For the nineteenth time in nineteen years, the Nobel Prize in Literature has gone to a writer outside of the US. As with most people in this country, the members of Still Eating Oranges were previously unfamiliar with the work of Chinese author Mo Yan. If he is as talented as last year’s winner, Tomas Tranströmer, then we have reason to be excited. As usual, though, a certain group (comprised mostly of Americans) has come out to criticize the Nobel committee for snubbing Cormac McCarthy or Joyce Carol Oates or Philip Roth. Those familiar with this annual tradition will remember that Roth, in particular, has become the cause célèbre for angry American pundits. The US has not had a laureate since Toni Morrison, the logic goes; and so there must be bias afoot.
Recently, The Guardian’s Jason Farago wrote a piece on this phenomenon. Therein, he recalls an infamous, almost legendary 2008 comment made by Nobel spokesman Horace Engdahl: “The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” Every year, US publications trot out this quote as evidence of the Academy’s favoritism; but Farago sides with Engdahl. He decries our country’s writing as “formally retrograde”, “frequently narcissistic” and lacking in “insight or rebelliousness”. He remarks that a new avant-garde theatrical work by 2004’s winner, Elfriede Jelinek, would likely be returned for improvements in a US MFA program. It’s no secret that US writers’ workshops stifle experimentation, but Farago is hinting at a far deeper problem.