October 3, 2008

Nobel Prize Needs Nobility

By Deseret News editorial

Alfred Nobel -- father of the Nobel Prize in literature -- invented dynamite. And this past week, the top member of the jury in that competition lit a few fuses and set off some charges. Horace Engdahl said American writers are "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture" and that drags down the quality of their writing. He added that the "ignorance" of American writers is "restraining."

Needless to say, American writers and academics responded with complaints, often in the form of sarcasm. It's true that no American has won the award since Toni Morrison in 1993 and that almost all other winners in 15 years have had ties to "Old Europe." But has American literature really taken that much of a header in a decade? Or is it the small cabal that administers the Nobel Prize that has changed course and charted a path into postmoderism -- a foray into cerebral writing that makes intelligence more important than humanity?

After all, those in the know at the Nobel do not have an admirable record of spotting the most influential and important writers in the world. If the best revenge is writing well, several immortal wordsmiths have taken their vengeance out on the Nobel committee by producing glorious work that has gone unrecognized.

The Argentine poet and fiction writer, Jorge Luis Borges, never won the Nobel Prize. But Borges' writing continues to serve as a polar star for young writers around the world -- especially those engaged in speculative fiction. And who got the award while Borges was in his prime and changing the world of literature? Household names like Nelly Sachs, Halldor Kiljan Laxness and Mickhail Aleksandrovich.

The ongoing legacy of Tennessee Williams, the American playwright, has made the Nobel jury look foolish for slighting his plays as well.

People should ask if they'd rather live in a world without the Nobel Prize, or without the writing of Williams, W.H. Auden, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald and dozens of other "losers."

As for Engdahl's statement about Europe being "the center of the literary world," you wonder why he stopped there. Most European intellectuals believe Europe is the center of the Milky Way.

In the end, Engdahl's attitude not only shows what's wrong with the prize, but what's wrong with avant-garde modern literature. Much of it is brilliant in style and concept. But like the prize-winning pieces in postmodern music and painting, it stirs little interest beyond the ivory towers and ivy walls where taste trumps pathos and where anything that can be appreciated by commoners is dismissed as pedestrian.

The sins of such priggish writers are arrogance and affectation.

Their punishment will be irrelevance.

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