flacid
October 6, 2008 8:14 AM   Subscribe

"There is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world... not the United States," he said. "The US 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."

Nobel literature prize judge Horace Engdahl comes down hard against Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and other crazy American shit that just can't cross the waters.
posted by plexi (124 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
"You would think that the permanent secretary of an academy that pretends to wisdom but has historically overlooked Proust, Joyce and Nabokov, to name just a few non-Nobelists, would spare us the categorical lectures."

PWNED, BIATCH!!
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:24 AM on October 6, 2008 [6 favorites]


Horace Engdahl flagged as looking like a zombie.
posted by lukemeister at 8:25 AM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


David Remnick noted that the Swedish Academy itself has been guilty of conspicuous ignorance over a very long period: "You would think that the permanent secretary of an academy that pretends to wisdom but has historically overlooked Proust, Joyce and Nabokov, to name just a few non-Nobelists, would spare us the categorical lectures."

Good one.
posted by tiger yang at 8:26 AM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


IMHO the selection of the Literature prize winner is as much a political exercise as a literary one so I don't think any American authors need worry about making the short list anytime soon.
posted by MikeMc at 8:27 AM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


Christ, what an asshole.
posted by AwkwardPause at 8:33 AM on October 6, 2008


America and Europe? LOL. The future is Asia and India, silly.

But it's cute the way someone can still think it's 1919.
posted by bardic at 8:36 AM on October 6, 2008 [13 favorites]


(I should say, the future in general as well as the literary one.)
posted by bardic at 8:36 AM on October 6, 2008


"They don't translate enough" is more than a bit silly. American books aren't translated because there's no need. A large enough portion of Europeans who can read, and do so on a regular basis, can read English just fine.

And anyway, translations are for saps.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:38 AM on October 6, 2008


(That said, American books are translated, I daresay quite a lot more than Swedish ones.)
posted by Sys Rq at 8:38 AM on October 6, 2008


Guy's a fuckin' yutz.
posted by From Bklyn at 8:40 AM on October 6, 2008


europe explores the themes of human experience LIKE THIS but america explores the themes of human experience LIKE THIS AMIRITE
posted by DU at 8:42 AM on October 6, 2008 [36 favorites]


They mean, we don't translate enough foreign-language books into English, which keeps us out of a notional global literary conversation (or makes our participation one-sided).
posted by grobstein at 8:42 AM on October 6, 2008


This can mean only one thing: The Oprah Book Club is a catastrophic failure.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:45 AM on October 6, 2008


"You would think that the permanent secretary of an academy that pretends to wisdom but has historically overlooked Proust, Joyce and Nabokov, to name just a few non-Nobelists, would spare us the categorical lectures."

poor Remnick, let's go back and check how many how the greatest American writers have been published by Remnick's magazine, and how many haven't? seriously. long, long list. when John Updike is your deity, you're bound to publish some boring ass fiction.

oh, and it's also nice to see how the one important issue in Remnicks' tenure at the New Yorker -- the Iraq war -- has seen Remnick and the magazine on the wrong side.

back to more serious topics than poor, easily-dispatched David Remnick: as much as one wants to slam the disrespectful Swede -- how dare he not bow down to the power of Michiko Kakutani -- and put him back in his place, it's interesting to see how many fiction books published every year in the US are translations: 3%

In the rest of the world, it's 50% or more.

if the Americans really want those elusive Nobel prizes for Literature -- Joyce Carol Oates lol -- I think they really should ask the Oscars to add a new category, and start from there. Best Literary Novel, Best Thriller Not Written By Dan Brown, etc: statuettes galore!
posted by matteo at 8:50 AM on October 6, 2008 [4 favorites]


U. S. A.! U. S. A.! We're number one! We're number one!
posted by luckypozzo at 8:50 AM on October 6, 2008 [3 favorites]


They mean, we don't translate enough foreign-language books into English, which keeps us out of a notional global literary conversation (or makes our participation one-sided).

Yeah, I just realized that.

Still, whose fault is that? Surely the only ones to blame for the lack of translation into English are the Europeans themselves, who A) know which works should be translated, and B) --and this point is kind of important -- are capable of translating them. There's a much larger pool of potential translators on that side of the pond, I would think.

It's ridiculous to blame America for ignoring something that isn't made available to them.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:53 AM on October 6, 2008


This one-sidedness is the same reason for why American movies, music, and television shows are so ignored and maligned in Europe. Man, I wish we had the international appeal of Avrupa Yakasi or Robbie Williams!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:53 AM on October 6, 2008


and by the way, the only North American writer who clearly deserves the Nobel is actually not from the US -- it's Alice Munro

(havign said that, Yves Bonnefoy cannot live forever, so I'm hoping that this year he finally gets his long overdue prize)
posted by matteo at 8:54 AM on October 6, 2008 [3 favorites]


the one important issue in Remnicks' tenure at the New Yorker -- the Iraq war -- has seen Remnick and the magazine on the wrong side

Which wrong side is that? Hasn't Seymour Hersh been one of the most vociferous critics of the whole debacle?
posted by spicynuts at 8:54 AM on October 6, 2008


Hey, look on the bright side: we'll have the "War Memoir" genre locked up for decades.
posted by felix betachat at 8:55 AM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


This one-sidedness is the same reason for why American movies, music, and television shows are so ignored and maligned in Europe

literature is not pop culture. or basketball.
posted by matteo at 8:56 AM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


Are we maybe missing a "via" hat-tip here? Arts and Letters Daily linked exactly these three articles in a post last week.
posted by jfuller at 8:58 AM on October 6, 2008


Eh. Anyone who hates Don DeLillo can't be all bad.

*ducks*
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:58 AM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


Which wrong side is that?

for those who didn't pay attention back then:

Making a Case
by David Remnick
February 3, 2003

History will not easily excuse us if, by deciding not to decide, we defer a reckoning with an aggressive totalitarian leader who intends not only to develop weapons of mass destruction but also to use them.

Saddam's abdication, or a military coup, would be a godsend; his sudden conversion to the wisdom of disarmament almost as good. It is a fine thing to dream. But, assuming such dreams are not realized, a return to a hollow pursuit of containment will be the most dangerous option of all.

after that, you can run all the Seymour Hersh you want; when it counted -- ie before the attack -- Remnick endorsed the war. his making fun of the Nobel guy -- who does not seem to have anyone's blood on his hands -- is more than a little shameful.
posted by matteo at 9:00 AM on October 6, 2008 [2 favorites]


The Literary Saloon blog at The Complete Review is a great resource for news about foreign-language fiction. I'm always surprised at how many of the authors they discuss, apparently huge figures in a whole bunch of different countries and translated into a bunch of different languages, I've never heard of. Here's a post on Engdahl's comments.
posted by painquale at 9:06 AM on October 6, 2008 [4 favorites]


> This one-sidedness is the same reason for why American movies, music, and television
> shows are so ignored and maligned in Europe.

American movies, at least, are maligned (of course) but certainly not ignored. Unless this has changed recently:

To reinforce national and regional identities, Europeans try to hold on to their languages, foods and folkloric traditions. But, given the option of American-style entertainment, they show little interest in each other's arts. It may be simply lack of information: European newspapers offer poor coverage of their neighbors' art scenes. Whatever the reason, artistic endeavors that cross borders today reach few people.

In movies, European artists know whom to blame. The region's movie industries constantly bemoan the power of Hollywood, which leaves local films less than 15 percent of the box office even in cinephile countries like Italy and Germany. France in turn uses Hollywood to justify generous subsidies and other privileges that enable its movie industry to control about one-third of the local market.

Yet, three decades after the wellsprings of Fellini, Bergman and Truffaut, Europeans now rarely choose to see each other's films. In 2002, a good year for French cinema, 50 percent of the box office went to American movies and 35 percent to French movies, but only 4.9 percent to British films, 0.8 percent to German and 0.2 percent to Italian. And in Spain last year, Hollywood had 67 percent of the movie market, Spain 15.8 percent, Britain 5.7 percent, France 2.6 percent and Germany just 1.2 percent.

posted by jfuller at 9:16 AM on October 6, 2008


How precisely does Remnick's being on a different side than you are on the Iraq War have anything to do with his qualifications for talking about literature? I mean, seriously now.
Although I am someone who really doesn't care all that much about the sort of literature that competes for the Nobel, I'd say that the Swede here has a point - most Americans don't read much non-American contemporary fiction, and that means that our comparative vision of how our literature stacks up against that of Europe (and, for that matter, the rest of the world) is probably pretty schewed.
posted by AdamCSnider at 9:17 AM on October 6, 2008


jfuller: You might want to recalibrate your sarcasm detectors.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:18 AM on October 6, 2008


I read Underworld. Struggled to read it, I should say. Didn't hate it, didn't love it, just meh. Haven't read another DeLillo novel since.
posted by illiad at 9:22 AM on October 6, 2008


What the fuck difference does it make whether "the best" literature comes from the U.S., Europe, India, or Tajikistan? I wasn't aware there was a competition. Last time I checked literature was not the fucking World Cup.
posted by pardonyou? at 9:22 AM on October 6, 2008 [8 favorites]


Sys Rq: Still, whose fault is that? Surely the only ones to blame for the lack of translation into English are the Europeans themselves, who A) know which works should be translated, and B) --and this point is kind of important -- are capable of translating them. There's a much larger pool of potential translators on that side of the pond, I would think.

I have a feeling that the pool of potential translators in the U.S. is much larger than the number of employed translators in the U.S. And it's absurd anyhow to think that U.S publishers would commission more translations if only the translators weren't on the other side of the Atlantic.

It's ridiculous to blame America for ignoring something that isn't made available to them.

It's not ridiculous at all. The number of books in translation available in the U.S. is staggeringly small because the major U.S. publishers have determined that they don't sell -- that is, the public demand is low. Excluding certain big names like, say, Haruki Murakami and Roberto Bolaño, most books in translation here are published by university presses like Northwestern University Press and nonprofits like the Dalkey Archive.
posted by cobra libre at 9:22 AM on October 6, 2008 [4 favorites]


Kirsch: "Unless and until Roth gets the Nobel Prize..."

Engdahl: This is the Secretary of the Nobel Committee. On behalf of Sweden and in the name of the other leaders of the world with whom I have today consulted, I hereby abdicate all authority and control over Literature to Philip Roth. Only by following all his directives will the lives of millions be spared...Saramago! Can you hear me? Saramago! Where are you?!

Roth: Who is this Saramago?

Engdahl: You'll find out. And when you do-

Roth: Come to me, Saramago! I defy you! Come and KNEEL BEFORE ROTH!
posted by Iridic at 9:24 AM on October 6, 2008 [8 favorites]


his making fun of the Nobel guy -- who does not seem to have anyone's blood on his hands -- is more than a little shameful.

That's silly, Remnick's point stands no matter his position on the war, and his observation is indisputably true regardless of his nationality or personal tastes - that the Nobel committee has passed over Nabokov and Joyce in favour of the likes of Sartre really does speak to its relevance and credibility as an arbiter of what is and isn't worthy.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:25 AM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


The Nobel Prize for Literature is ir-relevant. See Pinter, Harold.
posted by alexwoods at 9:26 AM on October 6, 2008


after that, you can run all the Seymour Hersh you want;

True..I don't subscribe..I've only been reading Hersh's stuff via the internet.
posted by spicynuts at 9:26 AM on October 6, 2008


While I liked it overall, I also found Underworld very very hard to get through for some reason. Then again I have the same problem with the similar (?) Gravity's Rainbow (Pynchon, I know), though I never see others complain about readability there.

Wallace, on the other hand, I have never had a problem with, including the allegedly-unreadable Infinite Jest, which I think I read twice in a row just because it ends with such an "oh fuck" moment that a second reading is sort of required.

Maybe I'm just weird.
posted by rokusan at 9:31 AM on October 6, 2008


poor Remnick, let's go back and check how many how the greatest American writers have been published by Remnick's magazine, and how many haven't? seriously. long, long list. when John Updike is your deity, you're bound to publish some boring ass fiction.

I find the New Yorker full of pithy sophistry that has absolutely nothing to do with reality -- fiction, nonfiction -- but that's another story.

But the U.S. shut out of the Nobel prize for literature isn't entirely unexpected -- it's like food -- you have people who were raised eating foods with a certain flavor, and they think that kind of taste is the best and anything else is inferior. It's like someone who's eaten nothing but Italian cuisine suddenly asked to judge Japanese food. You just know you are going to get an hour lecture about how it cannot measure up to the standard...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 9:33 AM on October 6, 2008


Sys Rq wrote Still, whose fault is that? Surely the only ones to blame for the lack of translation into English are the Europeans themselves, who A) know which works should be translated, and B) --and this point is kind of important -- are capable of translating them. There's a much larger pool of potential translators on that side of the pond, I would think.

It's ridiculous to blame America for ignoring something that isn't made available to them.



It's like they expect American authors to verse themselves in the culture and literature of other countries, even learn a foreign language or two! Absurd!
posted by millions at 9:34 AM on October 6, 2008


> jfuller: You might want to recalibrate your sarcasm detectors.
> posted by Sys Rq at 12:18 PM on October 6 [+] [!]

Yeah. I had to turn the snark-sensor gain way down until after the election (and the depression too, probably) or drop off the net entirely. Unfortunately, it's interwired with the sarcasm and irony meters and they're practically at zero also. Oh well, omelettes, eggs...
posted by jfuller at 9:36 AM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's not ridiculous at all. The number of books in translation available in the U.S. is staggeringly small because the major U.S. publishers have determined that they don't sell

True enough. There's no point in them bringing in foreign titles, since they do just fine with the thousands of American books they publish.

So isn't that a golden opportunity for foreign publishers to step in? Here's this huge market, and they're not even trying to tap into it. They might not make Stephen King money off of the venture, but it would still be profitable, right?
posted by Sys Rq at 9:41 AM on October 6, 2008


I have a feeling that the pool of potential translators in the U.S. is much larger than the number of employed translators in the U.S. And it's absurd anyhow to think that U.S publishers would commission more translations if only the translators weren't on the other side of the Atlantic.

Actually, as far as literary translation goes, the pool of potential translators is probably smaller than the pool of employed translators.

Most translators are commercial translators, handling mundane stuff like patents, contracts, operations manuals, business proposals, etc. This stuff is not interesting, but it pays.

Literary translation is mostly handled by academics (who have a separate source of income) or by commercial translators who take on a project as a labor of love. In fact, some works do get translated because a translator takes it upon himself to translate a chapter on spec, produce an outline of the rest of the book, and approach a publisher about translating it. Who then has to investigate translation rights, if they think the book is worth publishing at all.

Doing a good job translating a book is a very, very different task than doing a good job translating a patent, and the skills don't necessarily transfer. Producing a translation good enough to impress the Nobel committee (which, after all, presents awards to some authors they've never read in the original) calls for rare talent indeed.

The other thing to consider is that the residence or nationality of the translator is immaterial. Translation is, obviously, a very international business, and if there's a demand to have a book translated, a translator residing in East Bumfuckistan can be hired as easily as one in the East Village.

I'm not a part of the publishing industry, but I get the impression that it's very cautious. There aren't a lot of players, and the few that exist are competing for shelf space at Wal-Mart and Costco, not Ye Quaint Little Book-Shoppe. That drives out a lot of potential books, not just works in translation. As long as the publishers view works in translation as unlikely to appeal to a broad audience, they're going to be less likely to gamble on it. Add to that the extra cost and complications of securing translation rights, paying royalties to the author and a fee and/or royalties to the translator. And consider that unsolicited manuscripts that were written in English in the first place are dropped by the truckload onto slush piles every day.

I don't defend the paucity of works in translation, but I'm hardly surprised by it.
posted by adamrice at 9:45 AM on October 6, 2008 [7 favorites]


Europe can have the Littrahchah Nobel as long as American keep winning the majority of the Physics, Chemistry, and Medicine prizes.
posted by Class Goat at 9:51 AM on October 6, 2008


adamrice: Actually, as far as literary translation goes, the pool of potential translators is probably smaller than the pool of employed translators.

I stand corrected. Thanks for the thoughtful reply.
posted by cobra libre at 9:56 AM on October 6, 2008


after that, you can run all the Seymour Hersh you want; when it counted -- ie before the attack -- Remnick endorsed the war. his making fun of the Nobel guy -- who does not seem to have anyone's blood on his hands -- is more than a little shameful.

Dan Savage wrote an piece endorsing the war. Does that mean everything he writes is covered in blood?
posted by dw at 10:02 AM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


Still, whose fault is that? Surely the only ones to blame for the lack of translation into English are the Europeans themselves, who A) know which works should be translated, and B) --and this point is kind of important -- are capable of translating them.

Ralph Manheim FTW! What is Günter Graass to do now that he's gone?
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:05 AM on October 6, 2008


Does that mean everything he writes is covered in blood?

Dude, wtf. Saddam was all GGG but then it got too heavy & he was all like "Safe Word!" But Bush was too into it and blood got all over the place and now the rest of the world is all like "DTMFA" but America was all "But we're in love!"

But we learned our lesson now.
posted by felix betachat at 10:08 AM on October 6, 2008 [2 favorites]


What is Günter Graass to do now that he's gone?

Doesn't matter, everything he's written is covered in blood.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:10 AM on October 6, 2008 [2 favorites]


Literary translation is mostly handled by academics (who have a separate source of income) or by commercial translators who take on a project as a labor of love. In fact, some works do get translated because a translator takes it upon himself to translate a chapter on spec, produce an outline of the rest of the book, and approach a publisher about translating it. Who then has to investigate translation rights, if they think the book is worth publishing at all.

Very true. I'd add that there are plenty of great writers from outside America who get translated, published, and reviewed in the US, authors who range from Japan to France to Latin America. Does Murakami sell as well as King? Probably not, but then, if you look at any competition between literary fiction and mass-market fiction in any country, you're going to find the same dynamic. I don't think the US is more or less prone to favoring mass market over literary fiction than other countries, and the steady input of translated works would hardly make the US "insular". Now, should the US translate more of their authors for sale overseas? Yeah, that'd be great. But I think Engdahl is a little off the mark painting things in black-and-white terms like this.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:17 AM on October 6, 2008


matteo, et al: Literature (if you mean fiction, which the Nobel usually does) is very closely related to pop-culture, certainly more than most other kinds of "high" culture, and for whatever reason that culture has spread internationally while others have not.

More people in Europe are interested than reading American lit than vice-versa and Tough Tutus if Horace Engdahl doesn't like it. He can give his prize to whoever he chooses of course, but it does seem a bit ridiculous to proclaim that he's going to ignore American contributors across the board in favor of innovative cutting-edge wunderkind* like VS Naipul and Orphan Pamuk.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:20 AM on October 6, 2008


Gotta love some good old-fashioned eurocentrism.

That said, Engdahl is a bit of a knob.
posted by flippant at 10:21 AM on October 6, 2008


matteo: it's interesting to see how many fiction books published every year in the US are translations: 3%

According to John O'Brien of the Dalkey Archive, this figure includes all book translations of any sort, but the figure isn't too reliable in the first place:

I told Cliff [Becker, former NEA literature director] that he might be able to get a very, very rough idea by having an NEA intern go through a year’s worth of issues of Publishers Weekly and count the translations, and then compare this number with the total number of reviews: this would be about as accurate a number that one could come up with and it might even have some general relation to reality.

The number that Cliff’s study emerged with was THREE PERCENT, that figure representing all translations, not just literary. Most people involved with translation, especially those who publish them, knew that the number is a guess and that it came out of a "methodology" that would make any statistician cringe. How far was it off? No one knows...


So the situation for literature in translation may be even worse than we think, but it's hard to say.

O'Brien's editorial is pertinent to this discussion in other ways. He attacks the notion that the proliferation of literary translations might effect some magical liberalization of American culture; one might take issue with his l'art pour l'art attitude, but his basic position is that the current discussion of translation is not very substantive. And Sys Rq, you'll appreciate this:

In the meantime, are foreign funding agencies getting any smarter about how to get more of their countries' literary works translated into English? The answer is "not much," or not at all.
posted by cobra libre at 10:29 AM on October 6, 2008


his observation is indisputably true regardless of his nationality or personal tastes - that the Nobel committee has passed over Nabokov and Joyce in favour of the likes of Sartre really does speak to its relevance and credibility as an arbiter of what is and isn't worthy.

as I've written above, Remnick's comment -- "clueless Nobel overlooked so many geniuses LOL" -- is simply stupid since he runs a magazine that has historically overlooked most of the great stuff that Americans were writing, in order to (mostly) favor a very boring, stiff, middlebrow, provincial kind of fiction that has in John Updike its perfect model.

So, the Nobel overlooked Nabokov and Joyce -- tough shit, the New Yorker overlooked most of the writers who weren't writing about middle class white suburban adulterers. Remnick himself overlooks a lot of great stuff all the time, in favor of very underwhelming fiction writers (the poetry he publishes is admittedly better).

again, Remnick's slam is the typical case of pot, kettle. his editorship as of now is mostly notable for what he got wrong, and for being the weakest in the history of the magazine (poor Bob Gottlieb included).

so, criticize the Nobel guy as much as you want, but using Remnick's flawed argument is just stupid.
posted by matteo at 10:31 AM on October 6, 2008


matteo, the new yorker doesn't claim to represent the full spectrum of american literature, nor does it proclaim that it doesn't publish certain authors because they are out of touch. Perhaps it's a bit hypocritical, but the criticism is still valid. And so is this one:

"It strikes me as a kind of publicity stunt for a prize that in recent years has demonstrated its fatuousness and political complexion with one political laureate after the next punctuated now and then by a VS Naipaul just to lend a patina of credibility."
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:37 AM on October 6, 2008


but it does seem a bit ridiculous to proclaim that he's going to ignore American contributors across the board in favor of innovative cutting-edge wunderkind* like VS Naipul and Orphan Pamuk.

Naipaul and Orham Pamuk, while blissfully uninterested in the minutiae of American life, are -- with the possible exception of Roth and at most a couple others -- much more interesting than most American writers whose names are routinely hyped as Nobel-worthy. I mean, Joyce Carol Oates? Really? Updike? Come on. Might as well give it to Dave Eggers, then -- maybe he'll give the money to charity or something.
posted by matteo at 10:37 AM on October 6, 2008


when it counted -- ie before the attack -- Remnick endorsed the war. his making fun of the Nobel guy -- who does not seem to have anyone's blood on his hands -- is more than a little shameful.

Jesus, matteo, you're not usually this dumb. Your anti-Americanism is touching but has become as boring as the Swedish Academy's in-your-face picks of authors who will be as forgotten as Pontoppidan in a few years. If you don't like Philip Roth or Richard Powers, that's your loss, but it's your (and the Swedes') cheap equation of literature and politics that's shameful.
posted by languagehat at 10:40 AM on October 6, 2008


seriously, just give it to Eggers for shits and giggles -- for all his mediocrity he doesn't write as bad as Nobel recipient Pearl S. Buck (probably because no one does). or to Dan Brown for sheer popularity. a new, improved Nobel!
posted by matteo at 10:40 AM on October 6, 2008


Ah, I see you make Roth a "possible exception." Big of you; I'm sure he's been holding his breath.
posted by languagehat at 10:41 AM on October 6, 2008


Your anti-Americanism is touching

almost as touching as your bad faith
posted by matteo at 10:41 AM on October 6, 2008


That movie that is coming out, the one about everyone going blind? I am puzzled by the ads not mentioning that it is "Based on a book by Portuguese Nobel prize winner Jose Saramago". Would most Americans just go "Portuguese? Is that some kind of bird? Is this a movie on Bird Flu?".
posted by dirty lies at 10:42 AM on October 6, 2008


(remember, if you think Updike sucks, you hate America)
posted by matteo at 10:42 AM on October 6, 2008


I don't know, matteo; Remnick may lack a leg to stand on, but your criticism of his argument is an ad hominem, isn't it?

And while I'm not a huge fan of New Yorker fiction in general (I have to admit that I just skip the stories now unless somebody tells me to read one), it's not all Updikey fare. The magazine has in the past published the likes of Borges and Barthelme; the latter may be a species of middle class white suburban fiction, but it's a fairly exotic species.
posted by cobra libre at 10:45 AM on October 6, 2008


*Shakes fist at Engdahl*

*Prepares to denounce him as a "lutefisk-eating surrender monkey."*

Oh, wait.

Wait a minute . . . This is the Nobel Prize In Literature we're talking about here? The very same one they awarded to such luminaries as Elfriede Jellinek and Dario Fo?

Never mind. This is nothing to raise my blood pressure about.
posted by jason's_planet at 10:48 AM on October 6, 2008


but your criticism of his argument is an ad hominem, isn't it?

saying that he publishes boring fiction is an ad hominem?
posted by matteo at 10:51 AM on October 6, 2008


Oh is matteo one of these angry European persons who post baffling and contradictory sentiments in youtube comments ("americans are nuthing but jesus-loving rednecks and dum blacks!!!1 ") and find any excuse to disparge US culture? I do think his point about the boringness of Pearl S. Buck makes it clear that out that the Nobel has never really been about high quality timeless works of art. But in general literary awards given out yearly rarely exhibit any real balls in making choices, because if something is challenging and creative, chances are someone important doesn't like it (Except Updike, seriously how could you despise Updike?). Is the National Book Award any better or less political and faddish? Rarely.

I like the direction this is going though, let's give Eggers every award so he can start cool new charities and magazines...Joyce Carol Oates would just buy a boxing gym.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:03 AM on October 6, 2008


That movie that is coming out, the one about everyone going blind? I am puzzled by the ads not mentioning that it is "Based on a book by Portuguese Nobel prize winner Jose Saramago"

Oh no! And here I thought it was a remake of a film based on a book by the English non-Nobel prize winner John Wyndham.

So. . . no walking trees, huh?
posted by Herodios at 11:05 AM on October 6, 2008


The New Yorker published Jane Mayer's investigative reporting on torture, which was crucial in exposing what the Bush administration was up to there, as well as Seymour Hersh and many others who exposed serious wrongdoing and incompetence in the conduct of the war.

Remnick fell for the WOMD lies. That doesn't make him anything other than fallible-- he's certainly not a conservative warmonger and yeah, this has nothing to do with his views on literature anyway.
posted by Maias at 11:24 AM on October 6, 2008


Would most Americans just go "Portuguese? Is that some kind of bird? Is this a movie on Bird Flu?".

No, actually.
posted by frobozz at 11:26 AM on October 6, 2008


remember, if you think Updike sucks, you hate America

Nah, Updike's pretty much sucked for a while now. Too bad, he used to be a good writer. But it's hard to avoid late-career suckage; Hemingway is the classic example. Just one more reason Roth is so amazing.
posted by languagehat at 11:30 AM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


Guy's a fuckin' yutz.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:02 PM on October 6, 2008


Someday Richard Price will get nominated for a Nobel, just you wait. Tim Sandlin and Mordecai Richler, too.
posted by jonmc at 12:06 PM on October 6, 2008


when it counted -- ie before the attack -- Remnick endorsed the war. his making fun of the Nobel guy -- who does not seem to have anyone's blood on his hands -- is more than a little shameful.

Yes, as has so often been the case over the last eight years, the New Yorker said "Jump!" and Bush & Cheney asked, "How high?" Damn that evil puppetmaster Remnick...
posted by newmoistness at 12:14 PM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


matteo: saying that he publishes boring fiction is an ad hominem?

No, attempting to refute him on the basis of his credibility rather than on the merit of his argument is an ad hominem attack.

Anyway, vent all you want; I thought your comments about Eggers were pretty funny.
posted by cobra libre at 12:26 PM on October 6, 2008


Oh no! America is losing the global novel writing race? What will we fall behind in next, operating telegraphs?!

Call me when we don't tweet the best, then I'll worry.
posted by ND¢ at 12:32 PM on October 6, 2008


This guys a swede, right? He's just upset that Vikings no longer control the known world. Ethnocentrist.
posted by jonmc at 12:51 PM on October 6, 2008


Putting aside Engdahl's comments for a moment, the prize is awarded to a writer whose work is published somewhere in the world. Given that there's somewhere around 200 countries in the world and people sat writing books in each one of them, does it really seem like a massive injustice that the United States (home to about half a dozen previous winners) has not won for 15 years?

The political aspect has always been there. Anyone ever tried reading the 1953 winner's magnum opus?
posted by mandal at 12:56 PM on October 6, 2008


Anyone ever tried reading the 1953 winner's magnum opus?

I started "A History of the English-Speaking People's" as a kid. I couldn't finish it, but I seem to remember it being pretty entertaining. druids wut
posted by grobstein at 1:01 PM on October 6, 2008


if the Americans really want those elusive Nobel prizes for Literature -- Joyce Carol Oates lol -- I think they really should ask the Oscars to add a new category, and start from there. Best Literary Novel, Best Thriller Not Written By Dan Brown, etc: statuettes galore!

Please tell me that somewhere out there is a Joyce Carol Oats LOLCATZ site. I
posted by mecran01 at 1:14 PM on October 6, 2008


Alexandra Kitty: But the U.S. shut out of the Nobel prize for literature isn't entirely unexpected -- it's like food -- you have people who were raised eating foods with a certain flavor, and they think that kind of taste is the best and anything else is inferior.

Look, 10 US authors have received the Nobel. That's hardly being shut out. For comparison 12 French authors have gotten it and 6 British ones (and 7 Swedish writers, which everyone agrees is a bit embarrassing and probably means that no Swedish poet or novelist will receive the Nobel ever again, no matter how deserving). Also, Americans, I have noticed, have little feel for what American authors are widely admired in Europe. Updike is barely known, for instance. By far the most lucid thing I've read about this foofaraw is the blog entry off The Complete Review linked above by painquale.

Furthermore, all this "well Nabokov, Joyce and [insert favorite author] never got it so it's all a rotting pile of poo" nonsense is just infantile. I bet that if we knocked our heads together we could come up with at least 500 writers who deserved the award. When only one award is given every year for which every single living author in the whole world is eligible (in theory) there are going to be omissions. Yeah, some look worse than others, but most "alternative Nobel" lists are a lot worse than what the Swedish Academy has actually produced (which is saying something, considering the sheer mediocrity of the first two decades of the Nobel Prize for Literature).

adamrice: Actually, as far as literary translation goes, the pool of potential translators is probably smaller than the pool of employed translators.

What.

No, seriously... what.

One of the more common type of master's thesis by students of a foreign language is a translation of a work from the original. Almost none of these get actually published. I'm sure if one would scour collections of theses one would find scads of translated literature that's never been published. And then there are the amateur translators, who also churn out stuff that never sees the light of day. Saying that the pool of potential translators is smaller than the pool of employed translators is wrong. The pool of actual translators is much bigger than the pool of employed translators.

Now, I'm not saying these are all great works of translation, but they exist, I have seen them.
posted by Kattullus at 1:17 PM on October 6, 2008 [3 favorites]


Putting aside Engdahl's comments for a moment, the prize is awarded to a writer whose work is published somewhere in the world. Given that there's somewhere around 200 countries in the world and people sat writing books in each one of them, does it really seem like a massive injustice that the United States (home to about half a dozen previous winners) has not won for 15 years?

I was actually coming in to post pretty much this. But since it's already done, I'm going to step to once side and try to say it using interpretive dance.

Just because.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:20 PM on October 6, 2008


If he thinks American literature is insular, maybe he should try reading Shakespeare in the original American.
posted by newdaddy at 1:24 PM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


Okay, found one of those damn alternate Nobel lists I mentioned in my last comment and holy jumping Jesus spread on toast is it an embarrassment, even more so than I remembered. For starters, it awards the 1922 Nobel to Kafka and the 1952 award to Giuseppi Tomasi di Lampedusa, before either had published a single novel. The compiler of this alternative reality Nobel, one Ted Gioia, clearly just simply threw out any author he had never heard of and put whatever he thought of instead. Some of it is beyond stupid. Throwing out Patrick White for Lionel Trilling? Joseph Brodsky for Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein?* And I haven't mentioned the alternate recipients he chose whose claim to artistic genius isn't actually literary. The most conspicuous being John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The music of The Beatles means a lot to me, but that's just stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid.


*Now, don't get me wrong, I love science fiction, but the Nobel Prize will probably always give short shrift to genre. That may be a problem, but it's very much what it does. That said, Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein are not who I'd choose from the pool of science fiction writers as potential recipients of the Nobel, as much as I like one of these authors.
posted by Kattullus at 1:41 PM on October 6, 2008


Yeah, some look worse than others, but most "alternative Nobel" lists are a lot worse than what the Swedish Academy has actually produced

This is a good one. Only in Russian, unfortunately, but I cited some of his choices here.
posted by languagehat at 3:01 PM on October 6, 2008


Horace Engdahl comes up a lot whenever I self-google. Maybe we're soul twins. Or maybe we just have the same last name.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 3:03 PM on October 6, 2008


That said, Engdahl is a bit of a knob.

I resemble that remark.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 3:07 PM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


That movie that is coming out, the one about everyone going blind? I am puzzled by the ads not mentioning that it is "Based on a book by Portuguese Nobel prize winner Jose Saramago". Would most Americans just go "Portuguese? Is that some kind of bird? Is this a movie on Bird Flu?".

Everyone I know who is even talking about that film has read the book or is at least aware of it. But I guess we don't count because well-read Americans make it hard to wield that broad brush of yours.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 3:22 PM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


Languagehat: I cited some of his choices here.

I like the way the first few comments on your article there are by Kattallus, in some sort of loop through space and time
posted by dng at 3:27 PM on October 6, 2008


Sweeping generalizations about a foreign country you don't know much about, but know you don't like? Wow, I thought that was just something we did!
posted by kittens for breakfast at 3:46 PM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


Arguing about "modern literature" is like competing in the Special Olympics, I'm sorry. There's not a single literary award that has been worth cock for over a hundred years. Did I ever mention how breathtakingly ghastly Tree Of Smoke was? And that's not even a subjective assessment, that's totally objective. I used test tubes and shit.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:47 PM on October 6, 2008 [2 favorites]


grapefruitmoon,

To restore some credibility to the family name, I really hope you give your take on the relative merits of American and European literature.
posted by lukemeister at 4:12 PM on October 6, 2008


A few things here:

1) There are good, capable translators with excellent publishing track records who need work. In New York. Right now. Yes, some of them are difficult and cranky people who might self sabotage but I can tell you, the talent's available. The simple fact is: NO ONE BUYS BOOKS. Yes, ok, I know, they buy some books, but those tent poles support everything. It is dark times but that is the reality and there is no point bitching about it. The solution is to change that, etc. etc.

2) Two of the best translators working now are Peavar and Volkhonsky, who scored big with that Anna Karenina that got on Oprah (I believe). They are married and I mean how is that for happiness? They also (I think) teach or at least put in their two cents at the Iowa Writer's Workshop Translation MFA program (that name I am just kind of making up but the thing itself does exist, I think. Again, I am trying to construct this entire comment out of hazy drinking memories without resorting to google but I think I am in the main often right).

3) Turgid Dahlia you are so absolutely 100 percent straight on. God was that book awful. And the ending? GOOD CHRIST.

4) If anyone wants an excellent novel in translation check out the monstrous but totally unputdownable, deep, reflective, thrilling, tense and absolutely surprising novel the Exception, which came out, uh, last year Stateside. It was great. It should have sold. Is it selling. HA HA HA.

5) David Remnick has written some of the best political journalism of our time, especially the jaw dropping Lenin's Tomb. He is smart, sharp, humane, deeply thoughtful and not a monster.
posted by matthewstopheles at 5:50 PM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


Roth, Updike, Pynchon, DeLillo are parochial. Many of us, even in the US, cannot relate to the literature of Middle Class Suburban Baby Boomers. Using them as an example of the best the US can do is evidence for the Swede's point of view.
posted by kanewai at 6:09 PM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


lukemeister,

Well, I think American literature and British literature are both written in English. And I haven't really read much *European* literature that wasn't British because, um, I just haven't. I did read Blindness, which was the most disturbing book ever, which had nothing to do with being Portuguese and everything to do with being disturbing. Oh yeah, and I like Umberto Eco a great deal.

I don't really see a quantifiable difference between *American* literature and *European* literature unless what you're trying to do is set up a dichotomy in which to say "American writers suxors!" in which case, yeah dude, that's just like... your opinion, man. There's a shit ton of American writing (I don't know first hand how many European writers there are, but I'm going to guess probably a metric shit ton) and some of it is awful and maybe some of it is worthy of the Nobel Prize. I'm gonna guess the same is true just about everywhere. Let's stop focusing on what may or may not suck and just read stuff that's awesome, ok?! Why is this debate limited to American v. Europe? Shouldn't we get some other places involved too? How about American v. Europe v. South America v. China v. whatever.

(Oh yeah, and also: I really like Orhan Pamuk and he won the Nobel Prize. The End.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:53 PM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


Roth, Updike, Pynchon, DeLillo are parochial. Many of us, even in the US, cannot relate to the literature of Middle Class Suburban Baby Boomers. Using them as an example of the best the US can do is evidence for the Swede's point of view.

This makes me a total boor for having read & enjoyed 2 Jonathan Franzen novels, doesn't it? DAMN YUO OPRAH! *shakes bloody stump*
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:20 PM on October 6, 2008


I did read Blindness, which was the most disturbing book ever, which had nothing to do with being Portuguese and everything to do with being disturbing.

I read it too. Halfway through reading it I recommended it to a co-worker, who ordered it from Talking Books. Then I got to the really, really disturbing parts... I explained that to my coworker that it got really, really horrifying in parts but she decided to read it all through. Every once in a while we both bring it up as a kind of shared joke.
posted by Kattullus at 7:26 PM on October 6, 2008


I just ordered The Exception through the Kindle store, matthewsophocles. Thanks for the recommendation.
posted by painquale at 7:49 PM on October 6, 2008


I just found out that I owe my local library $2.30, so my attempt to reserve it fell through. However, I will probably remember to do it just before falling asleep on Wednesday, prompting swift action (two days later, most likely... my mind, it is full of unimportant fluff).
posted by Kattullus at 8:20 PM on October 6, 2008


Do you even have a clue matteo? Alice Munro was championed by the New Yorker who has been publishing her stories since the late '70s. Even a partial list of contributors reads like a who's who of modern lit. (I'm guessing you were a fan of the Tina Brown NY'er... amirite?)

Renata Adler
Woody Allen
Hannah Arendt
Donald Barthelme
Elizabeth Bishop
Joseph Brodsky
Truman Capote
Raymond Carver
John Cheever
Jeffrey Eugenides
Mavis Gallant
Adam Gopnik
Seamus Heaney
Mark Helprin
Miranda July
Pauline Kael
Milan Kundera
A.J. Liebling
Janet Malcolm
Don Marquis
John McPhee
Ved Mehta
James Merrill
Joseph Mitchell
Haruki Murakami
Vladimir Nabokov
John O'Hara
Susan Orlean
Grace Paley
Dorothy Parker
Oliver Sacks
J. D. Salinger
Susan Sontag
E. B. White


"Nah, Updike's pretty much sucked for a while now" -- true dat l-hat, but if you start at Rabbit at Rest and work your way backwards, who can touch him?
posted by vronsky at 8:24 PM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


And unless it is Wislawa Szymborska, who even pays attention to the Nobel winners?
posted by vronsky at 8:38 PM on October 6, 2008


I do remember reading a funny anecdote from William Golding about winning the Nobel Prize for literature. After giving his speech, he flew back to London and drove to his apartment, but couldn't find a parking space on the crowded street. Tired and frustrated, he finally just pulled over in a loading zone. As he exited the car, clutching his prize, a policeman walked up, pointed at the "no parking" sign and screamed, "Can't you read?"
posted by vronsky at 10:54 PM on October 6, 2008 [3 favorites]


I read Underworld. Struggled to read it, I should say. Didn't hate it, didn't love it, just meh. Haven't read another DeLillo novel since.

I'm with you. DeLillo's unquestionably a master of pure language (tonal command, visceral description, ebb and flow) but Underworld failed for me because it's not really a story, just an extremely long collection of riffs. Give me Elmore Leonard any day, and give him the Nobel while you're at it.
posted by philip-random at 11:18 PM on October 6, 2008


Furthermore, all this "well Nabokov, Joyce and [insert favorite author] never got it so it's all a rotting pile of poo" nonsense is just infantile.

I disagree. To draw what I am sure all will gasp at for being a simply ghastly and vulgar comparison, what does it say about the Grammy awards that Blondie was awarded best Rap Album and whatever Jethro Tull squatted out tin 1989 was deemed a superior Hard Rock/Metal effort than ... And Justice For All?

As you said, there have been several glaringly inappropriate recipients of the award which reflect poorly on the Committee, so I really don't see why egregious - yes, egregious! - omissions would be considered 'infantile' grounds for criticism of the award. As it is, I think you do the intent of quip and those who agreed with it a disservice by implying that it's motivated by a childish sour grapes sentiment. If Remnick had said "DeLillo, Updike, and Mailer," rather the French guy and the Russian and the Irish expats, I probably wouldn't dispute your characterization. But he's not saying "La La La, I don't speak Swedish, I'm rubber, you're glue" as much as he's reminding the Nobel folks, who seem to think they are infallible VVVVIPs, that their shit stinks just as much as anyone else's.

The closest thing I have to a favorite author that's been mentioned in this thread is Richler, but, god bless him, I don't think he's Nobel material.
I should probably give ... And Justice For All another listen, though.

Oh, and Tina Brown? Gallons of blood on her hands.

posted by Alvy Ampersand at 11:21 PM on October 6, 2008


"what does it say about the Grammy awards..." true Alvy, but those choices can probably be best ascribed to cluelessness, rather than political correctness. A better analogy might be the recent Oscars giving best picture to mawkish, hamfisted, message-movie dreck like American Beauty, Million Dollar Baby and Crash, and best actor to Sean Penn and Denzel Washington for their roles in Mystic River and Training Day. It's just a joke anymore.
posted by vronsky at 12:02 AM on October 7, 2008


Fortunately, we don't have to limit ourselves to reading only the "best" books, or the books coming from the "center" or literary world.
posted by nicolin at 1:08 AM on October 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


Too many comments to read, but I just wanted to point out that Engdahl (who's the permanent secretary of the academy that picks the literature winner, and who's definitely no bozo) has stated that his critics seem to have missed his point, and that neither he nor the academy would ever conflate a country's literature as a whole with individual authors. The prize is awarded to an individual, not a country.

And given that, it wouldn't surprise me for a second if the prize goes to an american this year.
posted by effbot at 1:32 AM on October 7, 2008


And given that, it wouldn't surprise me for a second if the prize goes to an american this year.

And if I read this odds listing correctly, I'm not the only one:
posted by effbot at 1:45 AM on October 7, 2008


Alvy Ampersand: As you said, there have been several glaringly inappropriate recipients of the award which reflect poorly on the Committee, so I really don't see why egregious - yes, egregious! - omissions would be considered 'infantile' grounds for criticism of the award.

It's not that I think that believing that the Swedish Academy should have awarded the Nobel to a certain author is infantile, but the wholesale rejection of the Nobel that sometimes follows. The attitude seems to be: "either you're infallible or you're completely wrong."

That's what I think is infantile.
posted by Kattullus at 5:01 AM on October 7, 2008


Two of the best translators working now are Peavar and Volkhonsky

Excuse me, but what are you basing that on, their blurbs? Do you read Russian, and have you compared their versions to the originals? Here's a verdict by someone who does and has:
When you compare the English to the Russian, you find mistranslations; inconsistencies of approach (sometimes idioms are translated literally -- even if they make no sense; sometimes not); stylistic errors; literalism; mixed styles; and just plain old bad English. As far as I recall (true, I've lived in Moscow for many years), you can't say "he drank up his pants" in English. And does anyone whose native language is not Russian know what "unclean powers" might be? Or do you think a 19th century Russian peasant could say, "Well, I declare!" My colleague, who has been doing the lion's share of analysis, has been entertaining and horrifying me with examples for months now. Sometimes I accuse him of making them up because they sound like parodies of bad translation, not something that won the PEN Club Translation Prize.
More discussion at this LH post.

Roth, Updike, Pynchon, DeLillo are parochial. Many of us, even in the US, cannot relate to the literature of Middle Class Suburban Baby Boomers.

It's sad that you don't know what literature is all about or how to read it, but I wouldn't parade my ignorance in public if I were you. I guess you can't relate to Homer because you're not a blind Greek bard, or to Shakespeare because you're not a 16th-century actor from Warwickshire?

I just wanted to point out that Engdahl (who's the permanent secretary of the academy that picks the literature winner, and who's definitely no bozo) has stated that his critics seem to have missed his point, and that neither he nor the academy would ever conflate a country's literature as a whole with individual authors.


Gee, it couldn't possibly be that he's rushing to cover his ass after a barrage of bad publicity, could it? And the very idea that a bozo could become permanent secretary of the academy is appalling! Why, if we accept that idea, we'd have to imagine that a bozo could somehow hold the most powerful job in the world, president of the United States! No, no, bozos work only as clowns, and permanent secretaries are all filled with insight and genius.
posted by languagehat at 5:55 AM on October 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


Gee, it couldn't possibly be that he's rushing to cover his ass after a barrage of bad publicity, could it?

No, I don't think that's what he did. It's not really his style. But don't let the fact that I know who the guy is and what he's done before keep you from ranting on a public forum.
posted by effbot at 6:19 AM on October 7, 2008


I don't care "who the guy is"; the things he's said in public are ridiculous, and I continue to believe he's a bozo covering his ass. Do you know him personally? If so, you're covering for a pal. If not, I don't see how you're any better informed than the rest of us. And all any of us are doing here is "ranting on a public forum"; you're just pretending that your ranting is better informed.
posted by languagehat at 6:31 AM on October 7, 2008


I wish I knew where this big dialogue of which Engdahl speaks was going on. Some books cross borders, but pan-European literature doesn't really exist so far as I can see.
posted by Phanx at 6:32 AM on October 7, 2008


Question: From the Telegraph piece, "The oldest, the most diverse, and the most voraciously acquisitive living literary tradition in the western world is English."

Diverse and acquisitive I have little doubt about, but the oldest, really?

How fortunate for Engdahl that he doesn't have Wallace to avoid anymore.
posted by kittyprecious at 8:53 AM on October 7, 2008


the oldest, really?

That does seem a pretty silly claim. Hebrew, for one, blows it out of the water.
posted by languagehat at 9:22 AM on October 7, 2008


I would add Deborah Eisenberg and Ceslaw Milosz to my list above.

And my canidate for the the Nobel?
posted by vronsky at 10:07 AM on October 7, 2008


Languagehat, my point is that some authors are universal, whereas the ones that were mentioned are rapidly becoming dated. Homer survives for a reason (and I just finished rereading the Iliad last week, so you can take your arrogant smugness and direct it elsewhere). And calling people ignorant who disagree with you is ... a bit ignorant.
posted by kanewai at 12:16 PM on October 7, 2008


languagehat,

I don't read Russian, but I have associates in the Iowa Writers Translation program and know people here in New York who speak Russian and study the literature. They have a great deal of respect for Peaver and Volkhonsky. I base my opinion on reading all (yes, even the Ajax. I am a geek) of their work and having read/read excerpts of other translations of the same novels. They do an admirable job of creating vital, compelling literature. I consider that to be a fairly sound basis of judgement. Your outrage is misplaced for a discussion of such a fine and difficult subject as translation. We all love good literature and are trying to promote it. Being difficult about the whole thing doesn't help.
posted by matthewstopheles at 12:27 PM on October 7, 2008


my point is that some authors are universal, whereas the ones that were mentioned are rapidly becoming dated.

What bullshit. If you don't like them, that's fine, say so. Saying "Roth, Updike, Pynchon, DeLillo are parochial" or are "rapidly becoming dated" is pretending your own taste is some objective standard.

I don't read Russian, but I have associates in the Iowa Writers Translation program and know people here in New York who speak Russian and study the literature. They have a great deal of respect for Peaver and Volkhonsky.

I used to have respect for them, too, until I became aware of the problems I cited above. If you prefer going along with the consensus of your pals in Iowa and New York, fine, but if you don't know Russian, you really have no basis for judging and shouldn't be so quick to dismiss dissenting views. Hell, you shouldn't be so quick to dismiss dissenting views anyway. My "outrage" is not at P&V themselves but the fact that everyone is falling all over themselves to declare them the greatest thing since sliced bread, just because they have friends in high places and great PR, and it is not misplaced; it is precisely because translation is such a fine and difficult subject that I object to the bad being passed off as the good. "Being difficult about the whole thing" because I don't go along with an ill-informed consensus? Well, excu-u-use me!

We all love good literature and are trying to promote it.

"Promoting" is exactly the problem here.
posted by languagehat at 12:44 PM on October 7, 2008


that the Nobel committee has passed over Nabokov and Joyce in favour of the likes of Sartre really does speak to its relevance and credibility as an arbiter of what is and isn't worthy.

I don't think Sarte is the best example of wrong judgement.
posted by ersatz at 8:14 PM on October 7, 2008


languagehat: "If you don't like Philip Roth or Richard Powers, that's your loss, but it's your (and the Swedes') cheap equation of literature and politics that's shameful."
We no longer have the presumptuousness to believe, as they did in Sartre’s day, that a novel can change the world. Today, writers can only record their political impotence.

--Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio
posted by stbalbach at 7:05 AM on October 9, 2008


kanewai: "Roth, Updike, Pynchon, DeLillo are parochial. Many of us, even in the US, cannot relate to the literature of Middle Class Suburban Baby Boomers. Using them as an example of the best the US can do is evidence for the Swede's point of view."

Yeah it's funny a lot of this thread seems to unwittingly support the Swedish view.

So does this map (objective facts!). Even worse when you consider only 3% of the books published in the US are translation. We really do look like a peripheral side show to Europe.

Also if anyone has read Jared Diamond, you know how important cross-cultural mixing and competition is. It's the engine that drives innovation and keeps things from stagnating. Of course it happens in the US also with immigration literature, but more so in Europe. Europe has always been a hot seat for change and innovation because of so many cultures in close quarters in constant competition.
posted by stbalbach at 7:19 AM on October 9, 2008


Heh, I was just coming in here to post the link to that map, stbalbach. It's rather stunning. I didn't expect it to be as lopsided as it is.
posted by Kattullus at 10:09 AM on October 9, 2008


Hmm, I wonder how many Swedes go out of their way to read, say, the literature of Georgia. It has approximately the same population.
posted by sonic meat machine at 11:12 AM on October 9, 2008


I disagree with a lot of this article by Mark Lawson but I find his conclusion very interesting:
But the fact that Le Clezio and Elfriede Jelinek of Austria have the prize is not entirely down to geopolitical score-settling. The key lines in yesterday's citation were that reference to "departures" and "adventures" in the French writer's work. Winners have, especially in recent years, been those who represent some kind of formal innovation: either of subject-matter - Morrison's rendition of African-American history; or structure - the mixing of the naturalistic with the abstract in Pinter's fractured dialogue or Lessing's games with memoir and science-fiction. All, at some level, are experimental writer - as, from what an English reader can discern, is Le Clezio.

In contrast, the greatest contemporary Americans operate, though at remarkable levels of poeticism and psychology, in traditional forms. By the definitions of the Nobel committee, which likes its novels to be really novel, the prize that Roth or Updike might win has already been claimed, in 1976, by Saul Bellow.

With the possible exception of Mailer, who pioneeringly blurred the lines between fiction and journalism, recent American giants - including Arthur Miller and Edward Albee - have tended to bring an innovative style to familiar structures of fiction and drama. The Nobel judges are certainly not indifferent to flags but what really gets them going is formats. No matter how remarkable the flavour of the tea, they like a new design of pot.
What else would you expect from the nation that brought us IKEA? That said, there are a few American authors, such as the recently departed David Foster Wallace, that are both well-known and innovative when it comes to form.
posted by Kattullus at 8:03 PM on October 9, 2008


New York Times: Translation Is Foreign to U.S. Publishers. Finally some hard data on translated work in the US:
According to Chad W. Post, the director of Open Letter, a new press based at the University of Rochester that focuses exclusively on books in translation, 330 works of foreign literature — or a little more than 2 percent of the estimated total of 15,000 titles released — have been published in the United States so far this year.
Which is fairly shocking, if true.
posted by Kattullus at 9:43 AM on October 18, 2008


And yet more, from The Financial Times article French culture's existential angst:
The US publishes a shockingly low percentage of translated books from any non-English-speaking country. Only 2.1 per cent of books are translations and the largest number of those are, in fact, from French. The failure of French literature to penetrate the US market owes as much to US incuriosity as to French slackness.
And yes, I caught the bit of idiocy in that first sentence.
posted by Kattullus at 7:52 PM on October 18, 2008


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