Thursday, October 02, 2008

Scratching my head over here . . .

(Edited for clarity)

Over at The New Republic's blog The Plank, there's a very odd post by Max Fisher on why U.S. writers have been overlooked for the Nobel Prize for Literature. After citing committee chair Horace Engdahl's contention that U.S. writers are, in essence, too provincial in their concerns to be taken seriously by the world literary community, Fisher offers up another possibility:

The committee doesn't oppose Americans--they oppose postmodernism, which has dominated American literature since the 1960s. This would explain the exclusion of not just Americans, but of prominent non-American postmodernists like Salman Rushdie and Umberto Eco. It would also partly explain Engdahl's statement: Anyone can see that the U.S. participates in a "big dialogue of literature"--the issue is that it isn't a dialogue he thinks is worthwhile.

After all, the American authors who have been denied the prize have something far more significant than their nationality in common: Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, and William Burroughs are all leading figures in the postmodern tradition. Postmodernism has been central to American literature for decades. David Foster Wallace, whose death last month at age 46 rocked the literary world, could not have been more postmodern.
Of course, read the whole thing.

There's plenty to argue with here, but that's part of its problem: It's almost too weird, too incoherent, to argue with, that incoherence stemming from cramming a book's worth of stuff into a post of a few hundred words. It assumes, without stating it, a definition for postmodernism and then lists writers who fit this unknown definition, apparently assuming that we'll just nod our heads in agreement at the list. Moreover, the names Fisher lists apparently are (or were, in the cases of Burroughs and Wallace) worthy of consideration by the Nobel committee, and, well, let's just say some are worthier than others. Also notable by their absence are other venerable U.S. writers--John Updike (not a favorite of mine, but your mileage may vary) and (duh) Cormac McCarthy, to name just two--but I don't think they would comfortably fit in the "postmodern tradition" (is than an oxymoronic term?) . . . but then again, a couple of novels aside, does Roth? Finally, there's the piece's starting point, Horace Engdahl's argument that U.S. literature is too insular in nature. How does one even begin to address such a claim? (UPDATE: Randall begins to do this--and does it very well, I might add--in a pot-meet-kettle-style post here.)

Anyway. This is here not because I want to set out to respond coherently to a rather chaotic post but because I thought some of you might find this interesting at some level.


R. Sherman said...

I've been busy of late, but I've been sitting on some thoughts about Mr. Engdahl's comments. Let's just say, I've had a dickens of a time trying to figure out what he meant by "insular." In what? Topic? Theme? What national literature isn't insular or provincial to some degree?


John B. said...

Exactly. The very fact that one puts an adjective in front of the word "literature" to my mind makes it "insular" in some sense. As it turns out, this question sort of intersects with some concerns of mine re my sabbatical project, so I may return to this later, either here or at the other blog.

Doc said...

my sense of the 'argument' goes like this:

america the entity dominates world literature in the sense that all other authors are required to write of it, or its impact, in order to explore their own characters’/plot/country’s relevance/theme/dilemma.

that american authors are a priori that exploration allows them the freedom of post modernism.

in other words, them dang feriners is jes’ jealous…

; ‘ )

p.s. i always considered Cormac a magical realist. or perhaps a magical southernist, which is somewhat redundant…

John B. said...

Re Cormac (if we may be so familiar): it's hard to pigeon-hole him, isn't it? He does have much of the fabulist in him, I'll grant you.

And this gives me a chance to mention that I think Fisher is off-base regarding Wallace: DFW certainly employed postmodernist textual devices, but to then assume that he accepts postmodern claims that there are no Grand Narratives is to misread him, I think.

R. Sherman said...

I got to thinking more about this, and let me just toss out two winners in Literature: Grass and Morrison.

One writes stories connected to World War II in Danzig, e.g. Tin Drum and Crabwalk.The other writes about the African-American experience.

Let me go out on limb, admittedly not very far, methinks, and say that Mr. Engdahl is a [fill in American pejorative adjective here] idiot.