represents the committee’s unreconstructed and unapologetic parochialism. To award the prize to yet another Scandinavian is a baffling decision, even if, as today’s article notes, Transtromer “is to Sweden as Robert Frost was to America.” (Funny coincidence, actually, that this analogy points to a poet from the United States–what happened to our insularity?!?) Reading this article, I am tempted to pick up Transtromer’s poetry (especially because he is a poet who is essentially speechless after a stroke in 1990), but I may still stay away on principle in order to retain my blissful American ignorance. Hell, I’ll just watch some professional wrestling and eat some greasy spaghetti instead.
This article, written by Julie Bosman, generally stays above the fray when it comes to the controversy on which many American readers might immediately focus. The author does make note of it when she writes that the committee has been criticized for being too “Eurocentric” and that, “Europeans have won an overwhelming number of the literature prizes in the last decade.” European journalists would not have emphasized this trend to the same degree, in my opinion. Also, she lists a number of American writers who deserved the prize, including Philip Roth and Bob Dylan (yes, that Bob Dylan). Though I might have added Cormac McCarthy and Joyce Carol Oates to this list, I was satisfied that she acknowledged several Americans who might have walked away with the prize if the committee did not hold its nose up at the freedom-lovers across the pond. In my view Bosman overlooks the political angle to the committee’s annual snubbing of American writers; since Bush’s presidency many European elites have concluded that American culture is drowned out by cowboy yee-haws and frat boy hell-yeahs. To be honest, I would have been far less disappointed if an African author had won this year (Ngugi wa Thiong’o from Kenya and Tahar Ben Jelloun from Morocco are more than deserving), but a triumph for yet another European rubbed salt in the wound a bit. Well, there’s always next year.