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Nobel Prize: Judge critiques ‘professionalization’ of writers

Horace Engdahl
Horace Engdahl in 2005 as permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize.
(Janerik Henriksson / EPA)
Los Angeles Times Book Critic

This week, the Guardian reported on an interview published by the French newspaper La Croix in which the Swedish Academy’s Horace Engdahl — one of 18 voters who will decide the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature on Thursday — decries the “professionalization” of the Western writer, arguing that “[p]reviously, writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard — but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective.”

Engdahl, of course, appears to exempt himself from such criteria; an editor and critic, he teaches at Denmark’s University of Aarhus, in addition to his duties at the Swedish Academy. His comments, then, are reminiscent of former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett’s argument that college is unnecessary — despite the fact that he holds an undergraduate and two graduate degrees.

Engdahl is no stranger to controversy; in 2008, he derided American writers and readers as “too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature” — comments widely regarded as evidence of the insularity of the Nobel itself. It’s not that he doesn’t have a point about America’s inward-gazing culture, but if that’s all he sees, he isn’t looking closely enough.

The same is true of his remarks about professionalization, which zero in on writing programs and grants. “Even though I understand the temptation,” he explains, “I think it cuts writers off from society, and creates an unhealthy link with institutions” — forgetting, perhaps, that the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel, is one of the most prestigious institutions of them all.

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Look: I understand the danger of writers aligning with any institution, with anybody’s interests or agenda but their own. It’s an issue I think about on a daily basis, writing for a newspaper, teaching in creative writing programs — how to remain independent, how to think for oneself.

Unlike Engdahl, however, I’m willing to admit there can be advantages to institutional affiliations, and not just because they pay the bills. Rather, if we let them, institutions put us in touch with a community of readers and writers, many of whom think differently than we do. Literature does not, cannot, exist in a vacuum, and one of the benefits of having to work for a living is that it gets writers in the mix.

This is where Engdahl reveals his biases, by suggesting that there is only one way for writers to engage. It’s backwards, ignorant, a perspective defined by the romantic notion of the garret, of the starving artist, the idea that literature, that creativity, might somehow remain pure.

Ask anyone who’s lived that life and see what they say about it. Read George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London” or Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer.” Read anything by Jean Rhys. Artists are not ennobled by poverty any more than they are ennobled by money. They are ennobled by art.

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Engdahl also has some harsh words for the state of literary criticism, which has its troubles, I agree, if not for the reasons he suggests. “We talk in the same way,” he says, “about everything which is published, and literary criticism is poorer for it.... This revolution has marginalized proper literature, which has not got worse, but which has seen its status change. Before, there were mountains and lowlands. Today, the outlook is that of an archipelago, where each island represents a genre ... with everything coexisting without a hierarchy or center.”

The key phrase there is “proper literature,” which I take to mean the highbrow stuff.

Don’t get me wrong: I love highbrow lit; it’s why I get up in the morning, in many ways. But I also love the flattening of hierarchy, that the canon has exploded and may yet (one hopes) continue to explode. What is “proper literature”? Who, dare I ask, is allowed to write it? Engdahl’s answer may be intuited from a remark he made in 2008 that “Europe still is the center of the literary world.”

In this more recent interview, he backs away from that assertion, acknowledging “the literary riches which we are seeing arise in Asia and Africa,” but warning that they may be corrupted “by the assimilation and the westernization of these authors.”

Nobel watchers have taken this as an indication that the Swedish Academy might be receptive this year to the Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, a professor at UC Irvine and is the slam-dunk candidate from my point of view. But I can’t help seeing something condescending in Engdahl’s belief that Asian and African writers have to be protected, that they cannot look out for themselves.

This is paternalism, pure and simple — Eurocentric and elitist — and it makes me want to say: Wake up. Engdahl does have some points to make about what he calls “fake” transgression, work intended to look dangerous as a commodity but that doesn’t actually challenge the status quo.

“These novelists,” he says, “who are often educated in European or American universities, don’t transgress anything because the limits which they have determined as being necessary to cross don’t exist.”

OK, I’ll give him that, although the irony of a member of the Swedish Academy standing up for transgression is a little thick.

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But more to the point, it’s time to move beyond these antiquated attitudes and recognize that what makes writing authentic is not the writer’s circumstances but rather what he or she has to say.

twitter: @davidulin


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