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The Ignorant American Literary Scene

by Upstate NY Wed Oct 1st, 2008 at 09:06:29 AM EST

I figured since we Americans are sending your own globally-tied banking system down the tubes, we might as well duke it out over something else, like, maybe "literary status."

But, you know, we didn't start this fight:


Permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy Horace Engdahl told the Associated Press that US writers were "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture", which he said dragged down the quality of their work. "The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature," Engdahl said. "That ignorance is restraining."

I can't say I've been totally impressed over the years by the awarding of the Nobel in Lit. Neither have some of the winners themselves.

The truth is, if he's looking for representative Americans and all he gets are the likes of Oates and Updike, I can see why he's underwhelmed.

On the other hand, within literary circles, the US does better. I read a lot of European literary theory and belles lettres, and if you go buy citation and references alone, it's easy to detect the American influence on European literature. There has always been a history of cross-pollination, especially in the 1920s with the Americans in Paris. But also with the Surrealist movements, Spatialism, Robbe-Grillet and the New Novelists, Oulipo, the Postmoderns, etc.

We're talking about American Lit. in the 20th century, right? That's what Nobel is judging.

In that time, the USA has had Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo, Wallace Stevens, EE Cummings, Allen Ginsberg, Black Mountain types like Robert Creeley, John Ashbery, writers like William Faulkner, Kurt Vonnegut, Vladimir Nabokov, Henry James, Robert Coover, Toni Morrison, Paul Auster. Maybe some notable others.

Some of the contemporary writers are very well studied and read in Europe. Not Oates, but others such as Pynchon or Auster.

I think American literature mainly falls into two bins: commercially viable and not commercially viable. Commercially viable books are best sellers, wind up on Oprah's book club list, and made into movies. Not commercially viable books languish in obscurity if they are even published at all.

The problem for writers are that if one is to live off ones writing it needs to be commercially viable and that isn't the type of writing the Nobel committee is looking for. I concur that much of what is popular and gets read in the U.S. is pretty awful. The "good" writers that the literary establishment promote, are not the type of books I enjoy reading or find rewarding, so I too can see why Engdahl is underwhelmed.

I do think he has a rather narrow view and exposure to American writing, however. I think the writing that is truly literary isn't easy to find and it isn't going to be found on the NY Times best seller list, nor is it likely to be found their Book Review section. Most good literature is extra-establishement.

I'm sorry I missed your essay earlier. I went ahead and put one up as essay as well with my non-literary reaction. I took more umbrage with the claim that Europe was the center of the literary world, than with American being "too insular" which I agree with somewhat.

by Magnifico on Thu Oct 2nd, 2008 at 04:20:08 PM EST
Yep, you both came up with the Engdahl quote at the same time.

Just one reaction to what you say here, Magnifico: I don't think Europe is significantly freer from the need to be commercially viable. Publishing works pretty much as it does in the States. And respect for authors is no greater in the reading public here than it is in the States.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu Oct 2nd, 2008 at 04:38:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Point taken. And, I'm not suggesting just because a literary work is commercially viable it is bad, nor do I believe that just because a piece is unsellable, it therefore then must be good.

What I do believe is what is commercially viable in Europe is very different from what is commercially viable in the U.S. I'm more than a decade-removed from academic literary circles, but my hunch is that in Europe, writing that has literary value may be more likely to have commercial value too.

by Magnifico on Thu Oct 2nd, 2008 at 04:55:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, no, I think there's a distinct respect paid in America to authors of serious intent (I'm not getting into literary value judgements here). And they can be commercially successful: (again without literary judgement), Philip Roth springs to mind. Or, just as serious in intent but less patently "literary", more mainstream and successfully so, Jane Smiley or Anne Tyler.

I don't think the situation is significantly better in Europe. There's more lip service paid, perhaps; publishers work the vein of the "literary" category, for which there's a niche market. This means a fair amount of discovering seventeen-year-old female sex-maniac geniuses, brilliant young dandies, astounding first novels; and, to a great extent, authors stringing along from one book to the next on dwindling incomes precisely because they're not "commercially viable" ie the TV promotion circuit doesn't want them, and there's no subsidiary rights action (movie rights in particular) around their works.

Is there really a greater market here for what has genuine literary value? I'm not sure. The World of Books™ has consolidated and gone transatlantic since the 1980s, and many of the same criteria are applied.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Oct 3rd, 2008 at 04:07:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
First, let me say that I am not concerned at all with awards.

I am addressing his idea that American Lit. is too insular, which I reject. I find it also doubly troubling coming from someone who basically lauds writing with an ethnic, nationalistic or regional tinge.

For instance, think how topical and national recent winners such as Pamuk have been. Such value judgements as Engdahl's are weird precisely because the works chosen not transcend the national.

Nor should they. I want to read difference in literature, difference in culture, difference in nation. I don't care how parochial literature can be. There's as much depth in the story of an obscure Amazon tribe as there is in any supranational or globalist statement about humanity.

That being said, I'm back to the insular charge again. This insular charge is also packed with an accusation about pop culture. From reading Engdahl's comments, it becomes clear to me that he subscribes to this divide between low culture and high culture. By doing that he insists on the increasing rarification of literature which inevitably marginalizes it. Someone like Pynchon, for instance, sees culture as "a whole way of life" and not as the highest transcendent ideals of Western Civilization. That's why he's eminently capable of seeing pop culture and all its loaded symbolism as a powerful actor in culture. only someone who delves into the culture can critique it.

Pynchon does this perhaps better than any other living author.

And he has been recognized by many Europeans as being hugely influential in this sort of novel. Michel Hoellebecq, for instance, owes a debt to him.

Quite frankly, Engdahl's arguments just seem like ignorance to me.

by Upstate NY on Fri Oct 3rd, 2008 at 01:36:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
<illiterate rant>

A large part of the problem with the American literary scene is that the notion of "good literature" has become not a marker of quality, but a particular genre and style.  If you write in the designated style of the decade, then you are writing literature, regardless of whether or not it's any "good" - that is, whether anyone would enjoy reading it.

The proper literary style and genre of the decade is determined by a few academics and academic writers, and followed by everyone else who wants to be literary.  The "quality" of the produced works is determined by how well it plays in that circle.

Great literature stands the test of time because people continue to pick up those books and read them and enjoy them and get something out of them.  People young and old, experienced and neophyte, can, in the right circumstances and allowing for some measure of personal taste, understand and enjoy the greats, and judge their quality by that mysterious inner process that no one really understands.

Abstract stylistic rules and experimental formats have nothing to do with this reality, but they have everything to do with how "literary" one is considered.

</ignorant rant>

by Zwackus on Thu Oct 2nd, 2008 at 10:39:54 PM EST
Ain't ignorant, and applies to Europe too.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Oct 3rd, 2008 at 04:09:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
To play Devil's Advocate - I suspect some 'classic' literature only continues to be great because we're told it is. I'm not sure how much of it is read for pleasure at all, or how much would be labelled classic if it were discovered today. Even when it's read for pleasure, it's not necessarily read for depth. Jane Austen remains popular because she wrote early romcoms, not so much because she's quietly scathing, sarcastic and insightful.

The one constant in art history is changing taste. This century's renowned genius painters, composers and writers were last century's nobodies.

This makes obsessive scrabbling for posterity counterproductive. No one knows what the tastes of the next few centuries will be, or even if they'll have the same ideas about serious art that we do.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Fri Oct 3rd, 2008 at 08:13:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
All excellent points.

One of the greatest lessons I received as an undergraduate was from a young professor who opened his Shakespeare course by literally tearing into Othello as a horribly plotted drama with so many faults which would not pass today in any of the literate arts. (I can give details on what he said).

The net effect was to render Shakespeare's canonicity suspect, and then to reconstruct our understanding of the Bard. Some people did not take to kindly to the "tactic" since some authors are obviously sacrosanct within the canon.

In the USA, we read the earliest works of American Literature in much the same fashion, as though they are the very building blocks of our culture. But a close and wary eye on the literature makes you really wonder about the worth of, say, Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Are we reading it because it was first? Well, yes.

by Upstate NY on Fri Oct 3rd, 2008 at 01:40:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I take issue with this, because for some reason, only in literature can a neophyte be expected to enjoy something at face value.

I don't understand cricket, but I don't blast it because I'm a neophyte who can't enjoy it. Similarly, it does take a long time to enjoy certain more difficult works of literature. We improve as readers over our lives. Edgar Allen Poe, I remember his writing as being utterly fantastic to me when I first read it, not so much upon my return to it. I had changed. In any other human endeavor,  except literature it seems, we allow for higher levels of skill to be appreciated.

And some great works of literature are practically beyond anyone's solitary comprehension, and they can only be enjoyed communally. Take Finnegans Wake, for instance. Read in a classroom, the book opened up to me. in fact, it opened up not even because of someone's erudition. It opened up because as we read it allowed in class, one student's mildly inebriated brogue enlivened all the puns.

by Upstate NY on Fri Oct 3rd, 2008 at 01:45:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If you were "Downstate NY" instead of "Upstate NY", you could join a reading group that has been going through FW at about one or two pages per meeting. It's a strange feeling showing up when I'm visiting NY, and getting the feeling that they are still at about the same place that they were years ago. (I joined after having already read the whole thing, which took me about 3 years.)
by gk (gk (gk quattro due due sette @gmail.com)) on Fri Oct 3rd, 2008 at 04:16:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I can see how that would happen.

Have they run through the whole thing and then returned to the same page again having forgotten it the first time through?

by Upstate NY on Fri Oct 3rd, 2008 at 05:16:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Interestingly, one could say the same about much of German writing. Particularly such postwar icons as Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass dealt intensively with current social and political trends.

But of course, the Nobel Committee would never award a prize to a writer like that.

Oh, wait...

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt št gmail dotcom) on Fri Oct 3rd, 2008 at 07:34:10 AM EST

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