The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Thoughts from My Desk

October 13, 2008
Washington, DC

It's Nobel season again, but you American writers can feel free to tie up the phone. In a piece this week about a colleague's interview with the head of the Nobel Prize's literature jury, the AP's Hillel Italie quoted jury foreman Horace Engdahl as follows:

"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...[U.S. writers are] too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture...The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature...That ignorance is restraining."

A few logical quibbles here. First, even supposing Engdahl's right about contemporary American literature's insularity, can we really be that much more insular today than we were in the 1950s, when Big Read author Hemingway won his Nobel amid the innocent summer of American exceptionalism? Or than we were in 1962, when most Americans still couldn't find Vietnam on a map, and yet Hemingway's fellow Big Read laureate Steinbeck won his? Insular we may be, but that didn't keep these two American writers from engaging politically, journalistically and morally with the world around them.

From, here's the roster of all the laureates to date:

  • 1993 - Toni Morrison
  • 1992 - Derek Walcott
  • 1988 - Naguib Mahfouz
  • 1987 - Joseph Brodsky
  • 1980 - Czeslaw Milosz
  • 1978 - Isaac Bashevis Singer
  • 1976 - Saul Bellow
  • 1962 - John Steinbeck
  • 1954 - Ernest Hemingway
  • 1949 - William Faulkner
  • 1948 - T.S. Eliot
  • 1938 - Pearl Buck
  • 1936 - Eugene O'Neill
  • 1930 - Sinclair Lewis
  • 1929 - Thomas Mann

In addition to all the writers we commonly think of as American, notice that I've included above several winners who've taken refuge here from dispossession abroad. Again, insular we may sometimes be, but we can also put out the welcome mat when we've a mind to -- at least until the customs and visa trouble sometimes encountered in recent years by such authors as Ian MacEwan, Rohinton Mistry and Big Read Mexico's Carlos Fuentes. Unless I'm mistaken, at the instigation partly of adopted New Yorker Salman Rushdie, PEN has even designated several American cities, including of all places Las Vegas, cities of sanctuary for persecuted writers from abroad.

Finally, I'd be more inclined to take Engdahl at his word if his championing of European literature didn't also ignore all the great writing coming from the rest of the planet just now. Africa, India and China, to name just not inconsiderable three land masses, are producing wonderful stuff.

For the last time, insular we may be. But take it from a guy flying to Moscow on Monday to see the Big Read Russia grow even bigger: Anybody who thinks, as Engdahl apparently does, that Europe and America are, or ever were, the only game in town, could give us a run for our money in the insularity department.