Friday, October 7, 2011

Is American Literature Dead Or Just Dying?

Remarks were made recently by writing critic Alexander Nazaryan that Americans have not earned a Nobel Prize in literature since 1993 because they simply don't deserve it.

True enough.

Toni Morrison was the last American writer to be honored by the Nobel Literature Committee and she definitely deserved it. Her writing was accessible and approachable by a multitude of people, regardless of their race, creed or nation of origin. In my opinion it was her accessibility which brought her to the attention of Nobel.

More Americans would be recognized for their work if they could craft stories which didn't dwell too long on strictly American themes. Of course, doing this would be tantamount to cheating.

Writers should not write what they think will earn them rewards (or awards) but rather what speaks to their heart. If we write with a conscious attempt to win over a particular audience we are more likely to be dishonest to ourselves, and ultimately to those readers we hope to please.

Are American writers too introspective and less accessible to the international community? Perhaps. But then again, that is to their credit because they write as they should. If someone wanders into an American book and finds the international community represented I think they might be slightly disappointed. After all, they are reading American literature for a reason, a defined perspective, not a world class flavor.

There are plenty of other writers who produce that sort of thing. Just ask Nobel.
RAZ: So what is wrong, in your view, with American writers right now?

NAZARYAN: We've become a nation of literary narcissists. Part of that comes out of the write-what-you-know tradition, which I think must be taught in every single MFA program. And then, don't try to assume characters who are unlike yourself. So, for example, you know, if you are a white male, write from the perspective of a white male. Don't write like William Styron did from the perspective of a slave and for which he got pilloried for, in "The Confessions of Nat Turner."

I'm not saying that's a great book. But I think David Foster Wallace, in 1997, in an essay for the New York Observer - pretty brutal takedown of an Updike novel, comes up with this term the great male narcissist, which is a writer who's purely inward-looking and just unwilling to engage with the world.

And I think today, every writer - regardless of gender or ethnicity - the majority of writers are great male narcissists. And I talk about Juvela Heery(ph) and Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Franzen - I don't see big political, social engagement in their works. I see narrow concerns, not a lot of cultural criticism of the sort that, for example, John Steinbeck does in "Grapes of Wrath."

Or even, you know, John le Carre does in some of his finer spy fiction, which, to tell you the truth, is much more intelligent than what comes out of many American writers today.

Click here to read more of this interview with Nazaryan on National Public Radio.

1 comment:

u.v.ray. said...

No. It's the Nobel Prize that's dead.

More writers should have the temerity to tell the Nobel Committee to stick it up their ass.

Literature is alive and well. If one knows where to look.