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The Insularity of American Literature: Philip Roth Didn't Deserve the Booker International Prize

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"There is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world...not the United States," Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize jury, recently 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."

-- Horace Engdahl, former permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy (see story about tne Nobel Prize controversy here; and see here for the story about Booker International judge Carmen Callil's resignation this week after the award of the prize to Philip Roth).

Engdahl couldn't be more correct. We are too insular. We specialize in quantity, not quality. Our publishing model, like that of the lapsed auto industry, is a failed one. It survives only because of our gigantism--mere volume is sufficient to ensure a certain amount of financial success, but it is not producing a worthwhile cultural product. Just as we might have 500 television channels but not one will ever offer the challenging movies of Buñuel or Godard, or a Wagner opera, we might produce 175,000 books a year, but quality is elusive. What we're talking about is a business model that is outdated, cannot keep up with globalization. There ought to be no bail-out of American writers. It is a case of market monopoly run amok, taking self-publicity for truth.

We have a generally overinflated estimation of our "literary giants"--Roth, Updike, DeLillo, Pynchon, the perennially rumored contenders for the Nobel Prize--that the rest of the world might not share. Consider, from the point of view of someone in Tokyo or Cairo or Lima, what each of these writers has to offer them. These are American writers first, not in the sense that Fitzgerald or Hemingway were (questioning their Americanness), but American in a curiously isolationist way, preoccupied exclusively with the predicaments of our nation, and no other in the world. The knee-jerk defense American newspaper and magazine editors mounted immediately after Engdahl's comments--not even taking a moment to pause and consider whether he had a point--should tell us a lot about the degree to which sheer defense of our dinosaur model of literature is the driving force for so-called critics. How could they say that about us, those sissy Europeans? Our writers are as good as any other country's, no, better, yes, much better! The Europeans are just jealous. Their writers are too parochial, too small, too little studied. Did you ever hear of Le Clézio? Who is he? We don't read him here. We don't do any scholarship on him. Not to mention Dario Fo. Dario Who? Phoo!

A vast European contemporary literature exists that American readers don't know anything about. More to the point, American writers don't seem to know anything about it. Lately, I've borrowed a large amount of current Italian literature from the library. Only a small portion of it seems to be in English translation. One can say the same about German or Danish literature. In general, this literature is very different from ours. A writer like Naipaul or Nooteboom or Mulisch or Pamuk or Coetzee speaks to the whole world. Empires fall, refugees stream to their destruction, coherent worldviews melt before the eyes. A reader in Delhi or Caracas picks up these writers, and goes, Aha! I see it. This writer gets my metaphysical loneliness, he sees why I feel lost and confounded in the modern world, why I can find no way around tradition or rebellion to soothe my restless spirit. If he picks up Updike? Nice detail, of suburbia--and certainly a lot of detail about cunt and breast--but you probably have to have lived in American suburbia to have an emotional response to Updike (and Updike is a force among the domestic realists, his derivatives pale in comparison). Roth? It's about breaking free of a certain ethnic milieu that seems utterly parochial, time-bound, geographically closed, almost a recreation of something that wasn't quite the way it is represented even in faux-nostalgia. In other words, literary tricks hiding behind layers and layers of self-protecting irony, which means--what to the reader in some other country? (Ethnicity, not empire, drives late Roth.)

What does it mean to be insular? That one ignores the existence and importance of other cultures and value systems. Since the passage of high modernism and the freezing of cultural dynamism after our "victory" in the second world war, this has been our paramount imperative. We believe we have been speaking with an interconnected, globalized world, that we are the "leaders of the free world" not in an arrogant way (unlike past empires, which paid the price), but in the way of a benevolent behemoth, able to tune into other cultures' needs and presumptions when the occasion arises. Such is our deluded self-image. In truth, we have been the lumbering elephant which thinks of itself as a harmless fly. We cause damage and destruction all over the world, then pretend it isn't us. Why do they hate us? They hate us for our freedoms.

The equation is operative in the literary world as well. We think we've got a good handle on the kinds of things Indian and Japanese and Mexican and Arab readers care about, based on the rare translation that we do, or the few cool New Yorker writers (like Murakami or Adonis) we've latched on to, or more significantly, based on the writing industry's reprocessing of distant cultures into easily packaged and marketed capsulizations. Christina Henriquez, trained in the needs of the ethnic literary market, repackages Panama in a way that American readers can "understand," nod their heads and say, yes, we get it, those Panamanians are crazy motherfuckers, just like us, they're so messed up, we can relate to that. Junot Diaz does the same for Dominicans. Tom Bissell does it for the Central Asians (no need to find out what is up with all our military bases there). Yiyun Li does it for China. Samrat Upadhyay does the honors for Nepal. Jhumpa Lahiri for the Bengalis. Why translate actual works of literature from these countries when we've got homegrown writers able to do it so much better than the original? This is like avoiding broccoli and Brussels sprouts like hell, and taking vitamin supplements instead.

No other country can afford to be insular like we can (at least, until our economic empire collapses), so our systems of dominance have become like the air, we don't realize we're breathing it. Isn't it natural that insularity in politics would breed insularity in literature?

We are insular because we have not yet confronted history. American empire (and what is empire but fervent, missionary belief in the superiority of one's political values?) pretends it doesn't exist; similarly, American literature pretends it has universal meaning, it should automatically be accessible and meaningful to any reader anywhere in the world. This presumes a characteristically American ignorance, a naïveté sharply at odds with close to a century of global horseplay. Our empire couldn't last a moment if it were named as such. Our literature couldn't go on as it is if we admitted it was one among many existing literatures around the world, that it was in competition with other ways of comprehending and describing the world. It would have to change.

A reader in Mumbai, if he were to pick up Marjorie Perloff's gloss on some language poet's abstract rendering of the ongoing American domestic apocalypse would get what? If you're already a member of the credentialed cultural elite, saturated in American ironies, fine, but otherwise it's impenetrable. The language poetry, of course, presumes to be revolutionary in intent--earth-shakingly revolutionary, sprouting little Lenins at Berkeley and Buffalo, who need no longer carry arms since they can battle with language. The more irrelevant and insular, the greater the presumption of universality--viz. Bush's paranoiac elevation of the project of American exceptionalism at precisely its moment of greatest peril, which then shortly came to pass in the economic collapse.

We opened up in the 1920s and 1930s, for a brief moment of true engagement with the world's other literary traditions. Here Pound, the most influential cultural translator and communicator of his time, is the exemplar. His hand seems to have been behind just about everything good that happened to American literature in that period of renaissance. Engaged not only with the traditions of American and world literature but cosmopolite of the highest order, he didn't just steal from other traditions--as is convenient under present publishing industry standards--but was in dialogue with them, as Engdahl would surely appreciate. Pound translating Sextus Propertius or Confucius somehow Americanizes without debasing. We locked up Pound in a mental asylum, of course, for refusing to go to war. Everyone else went to war, then came home as pure as ever, as though Dresden and Hiroshima had never happened. Then we got Richard Wilbur--speaking of poets who have knowledge of literary tradition--to pacify us during the age of Eisenhower. When the dam burst loose in the sixties, the link to political reality had already been so severely disconnected that we lost touch with the literary tradition altogether, and it became a matter of communicating individual grief and paralysis. Our fragmentation, however, looks to us like a beautiful whole, duly rewarded by munificent internal prizes and awards--the Nobel people, world readership, be damned. Our insularity is almost a first principle in the establishment of any literary institution.

What recent American novel--by an American, not an immigrant, writer--accepts or even acknowledges the new global reality, even with America at its center? There is none. An otherwise excellent novel like Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children takes American innocence for granted. Bad things have been happening in the world, crazy fanatics have gone after us for no reason (there is pure joy to be had in killing Americans which can't be had from killing any other people), we've been engaged in a stupid war in the Middle East (or is it two wars?), but now that we've got rid of that Texan idiot Bush, we can go on to leadership of the free world again, rebranded as the tolerant, wholesome, multicultural, post-partisan people we are under that cool, cool Obama. While we have been on a rampage of war crimes, genocide, internment, deportations, mass displacement, and torture, our literature is all about wives grieving over husbands lost to cancer, and the travails of poor minority kids growing up in the cities, and having to find themselves, so that one day they can become writers, published by the all-knowing publishing industry, accepted for their difference (see, for instance, Randa Jarrar's escapist fantasy, A Map of Home).

On a more mundane level, the new global reality, shooting out from America like poisonous tentacles, includes accelerated technological fascism, corporate dehumanization, total state centralization, and privacy destruction, but our insular literary worldview dictates that we remain preoccupied with self-improvement, based in turn on innocence. As soon as a person stops being innocent, the project of self-discovery is at an end. That is what Engdahl was really talking about.

History proper, for America, hasn't really started yet. That too is what Engdahl was after. History can only start for us with the first real defeat of empire. We came close to that in Vietnam. Iraq, we'll have to see. All American literature seems to be in dialogue with previous conceptualizations of American innocence (the Hemingway dictum on Huck Finn's primacy), in dialogue with the perpetually self-reforming individual, as opposed to solution-less metaphysical quandaries, as is true of so much European fiction. A kind of desperate realism is dominant, piling detail upon detail (Updike and Roth), as though to claim a sense of reality, to prove that we exist, in a world that has become too unreal for writers to want to grasp. Another mode is to assert paranoia (Pynchon, DeLillo), integrate hallucination into quotidian detail, but this still doesn't lead to real dialogue with other literary cultures; it is too self-propelled.

We need to dispense with that compulsive desire for proof (of our existence), before true engagement with world literature/translation/global history can occur. It's still Huck Finn finding himself on the river journey, in all the various manifestations of prose narratives. Beyond him is an enormous machinery of empire, not just the river slicing through the country, but vast stormy oceans. Roth, Updike, and DeLillo are in conversation with each other, not with global literature. Or at best with American forerunners: Roth with Bellow and Mailer, Updike with Howells and Lewis, DeLillo with Hawthorne and Pynchon. Imagine if Roth were in conversation with (Joseph) Roth and Kundera, Updike with Forster and Waugh, DeLillo with either of the Amises and Rushdie! John Barth's new book, The Development (as good a book as any he's ever written), represents the height of this peculiar American insularity; there is no tragedy worth speaking of, even when Barth's ostensible subject is aging and death. What we really talk about when we talk about death is desire, the need to ward off death, to postpone it indefinitely.

To some degree, perhaps to a predominant degree, all national literatures are insular; but Engdahl is reminding us of our special claim to cultural virtue, pointing out the gap between aspiration and accomplishment.

Most of our great post-war poets have been insular--Lowell, Plath, Merrill. Ashbery is endlessly elegant, but abstractly superficial--again, the Mumbai problem, what do we make of him there? Even Stevens, from one point of view, is gibberish of a most refined sort, saturated in language so splendid it becomes a caveat to meaning. Lowell's History is not really History with a capital "H" but renditions of private meanings of history. Berryman's Dream Songs--what could be more insular than this? Compare this paranoid confessionalism with the wild world leaps of Lorca, Vallejo, Machado.

I recently read Mexican writer Chloe Aridjis's novel Book of Clouds, a multi-layered exploration of Berlin, where past, present, and future clash outside the consciousness of a singularly intelligent protagonist, a visitor from Mexico. I also just read Englishman Michael Faber's incredibly funny novel, The Fire Gospel, about an archeologist who discovers a lost gospel, only for his discovery to be swallowed up in the modern publicity machine that flattens all levels of discourse, so that no hierarchy of truth remains. Aridjis is in serious dialogue with any number of world literary traditions. It is a novel that couldn't be imagined without the ferocious expressionism of the Weimar years and the subdued modernism of Bernhard or Handke. Faber has written satire--which Americans don't write anymore--universal satire, at that, in dialogue with so many forerunners of the genre that it is difficult to pin down the narrative at any point, and reduce it to a simple meaning. These two books explode out of their small shells into a world of implications so coextensive and overlapping that nothing seems to be left out. Both books are free of desperate realism, both writers secure that they exist--neither is in search of self-improvement.

I challenge a single American writer to attempt anything like these two deceptively modest books. They are utterly non-insular books, in dialogue with the great literary tradition, meant to outlast present fads and clichés. Even the disruption of 9/11 and the wave of fascism that came in its wake gave American writers no pause. What we call the 9/11 novel follows an unchanging model: tranquil domestic life is interrupted by the event, only to reach a new domestic equilibrium. (To Updike's credit, he did try, halfheartedly, in Terrorist, for which attempt he was roundly panned by critics--Get back to suburbia, where you belong! DeLillo, confronted with real terrorism, rather than his imagination of it in the 1950s and 1960s, was utterly stumped in his attempts.) Which proves that we have no world-class writers of the caliber of Rushdie or Naipaul or Amis or Pamuk or Coetzee, since we've been able to engage in no real literary dialogue (taking irony to transcendental level, rather than letting it be bogged down in minutiae) even after a disturbance of such magnitude. For the major European authors and filmmakers, the second world war remains an open wound, much of the cultural production of the last sixty years interrogating what happened. No great American novel ever came out of the second world war either.

(This symposium contribution originally appeared in Boulevard magazine, and is part of the forthcoming book, Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies.)

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