Thursday, October 30, 2008

Too isolated, too insular?

Daniel Green has a long post over at the Reading Experience, taking issue with the now-famous comments by Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, to the effect that the U.S. is “too isolated, too insular” for its writers to be considered for the Noble Prize in Literature. “They [the States? the writers?] don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature," Engdahl went on to say. “That ignorance is restraining.”

Green rightly finds Engdahl’s comments to be incoherent:

Either Engdahl is asserting that not enough American writers are contributing to some ongoing “dialogue” about literature separate from their own writing, or the allegation is that they don’t conceive of their writing as a contribution to “the big dialogue of literature.”Both notions are equally preposterous, Green continues, but it is the second that is especially damaging:[L]iterature isn’t a “dialogue” monitored by self-appointed arbiters who decide what part of the conversation deserves a prize for its insight. It isn’t an attempt to “say” anything, except circuitously or by accident. I’m tempted to construe Engdahl’s scolding of American writers for their insularity as just another expression of impatience with the “merely literary,” with writing that isn’t morally or politically useful, but I doubt he really meant to go quite that far. He is simply reiterating a commonly-held, if implicit rather than thought-out, view that literature is more about dialogue and discussion and nicely articulated platitudes [and] less about art and aesthetic consummation, which indeed often occurs in isolation and, in literature, as a “dialogue” only between the author and his/her text.Now, the last thing I want to do is to defend Engdahl’s stupid comments. The mere fact that Vladimir Nabokov never won it, and Günter Grass did, is enough to disqualify the Nobel Prize from serious discussion for all time.

But I would like to suggest that Green’s view that literature is “about art and aesthetic consummation,” that the only dialogue in literature is between a writer and his text, is not merely insular but sterile, narcissistic, and, well, boring. Don’t get me wrong. Green faithfully reflects the official ideology of America’s literary class. He rephrases, in fresh language, the familiar mottoes of the New Criticism, which were chiseled on the walls of Creative Writing Workshops when they were first founded in the Forties and Fifties.

Engdahl is an incoherent spokesman for it, but there is a rival view that is fully coherent and worth considering. It is a view with, yes, a European pedigree, I’m sorry to say. It is the view that literature is a debate, stretching across languages and centuries, over the best way to write, the social or moral or political function of literature, the meaning and value of the literary experience. Green himself testifies to the power of such a view, because he himself contributes to the debate.

So do the writers he mentions. John Hawkes, for example, doubtless believed that his novels were a dialogue between himself and his literary language, but in this belief he implicitly rejected the dominant (or at least celebrated) novelistic mode of the postwar era as represented by, say, The Adventures of Augie March or Invisible Man, both of which are an explicit address to the reader. (“You! I know there is a you!” E. L. Doctorow later spoofed the epideictic mode in The Book of Daniel.)

The best novels are written against other novels. Which means that the literary vocation requires a wide education—not merely in creative writing, and perhaps not ever in creative writing—and that the “insular” and “isolated” writer is he who really is only in dialogue with himself.


Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

America isn't homogeneous, first of all. All American literature doesn't speak with a uniform, collective voice; there are people of every race, nationality, age, etc adding to the annals of American literature.

This American vs. European argument is pretty ridiculous if only because Europe is made up of almost 50 sovereign countries - extrapolate that as far as you like.

I don't understand what Horace is trying to say. I don't think Horace understands what Horace is trying to say.