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Last thoughts on why the Nobel Prize should go to an American author.

October 11, 2011

John Barth at mid career.

Whew! Aren’t you glad the Swedes didn’t give a Nobel to that plagiarist, Bob Dylan? That doesn’t mean a writer like, say, John Barth, who will be at this year’s Miami Book Fair, should not win the thing.

Hey, I’m just funning about Bob Dylan. True, while I was inveighing against his candidacy for the Nobel (British oddsmakers had him as the favorite) last week I was unaware a plagiarism scandal was raging elsewhere.

Apparently Dylan has some paintings at a gallery in New York that look like they’re copied from some famous photographs.

Can’t wait for the Book Fair? (Me, neither!) Fortunately, the parent organization, The Center @ Miami Dade College, offers year-round author presentations, creative writing courses, and more!

This comes in the wake of a similar brou-ha-ha a couple of years ago when Joni Mitchell (of all people) accused him of plagiarizing song lyrics. My verdict: Not guilty, your honor, on both counts!

Why? As Blake Gopnik argues at the Daily Beast, painters have been basing work on photographs since at least Degas, and it’s a well-established practice. As for lyrics, Dylan comes out of the folk tradition, in which, as Ben Corbett notes at About.com, reworking songs from previous generations is “not only encouraged, but expected.” Woody Guthrie did it, Leadbelly did it, Hank Williams did it.

Plus, Dylan’s a genius — did I say that yet today? And “pastiche,” the technical term for this kind of creatively fruitful borrowing, is a key part of that genius.

Now that I’ve settled the Dylan plagiarism issue (the alert among you will notice I did by way of pastiching other critics), let’s move on to what’s really under my skin: A ridiculous essay by Alexander Nazaryan at Salon.com entitled “Why American novelists don’t deserve the Nobel Prize.

It’s a long essay, I suggest a double espresso beforehand, but Nazaryan basically says the Swedes are right: We’re “isolated” and  “insular,” not to mention self-obsessed individually and full of ourselves nationally. He attacks the “write what you know” approach of American literature, bemoaning a perceived lack of cosmopolitanism and a dearth of Big Ideas.

That’s very curious, given the work of some recent winners. For example, does anyone blame Herta Muller for writing mostly about the absurd cruelties of life in communist Romania? Shouldn’t her corpus include a book about South Africa, or maybe New Jersey?

In truth, Nazaryan sets up a succession of literary straw men, lances them to the ground, and commences a victory dance.

Read closely his essay is a lot of fluent balderdash masquerading as literary criticism. He rigs the game so that any American

Jhumpa Lahiri: A "Great Male Narcissist?" You decide.

writer can be dismissed with a charge of “narcissist!” Jhumpa Lahiri is “a Great Male Narcissist”? That’s silliness and nonsense. And, please, God, save me from the Novel of Ideas!

Plus, it is absurd to speak about American literature as though it were a monolithic product of a homogenous culture, as it is, perhaps, in Sweden and some other small, very polite European countries.

Here, have your pick: The Northeastern gothic of Joyce Carol Oates (no doubt another “Great Male Narcissist” in drag!). The Western nihilism of Cormac McCarthy. The neo-realism of Russell Banks. The post-modernism of Don Delillo. The minimalism of Denis Johnson (Jesus’ Son, Train Dreams), or the maximalism of Denis Johnson (Tree of Smoke).

If Philip Roth, most often put forward as the leading American nobel contender, isn’t to your taste (and, yes, he is a bit of a misogynist), then I propose John Barth.

Along with Robert Coover, Barth is one of the two remaining major practitioners of the post-modern metafictional flowering that dominated American fiction in the 1960s and ’70s. And though too much forgotten today, it continues to influence important younger writers, from the late David Foster Wallace to Paul Auster, Nicholson Baker,Jonathan Lethem, Jennifer Egan, Karen Russell, and many others.

Who were the American post-modernists? We’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of Catch-22, by Joseph Heller right now. That’s one. Here are few more gaudy names: Kurt Vonnegut, Donald Barthelme, William Gaddis, John Gardner,Thomas Pynchon, John Hawkes, William Burroughs, William Gaddis.

Barth has the advantage over most of his contemporaries, when it comes to Nobel consideration, by the simple fact of still breathing. But I say he deserves it on merit, too. Books like The Sot-Weed Factor and Lost in the Funhouse broke new ground. Chimera, read when I was 19, confused, delighted and bedeviled my waking dreams for years.

And Barth may have slowed down in his dotage, but he has not lost his skill, his sly metafictional playfulness, as he showed in a 2008 short-story collection, The Development, which I by chance reviewed for the Sun-Sentinel.

Of course, Barth has less chance of winning the Nobel Prize than climate change legislation has of getting through Congress. But we can all go honor the old chimera, the aging goat-boy himself,  when he comes to Miami Book Fair International next month. See you there.

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