Thursday, October 9, 2008

Woe is Me: Philip Roth Passed Over Yet Again

Okay, so I got up this morning, turned on my computer, and went online. My home page is set to this: The first image is a little gross, if you don't like dentists. Beneath that is the "latest news" lineup. What do I see but the sad notice that "Nobelpris i litteratur til franskmand."

Each year around this time I look forward to some things. Baseball. The World Series. I am a die-hard Cardinals fan, but even when they're not in the playoffs, I usually look forward to watching games. But I also look forward to finding out just who's going to win the Nobel Prize in literature. Each year I wonder: Will Philip Roth FINALLY win? Tell me now: why hasn't he won the nobel prize (small letters)? Does anybody know? He's won just about every American award you could possibly win. National Book Award. National Book Critics Circle Award. Pulitzer, etc. etc. You get the picture. Apparently it doesn't matter.

This year's Nobel Prize winner is Jean-Marie Gustave La Clezio. My congratulations to him.

But I'm still a little bummed.

Thanks to Mark Athitakis' blog--which first made me aware of the comments--I've been thinking there's no way Roth will win the prize for a long, long time. If ever. Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the committee, has some unpleasant things to say about American literature. Snippets:

"Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world ... not the United States," he told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview Tuesday.

[Hello? Who's talking about the U.S. being the center of the literary world? Why do you think there needs to be a center? A dialogue [see next graf] is a dialogue between two or more people, right? Not a discourse from one person in the center at another outside the center--or as in this case apparently someone else in the center.]

"The U.S. 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."

[Your ignorance is restraining. I translate. It aint easy. Plenty of people translate here; books are translated all the time here. In fact, there are many presses devoted exclusively to translated literature: Open Letter, Archipelago, etc, and don't forget FSG or New Directions. This is a bogus argument. Roth's books HAVE BEEN WIDELY translated into other languages. I don't want to be a sour grape kind of guy, but some of the recent winners--and I'm sure they're fine authors--haven't been participating in as big a dialogue as the one Roth has been participating in for well nigh 50 years. I repeat: FIFTY years. (Goodbye, Columbus was published in 1959.)

And, anyway. Insular? This is like the pot calling the kettle black. I think we can all easily note just how many European authors have won this thing in the last ten years. A LOT. What the number of European winners suggests, in my view, is not just the Nobel Prize committee's insularity, but its outright snobbishness.)

Engdahl said Europe draws literary exiles because it "respects the independence of literature" and can serve as a safe haven.

[Should we discuss where the pool of money came from that created the Nobel Prizes?]

"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."

[Um....ONLY Europe? Whoa: Does this mean that the old-fashioned notion of the Noble Savage is alive and well? Not to say that writers aren't "persecuted" elsewhere, but sheesh, Europe isn't the only place they can go to write. And let's face it: This argument would actually suggest that the most important literature might just be coming from authors living in "big parts of Asia and Africa" where to write truly is a dangerous exercise of "freedom." Not in insular, happy Europe, North America. Or the West.

Why bother writing more on this? I'm not so concerned about a U.S./Europe disconnect. I AM pulling for Roth, especially, but I'm pulling for more than just that (I realize now): I'm pulling for a dialogue that truly represents world literature's diversity.

I'm not going to conclude this post by saying the Nobel is a meaningless award, as I've heard people say, and I shouldn't get worked up over this. On the contrary, I think it's a very meaningful award--or at least could be--that could honor world literature in a meaningful way. With no disrepect to La Clezio or any of the recent winners, I'm disappointed that so few people, it seems, are making the decisions that create the "dialogue" that is world literature. This award, which represents what the best of literature does and stands for, should not be decided by a small handful of people.

Are we honestly to believe that Europe is the real hub of great literature? Are we going to dismiss not just Roth, Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Delillo, but also Chinua Achebe, Murakami, Allende? This is only a short list off the top of my head. There are many, many more.

No. We are not.

Or at least in a perfect world, we would not.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hi, Kyle. I don't think he'll ever win. He's funny and cranky and brilliant, but he is SO American. Maybe I'll be found wrong - I waited for decades for Doris Lessing to win.
Thanks for the post. I'll think about this one --