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If the selection of French writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio as the 2008 Nobel literature laureate has anything to tell us, it's that Horace Engdahl means what he says.
Last week, Engdahl, the Swedish Academy's permanent secretary, called American literary culture "too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature" -- comments widely seen in the United States as evidence of the insularity of the Nobel itself and proof that American writers would be shut out again.
The last American to win the prize was Toni Morrison in 1993; since then, recipients have included Poland's Wislawa Szymborska, Italy's Dario Fo, Chinese-born Gao Xingjian and Austria's Elfriede Jelinek. That such authors are not household names has led to charges that the Nobel committee is willfully obscure, or worse, motivated by political considerations.
Certainly, the last three winners -- Britain's Harold Pinter, whose acceptance speech excoriated the Bush administration's Iraq policy; Orhan Pamuk, who faced criminal prosecution (later dropped) in his native Turkey for speaking out about the Armenian genocide; and British citizen Doris Lessing, an early and committed feminist who campaigned against apartheid and for nuclear disarmament -- are political as well as literary figures, although there's no question about the quality and engagement of their work.
It's hard to say where Le Clezio fits into all this; I've never read his books. In fact, until Thursday morning, I'd never heard of him -- and I'm not alone. Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, which administers the National Book Awards, said the same thing, as did David Kipen, literature director of the National Endowment for the Arts.
On the one hand, that might seem to support Engdahl's claims of American isolationism and insularity, but I'd suggest this unfamiliarity cuts both ways. How do we make the case for Le Clezio as representative of the best that literature has to offer when so many are unacquainted with his work?
I don't mean to equate popularity with quality; some of the best-known Nobel winners ( Pearl S. Buck, Rudyard Kipling) are not the most exemplary on the page.
And, to be fair, Le Clezio does seem intriguing; an "irregular" resident of Albuquerque -- he has taught, on and off, at the University of New Mexico -- he is fascinated by the notion of borders, both real and metaphorical, and has written nonfiction about the American Southwest and Mexico.
But if this makes him very much a writer of the moment, reflective, as Augenbraum suggests, "of important themes in immigrant literature that may really resonate with American readers," his selection brings us back to an elusive question: What is the purpose of the Nobel Prize?
The same could be asked of all awards, which have a veneer of authority when, in fact, they're as subjective as their judges. Just look at Engdahl, whose statement that "Europe still is the center of the literary world" reveals a cultural blindness as pervasive as anything he accuses American writers of.
"I'd be more inclined to take Engdahl at his word," Kipen writes in an e-mail, "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 three not inconsiderable land masses, are producing wonderful stuff."
Augenbraum takes a more nuanced position: "I think the uproar is unfortunate because it diminishes the award. Without the Nobel committee, would we be reading [Hungary's] Imre Kertesz or Elfriede Jelinek? Kudos to them for introducing these writers to us."
He's got a point; awards juries pluck books and authors from obscurity all the time. That's part of the idea: to bring deserving writers to new readers. To say: You ought to pay attention to this.
The Nobel, though -- or so the argument goes -- is different; it carries a weight, an authority, that most awards don't have. In Slate last week, critic Adam Kirsch wrote: "Unless and until [ Philip] Roth gets the Nobel Prize, there's no reason for Americans to pay attention to any insults from the Swedes."
By such a standard, the choice of Le Clezio can't help but be read through a political filter, as payback for our insensitivity. But if that's true, then so is the opposite: that the expectation by readers and critics in the U.S. that the award must go to an American is more than a little arrogant, our own form of cultural hegemony.
I agree with Kirsch about Roth's significance, but that doesn't mean the Swedish Academy owes him anything. There are plenty of significant authors (Nigeria's Chinua Achebe, for instance, or Mexico's Carlos Fuentes) who have never received the award, for reasons that have nothing to do with national identity.
In fact, the two most prominent American Nobel candidates this year -- Roth and Joyce Carol Oates -- both seem unlikely laureates; Roth because he has actively lobbied for the award (which the committee is known to resist) and Oates because, to be frank, she's just not good enough.
There's more to the Nobel Prize, in other words, than filling out a resume, which is exactly as it ought to be.
Of course, the danger of giving this kind of prize to a writer few have heard of is that, like the uproar that preceded it, this too can diminish the award. It's what we might call the Sarah Palin effect: Does the out-of-nowhere candidate open up the playing field or simply reveal the process as inherently flawed?
This is not the first time such an issue has come up in regard to the Nobel. In 2005, Knut Ahnlund, a prize juror, resigned in protest over Jelinek's selection the year before, calling her work "whining, unenjoyable public pornography" that "has not only done irreparable damage to all progressive forces, it has also confused the general view of literature as an art."
Strong stuff, but at least it stirred up a reaction. The real question about Le Clezio's Nobel Prize is whether anyone will care.
Ulin is book editor of The Times.