Nobel judge fears for the future of western literature
Grants cut off writers from society, whereas past greats worked as ‘taxi drivers and waiters’ to feed their imaginations, says Horace Engdahl
Western literature is being impoverished by financial support for writers and by creative writing programmes, according to a series of blistering comments fromSwedish Academy member Horace Engdahl, speaking shortly before the winner of the Nobel prize for literature is awarded.
In an interview with French paper La Croix, Engdahl said that the “professionalisation” of the job of the writer, via grants and financial support, was having a negative effect on literature. “Even though I understand the temptation, I think it cuts writers off from society, and creates an unhealthy link with institutions,” he told La Croix. “Previously, 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, who together with his fellow members of the 18-strong academy is preparing to select the winner of this year’s Nobel literature award, and announce the choice on Thursday, 9 October, said it was on “our western side that there is a problem, because when reading many writers from Asia and Africa, one finds a certain liberty again”.
“I hope the literary riches which we are seeing arise in Asia and Africa will not be lessened by the assimilation and the westernisation of these authors,” he added later in his interview with Sabine Audrerie.
Engdahl told the French journalist that he “did not know” if it was still possible to find – as Alfred Nobel specified the prize would reward – “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. Today’s winners are usually 60 or more years old, he said, and are thus unaffected by the changes he described in the life of today’s writers. “But I’m concerned about the future of literature because of this ubiquity of the market. It implies the presence of a ‘counter-market’: a protected, profound literature, which knows how to translate emotions and experiences”.
Highlighting 2004 Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek for praise, Engdahl slammed novels which “pretend to be transgressive”, but which are not. “One senses that the transgression is fake, strategic,” he said. “These novelists, 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.”
Literary criticism, too, came in for a mauling from the Nobel judge, who was concerned about how the lines between literature, and “literature which has arisen as a commodity”, have been erased. “We talk in the same way about everything which is published, and literary criticism is poorer for it,” he said. “This revolution has marginalised 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 centre.”
Observer critic Robert McCrum said: “Engdahl’s bracing remarks reflect quite a lot of informal comment within some senior parts of the literary community, especially those grey cadres that are anti-American. At face value, these comments are an odd mixture of grumpy old man and Nordic romantic. I’m not sure that the author’s garret is the guarantor of excellence.”
In 2008, Engdahl prompted outraged headlines across the Atlantic when 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.” An American writer – Toni Morrison – last won the Nobel in 1993.
But Engdahl told the French paper that his comment had been misinterpreted. “Everyone reacted as if I’d said that the major American writers had no chance of winning the Nobel. I said nothing of the sort; I didn’t say that there were no worthy American writers. I said that American literary life, American criticism and teaching were limited today by too narrow an access to world literature, because the number of translations and their reach in the US is feeble. Everything is focused around their [US] writers and their language, like a hall of mirrors which reflects a perpetual, infinite image of America.”
Andrew Kidd, the literary agent who founded the Folio prize to find “the most exciting and outstanding English language books to appear in the last year”, said that it was “certainly the case that some of the strongest new voices in literature are emerging from those places where change is dramatic rather than incremental, from where the news is most urgent to report, and the global outlook of the Folio prize was designed to capture these voices not least”.
Kidd added: “As to whether some of these are ‘manufactured’ in Anglo-American universities, we see it as the role of the writers and critics who constitute the prize’s academy to spot the difference.”
Praising last year’s Nobel winner Alice Munro, the Canadian short story writer, and 2012’s laureate the Chinese writer Mo Yan for their universality, Engdahl gave nothing away about the identity of this year’s soon-to-be-announced winner – although his admiration of Asian and African literature could support the candidacy of the Kenyan Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o, and the Japanese Haruki Murakami, both favourites at Ladbrokes.
“It surely suggests they’re very open to someone like Ngũgĩ, or the likes of Krasznahorkai László and Mikhail Shishkin,” wrote MA Orthofer at literary site the Complete Review.