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:
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.