Nobel committee criticized for 'anti-American' approach

Comments from the top member of the Swedish Academy that American writers are too insular and ignorant to compete with European writing continue to reverberate on this side of the Atlantic.

Comments from the top member of the Swedish Academy that American writers are too insular and ignorant to compete with European writing continue to reverberate on this side of the Atlantic.

New Yorker editor David Remnick and Washington Post literary critic Michael Dirda are among the Americans who have criticized remarks by Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the committee that chooses winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature, which this year will be announced on Thursday.

They're not overreacting, says Toronto novelist and cultural observer Russell Smith.

"It's a shocking and ridiculous statement to make — absolutely ludicrous and absurd. It's very clear than Mr. Engdahl hasn't read much American literature," Smith told CBC cultural affairs show Q.

Smith argues this is an exciting and innovative time in English-language literature, and the Nobel committee is overlooking a significant body of writing if it doesn't consider American writers.

"There has long been suspected a bias in the Swedish academy, an anti-American bias — they have often been accused of making political choices and of favouring leftist anti-American authors," he said.

Bias goes back decades, says cultural observer

Last year's choice was Doris Lessing, who has been openly critical of U.S. policies. And the committee doesn't have much of a record in choosing writing that stands the test of time — many earlier Nobel winners have lapsed into obscurity.

The anti-American bias in the committee that chooses Nobel laureates for literature can be seen in deliberations from the 1940s, Smith said.

Although Nobel discussion is notoriously secret, the discussion from 50 years ago was recently released — and showed an academic objecting to the writing of Ernest Hemingway because he launches too quickly into a story and makes it too entertaining.

Hemingway eventually won the Nobel in 1954, years after the release of novels such as Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Engdahl is confusing the tendency of American readers to be insular — they read very few novels in translation — with his criticism of American writing, Smith said.

"He's wrong about that. He's looking at some kind of perception of the American public or perhaps of American politicians that he's seen through the media," Smith said.

Engdahl also criticized American literature as too tied to mass culture and too rooted to its place and time.

Smith cites writers such as John Updike for his literate world view and David Foster Wallace for his philosophical approach to writing.

"Mr. Engdahl is accusing these writers of not being  philosophical enough. There's no way you could say anyone of the David Foster Wallace school — and I'm thinking of writers like Nicholson Baker — are overly influenced by mass culture."

Canadians are insular readers, Smith says

The charge that writing about a particular place is not universal enough to be considered for a Nobel Prize is equally ludicrous, Smith said.

"It's silly to accuse a writer who writes about a small or isolated place of being incapable of writing a piece of fiction, literature, poetry that is not international," he said.

"Many people would argue that the more specifically located in place a work of literature is, the more true to life it is and therefore the more universal it possibly can be."

Canadians are also insular readers, Smith said. "Even between English Canada and French Canada, there's very little translation."

One effect of Engdahl's ill-informed remarks may be that Canadians such as Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro have little chance of being seriously considered by the Nobel committee, Smith said.