Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Nob-ody gives a snowball in H-el Prize (for Literature)

This was going to be The Writer's Toybox 2,but I guess that can wait. After all, the fate of the literary world is at stake, right? The Nobel Prize for Literature, the big daddy of lit awards, given to an obscure German from Romania. Well, as a minuscule contributor to the world body of literature (by its loosest definition, it's true) I have something to say to my fellow writers and book connoisseurs: Get over it because no one cares.

Really. No one cares. The Nobel Prize is the biggest non-event in the perfect storm of irrelevance that gave birth to the literary award. Oprah has more relevance to the written word. Why? Because people actually read the books she picks. Why anyone should care about a tiny group of Swedish academics hovering over Alfred Nobel's blood money like a five-headed curmudgeonly dragon is a mystery to me. Most writer's write to be read, perhaps to be paid, but seldom if at all for a worthless accolade. So writers, keep writing, and readers, go out and pick up your favorite author, critics and awards be damned. Just enjoy a good read and forget this nonsense.


  1. First, a lot of people around the world DO care, especially when it's an obscure author they might not have read, especially when it's one whose books would never have reached a US bookstore.

    Two, this sounds like a Left Behind reader complaining about the lib'ral fancypants Oprah -- who does she think SHE is, anyway?

    Third, considering the barbaric spiral the world is in, any nod towards the old rituals of civility & learning ought to be saluted.

  2. In the interest of contrariness I'll deal with your third point first and work my way up. I'm not sure that the old world was any less barbaric than the new. Technology has simply given us the means to better realize our bloody dreams. As for civility and learning, how is it either civil or learned to publicly and preemptively exclude an entire nation of writers from serious consideration? Petty politics is more like.

    Your second point I honestly don't understand.

    And the first shall be last: Taken literally, the statement that nobody cares is pretty ridiculous I'll admit. Or else massively egotistical because I really don't care at all about the Nobel, nor do I care about the Booker, the National Book Award, the Pulitzer, or even the Newberry (sorry Neil Gaiman). My point is that all literary awards are made irrelevant by the subjective nature of the reading experience and by the narrow criteria and naturally limited worldview of the deciding judges. I picked on the Nobel in particular because the Nobel picked on me ( ). That it was done figuratively makes it no less galling.

  3. Considering the incompetence of American reporters -- the comments were originally part of an AP story -- I'm more inclined to believe the Permanent Secretary than the executives of the US publishing establishment, against whom the comments seem to me to be aimed.

    The Permanent Secretary has no control over who is nominated, much less over the votes of the other members. American writers receive the the prize at about the same rate they always have. When Le Clezio won it last year, it was the first time a French author had received it in 23 years. It was 27 years between Heinrich Boll and Gunther Grass.

    My comment about 'old rituals of civility' didn't imply that the old world was less barbaric, but that recognizing cultural achievement is something we do well to retain. This is connected to the quote that the publishing executives seemed to mis:

    "Mr Engdahl said Europe draws literary exiles because it "respects the independence of literature" and can serve as a safe haven.
    Very many authors who have their roots in other countries work in Europe, because it is only here where you can be left alone and write, without being beaten to death," he said. "It is dangerous to be an author in big parts of Asia and Africa."

    That's the burden of what Mr. Engdahl was saying: that writing IS a matter of life & death, not of publisher's profits, and that, for the most part, the American reading & writing public is involved in something very different.

  4. And that is the point I think where our viewpoints collide. Writing is NOT a matter of life and death in the United States, but what Horace Engdahl seems to consider a vice, I consider a virtue. Just as the son is not necessarily a lesser man than his father because he has not been exposed to the hardships of the previous generation, so American writers are not necessarily lesser artists because they enjoy the freedom to indulge in writing for its own sake. We can write whatever we want, however we want, whenever we can make the time, to the limits of our ability. Is the result trite and inconsequential? Sometimes. But it leads just as often to compelling personal artistic statements. It is one of the few true attainments of the democratic ideal, and no award by any body of judges can adequately appreciate it.

  5. If the Nobel is irrelevant and reading is so subjective, it shouldn't matter that the irrelevant awards committee uses differring subjective standards to give an award.

    Writing as a 'matter of life & death' refers to more than just immediate, direct threats to writers, but to the quality both of the individual & general social life. " We can write whatever we want, however we want, whenever we can make the time, to the limits of our ability" -- but we live in a society which in general doesn't value creativity sufficiently to ensure that writers get the time. Instead a laissez-faire society -- 'you're free to work where you want & live where you want & write what you want & it's your fault if you can't get the time to write, the place to live, etc.' -- puts literary creation at the narrowest of margins. With that basis for writing, a truly dismissive attitude (which I don't believe is reflected in the comments in question) is more than justified: Americans don't value literary creation as something exceptional to other forms of leisure activity, so why should any other group from any other country be criticized for underscoring what everyone knows is already the case? Sure, there are some compelling cases of 'personal artistic statements' & there is a segment of a segment of productions that would be worth considering despite the much lower level of worthy output.

    I remember a co-worker who, from the very backcountry of Georgia, got through college & to the Iowa Writer's workshop & wrote un-academic poetry of a very high order, but he spent his time scrambling for teaching jobs. Absent a robust sense of the value of literary creation & exploration, this inevitably results in the elimination of many thousands of writers who simply cease to write, because they know that they would be wasting their time in America.

    I appreciate the opportunity for discussion. It helps me focus on my own difficulties in committing to writing in this culture, and the difference between the humanist post-wwII european experiment & the individualist US concept.

  6. The appreciation is mutual. This discussion has led me in a direction I didn't expect when I wrote this blog, and I think the post is much better for it. That said, I'm going to consider this an epilogue and leave you with the eloquent last word. Though you may certainly feel free to add more if you like.

  7. Gore Vidal calls us "The United States of Amnesia" because we don't have much of a national memory. We also forget how much American writers accomplished in winning European respect in the 19th century, when Longfellow was internationally recognized as a poet & scholar & when Poe's work was capable of inspiring French poets.

    I believe the past decade & a half has seen one of those obliterations of memory, not just politically but in literature. With David Foster Wallace's suicide last year, it's difficult to come up with the name of forty- and fifty-something authors who command anything like the attention, even of the reading community, that only Roth & Vidal & Oates retain. Maybe William T. Vollmann, whose "Europe Central" qualifies in spades for engagement with European culture, but other names don't leap to mind. Is it the effect of creative writing classes, commercial trends, or homeschooling that vaunts 'classics' -- the safely dead -- against unsafe & still restless modern & post-moderns?

    It's up to new generations of American writers to gain the itnernational respect that earlier generations earned.