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Annual Nobel literary travesty set for Oct. 7.

October 1, 2010

Portnoy's complaint: Probably America's greatest living novelist, Philip Roth has no chance for a Nobel.

The leading candidate for this year’s Nobel Prize in literature is Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer. The prize, however, will hardly offset his keen disappointment that Megan Fox has been dismissed from Transtromer 3.

You know Transtromer 3, right? Sequel to Transtromer 2? Which was the sequel to Transtromer, the Michael Bay blockbuster based on an early collection of Transtromer’s poetry that made an international sensation out of the beauteous young starlet Fox?

Oh, all right. I’ll stop. It’s just I get so piqued this time every year when the annual Swedish sport of insulting America’s literary pride rolls around.

The rules of this game? Ignore aging American writers, no matter how great their achievement, to award the Nobel to some European or Third World obscurity– whose selection is usually based as much on political considerations as literary quality (See: Herta Mueller; Jean-Marie Guztave Le Clezio, the past two winners: Who? Right.)

Of course, it’s not Transtromer’s fault, so I shouldn’t make fun of him. Apologies. Bygones. Nor the fault of other leading candidates, none of whom I heard of before today, like Poland’s Adam Zagajewski, South Korea’s Ko Un and Syria’s Adonis.

I..am…desperately…fighting…ungh!…the…URGE…to make an adolescent joke about “Syria’s Adonis” (will he be tested for steriods or other PEDs? Sorry! It’s Friday, what do you want from me?).

Cynthia Ozick

These writers, doubtless in possession of major talent, have sweated blood to create their poems just like any other writer, and therefore deserve respect from provincial book reviewers like me.

No, I reserve my disrespect for Nobel gatekeepers like Horace Engdahl, the academy’s former permanent secretary, who, in 2008, essentially announced that Americans are too unrefined for the literature prize.

“The U.S. is too isolated, too insular,” Engdahl decreed. “They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.”

The ignorance — the insular, isolated stupidity– is all yours, Horace. On the contrary, the 20th century was the century of American literature. Just as America dominated industrial might, military power and foreign influence, so American literature (especially the novel) dominated world culture.

Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Faulkner, Frost — these names alone prove my point. (We also kicked butt in the genres: Hammett, Chandler, Cain in crime fiction; Heinlein, Asimov, Dick in sci-fi; Lovecraft, Bloch, Matheson in horror).

But Engdahl was expressing a European stereotype of American boobiosity that goes back to before the Revolutionary War, as Adam Kirsch noted in this Slate essay. And it resulted in the prize going to lesser European writers while American titans like John Updike, Norman Mailer, Ralph Ellison, Bernard Malamud, James Baldwin, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, among other deserving U.S. candidates, got old and died.

A ray of hope broke briefly over Stockholm last year when Peter Englund, the new Nobel permanent secretary, repudiated his predecessor’s remarks.

“In most language areas there are authors that really deserve and could get the Nobel Prize and that goes for the United States and the Americas, as well,” Englund said. He even acknowledged the Nobel’s European bias: “I think that is a problem. We tend

Maryse Conde

to relate more easily to literature written in Europe and in the European tradition.”

Nice words — and yet here we are a year later, making lame Transformer and Adonis jokes (or at least I am), while the clock is ticking on American writers like Philip Roth (77), Joyce Carol Oates (73), Don Delilo (73), Thomas Pynchon (73), E.L. Doctorow (79), Cormac McCarthy (76) or my personal fave out of this bunch, Cynthia Ozick (82).

By the way, I can’t let a Nobel discussion go by without a shout-out to my non-American favorite for the Nobel Prize, Maryse Conde (76) of Guadalupe, who as a world-class Pan-African novelist would seem to qualify not only on  literary but also political merit.

Why Conde is not regularly discussed as a leading Nobel candidate is beyond my ken.

Oh, wait: Silly me. She’s married to a white American.

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