Monday, October 06, 2008

Horace Engdahl

So there's been much ado about Horace Engdahl's comments about American Literature being insular. So much of it has been so infuriating and xenophobic that I can't stand to even comment on it.

For example, the moron Adam Kirsch writes that "The Swedes Have No Clue About American Literature."

Perhaps it would help to get a few things straight. Nobody has noted it seems that Horace Engdahl is a very important critic in his own right, one of the key critics to bring poststructuralist theory to Sweden. He has written about a wide range of subjects. He's not some halfwit like Kirsch.

Secondly, I don't think it's possible to claim that American LIterature is not insular. It is. Just look at how few books are published in translation. Look at the entire discipline of English and American Literature taught in colleges (generally foreign lit is not even allowed to be taught in such classes). Look at an American publishing industry, which seems increasingly to just want to publish lame bildungs romans by preppy rich kids (if they publish novels at all) and nonfiction. How many Swedish novelists have you read?

There are many reasons for this. But the biggest one is likely the fact of Empire. We have been so powerful that we don't feel we need to read works from the rest of the world. This is true of smalltime poetry world as well. There are other reasons as well, going back further, to anti-intellectualism and chips on american shoulders.

These chipped shoulders have come front and center in this debate. I like the fact that all this antipathy toward Sweden comes out in every discussion: Swedes don't know anything (a variation on the racial slur "dumb Swede" from 19th century Minnesota - the very word "Swede" is frequently used comically in American culture); Swedes aren't great novelists because we can't name a single one (that's the best evidence of Engdahl's argument), Sweden is so small, they're the ones that are "isolated"; the academy have missed so many great authors that they've proven themselves to be ignorant (yes, but they've also awarded tons of people whose work weren't wellknown before the award, especially as of late); Swedes are "anti-american" (this one sounds an awful lot like Republicans attacking Democrats for being anti-american); Etc.

Most annoying of all is the underlying assumption that America deserves a Nobel Prize - Toni Morrison got one 15 years ago. There are many wonderful and important authors on all the continents, but the fact that Kirsch etc assume that Philip Roth somehow deserver the award ahead of them shows just how provincial Kirsch is. And that's the interesting paradox of American Literature as a whole: the most powerful country is highly provincial precisely because it's power has allowed it to become provincial.

Having said that, there's a pretty annoying idea behind Engdahl's notion of a Great Literary Dialogue. This is a very European notion of cosmopolitanism and it's of course problematic itself. But I'll save that for some other time. I have to take care of my daughter.


Blogger Jordan said...

Roth is almost unreadable, actually. But if they gave it to Bellow and Singer...

Frankly their failure to acknowledge Flora Nwapa writes the whole megillah off for me. But if they were to give it to some tv show or other, say, or a certain folk-rock bard...

3:14 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

An aside re Kirsch's piece: It's hardly news that Doris Lessing thinks badly of at least a certain category of American, as anyone who's read The Golden Notebook would know.

I think you're a little harsch on Kirsch though. Yes he mainly writes set pieces with safe views on established topics. But it takes a peculiar intelligence to grind out 3 or 4 readable thousand words on command every week or two. He's absolutely not on your side. But he's worth keeping up with, at the very least to see what the fiduciaries of literature are allowing these days. I assume you do keep up with him.

3:22 PM  
Blogger Max said...

I don't like many of the responses to Engdahl, but then again, Engdahl called out American literature in a way that was almost exactly as snarky and xenophobic, completely ignoring any of America's significant historical and on-going contributions to literature.

The one part where I agree with Kirsch is when he argues that the Nobel committee has generally only awarded American novelists whose works seem to create the ideal vision of America as a backwater, in order to bolster the idea of Europe as our intellectual teat.

Johannes, certainly the Nobel prize for literature doesn't need to be a comment on our publishing industry. There are plenty of American novelists writing today who are engaging in a "greater dialogue" (whatever that is, I am not sure, but I assume it generally means something like "being intelligent"). That said, I'm not willing to go as far as Kirsch and take down more recent, lesser known Nobel laureates in order to forward that point. I don't see a problem with Pinter winning the prize; the Nobel in literature has quite often functioned as a lifetime achievement award, so I don't particularly mind if his best work is well behind him.

3:33 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Part of the problem with criticizing all American literature (not just novelists by the way but poets as well) is that I think he's mainly looking at major publishers. And that's in part because major European publishers have been far more adventurous than American major publishers, and they haven't really needed small presses the way we have. So I think Engdahl is mainly looking at the major presses and in that arena it's hard to say that he's wrong.

3:47 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I agree that it's admirable to be able to churn out reviews at such a rapid rate, but pretty much all of the ones I've read have been pretty moronic. And his poetry is just terrible, terrible. I mean I know a thing or two about form and meter and if you're going to write formal poetry you've got to do better than that.

3:49 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Also, Max,

There's a fundamentally important point to be discussed and that is Kirsch's dismissal of Steinbeck as a back-woods-man. What a ludicrous, classist bullshit argument.

However, it does bring up an important point: In Sweden, literature is viewed as more political. For example, "proletariat literature" is considered an important movement in Swedish lit.

My impression is that Swedish culture has a much higher esteem for Steinbeck than Americans . This is because in America - a culture that gives rise to and is shaped by privileged snobs like Kirsch - Steinbeck is viewed as a simpleton for being an activist author of sorts, while in Sweden he is admired for his political activism.

4:19 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Also, TS Eliot? Toni Morrison? Faulkner? Simple backwoodsmen?

Adam Kirsch should be ashamed of himself.

4:20 PM  
Blogger Max said...


I'm not sure Kirsch is necessarily slagging Steinbeck himself, but rather the perception of Steinbeck that the Nobel committee seems to have had. And when you view the Steinbeck pick alongside, say Sinclair Lewis, you definitely get the impression that they (at least at one time) valued only a kind of gritty realist perspective that revealed chinks in the armor of the nation, etc.

Even if Kirsch is arguing that Steinbeck is a backwoods simpleton--an assertion I disagree with--I still see his larger point.

I mean, we can sit here all day and list off dream picks for Nobel laureate, but fer chrissakes, why not Nabokov? When you see guys like him going completely overlooked, it really does make you wonder if it's because he crossed over from Europe to America, and the Nobel committee just doesn't want to admit that the intellectual trade can run both ways. After all, Nabokov, whatever you think about him, pretty much perfectly fits the definition Engdahl puts forth of somebody who's taking part in the "great literary dialogue."

4:46 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Also, I think your points in defense of Engdahl are perfectly fine. I would tend to agree with you. But then again, he kind of brings it on himself by directly challenging American literature in the way he did. It's not like Kirsch just up and complained about the fact that not enough Americans are getting Nobel lit. prizes. Engdahl brought it up, and now he's getting some in return. Yeah, many of Kirsch's points are stupid and/or go too far, but then again, I think Engdahl is full of shit, too. He may know plenty about American literature--I'm sure he does--but he doesn't make that knowledge clear in his comments. I think he knew perfectly well that he was being provocative.

4:50 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

You seem to be just as unaware of what is happening in modern American literature, and what is available to the public, as Engdahl is. In the same way that people see a McDonalds and don't acknowledge that the finest gourmet and international cuisine is ALSO available in every major American city, you seem to be unaware that American literature has a range from regional/provincial to undeniably universal. As a nation built on immigration, it is impossible not to.

9:23 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

By the way, OF COURSE English and American lit classes teach...English and American literature! But every major university also has classes, and many have degree programs, in literature from every world region.

9:26 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


yeah but those are usually taught in another language which limits the exposure. Plus the very notion that English and American lit exists as separate literature is a proof of insularity.

BTW I am an immigrant.BTW there is lots of American lit that I like. As would be evident to you if you read this blog regularly.


5:18 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

I can see what you're saying about the insularity of teaching English and American lit as "separate literature," but at the same time, I think it would be a big mistake to lump all literature together and assume that it comes from the same, similar, or even comparable traditions. Academia is taxonomic. This is not new information.

Anyway, it seems to me that Engdahl seeks to penalize American writers in particular simply because our mainstream literary culture isn't a perfect representation of the ideal European or cosmopolitan literary culture. That is a stupid thing to say. Very stupid. This would be like saying "I don't think Soulja Boy engages the greater hip-hop dialogue, therefore the United States is devoid of hip-hop artists who engage the greater hip-hop dialogue." It's a stupid generalization that's just begging to be torn apart.

5:37 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


It's provocative, it's not stupid. Like I said, it privileges a notion of cosmopolitanism. If you believe in a cosmopolitan literature, then I think it's impossible to say that America Lit is very cosmopolitan. But that's the discussion that we should be having: Is this cosmopolitan notion good? Not this shrill anti-Swedish, america-can-do-no-wrong defensive attacks on Engdahl as an ignoramus.

Do we believe in this cosmopolitan notion of literature? That's the discussion. And it's not a stupid discussion. It's a very worthwhile discussion.

Also, he's not "penalizing" American writers. Where do you get that from? He's merely stating that he thinks American lit is insular, that it's not participating in a dialogue he considers important.


9:04 AM  
Blogger mongibeddu said...

Engdahl is a trade minister proposing a tariff war over bean imports. Which is fine. America's distaste for foreign-grown beans is ridiculous. But that distaste has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the homegrown variety.


10:21 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

I replied more thoroughly in the "Alan A." thread above.

I basically argue that cosmopolitanism = built-in familiarity, and that while this is not a good thing for literature to strive for, it is something that American literature has in spades, since America is such a global brand at this point. Perhaps Americans aren't engaging the rest of the world in their writing, but their writing must (almost) automatically engage the rest of the world due to the ubiquity of "America" in the global marketplace. Yes, this is absolutely fucking annoying, and I see no value in it at all, but it's true. There is, indeed, a sort of cosmopolitanism built into all of our creative products.

I think what pisses off Engdahl is the arrogance of a literary culture that "leaves out," is no longer conditioned by Europe. I think Engdahl's points have some salience, but at the same time they're put forth with such bitterness particularly because they come from a bad place. America no longer looks to Europe for its literary inspiration. Engdahl's comments carry weight, but they come from a deeper spite, and that's why I think they've drawn these defensive responses from American critics.

That said, there is no excuse for the xenophobic bullshit. Conservative idiots pounded away at Pinter the same way a couple years ago when he made his (in)famous "anti-American" Nobel speech, and I defended him at the time. It seems to me that Engdahl's comments are nowhere near as strong, so the fact that he's receiving such a stoning from American critics is particularly absurd. The best thing our critics could do, I think, would just be to ignore him. Who cares if we don't produce any more Nobel laureates? Why should we want to?

5:04 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home