Nobel writer puzzles American authors
The news that a little read French author has won the Nobel for Literature confirms American authors’ suspicions
Several prominent American authors reacted with curiosity to this morning's announcement that Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, a French novelist little known outside of France, has won the Nobel Prize for literature.
While M. Le Clézio is highly regarded in France, he appears less well recognized in American literary circles. Most of the authors interviewed did not even know who he was. But they did have plenty of criticism for Horace Engdahl, the award jury's top member, who claimed last week that American writers are "too isolated, too insular" to compete with Europeans.
“When a great writer is resolutely local and specific in his or her attentions—whatever the narrative strategy—the work has universal relevance.”
Stephen King was a bit less parsed with his words in response to the criticism of American authors. “Pooh!” he wrote in an email to the Daily Beast, “What about Philip Roth? He deserves it for his body of work in general. And American Pastoral in particular.
“Also concerning the insularity issue—Christ almighty, they gave a Nobel to William Faulkner whose fiction rarely poked his head out of a single rural county in Mississippi. This kind of arrogant sniffery is nothing new, of course, and not particular to European minds. Maybe they gave him the prize because nobody could spell the county in question. Although everyone remembers it starts with the letter Y. “I have no opinions on Le Clezio as I have not read his work. As for the insularity argument, the Nobel committee has no farther to look than Denis Johnson. ( Tree of Smoke, Already Dead.) Or Cormac McCarthy.”
Harold Bloom, an institutional figure in literary criticism, has also not read Le Clezio. He told the Daily Beast he didn’t want to talk about the controversy.
David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker and author of Resurrection, a history of contemporary Russia, said he had never heard of Mr. Le Clezio. While the Nobel literature awards generally have a political component, he said, he could not judge this year's choice.
"He may be a wonderful writer, but I confess I've not read anything of his," Mr. Remnick said. "What I found difficult to swallow was the secretary of a committee making categorical lectures about a literary scene that he seems to know very little about."
E.L. Doctorow, the American author of the The Book of Daniel and Ragtime, agreed with Mr. Engdahl's contention that American publishers do not translate enough foreign material. But insularity or provincialism in the literary community, he said, is nothing to sneer at.
"Many countries have their provincial writers: England has Jane Austen, Ireland has James Joyce, Russia has Anton Chekhov," Mr. Doctorow wrote to The Daily Beast in an e-mail. "When a great writer is resolutely local and specific in his or her attentions—whatever the narrative strategy—the work has universal relevance."
But he conded the Nobel committee may have a point. “The judge spoke of American insularity. That is certainly true of our publishers these days as compared to Alfred Knopf, e.g., who made his name in the twenties and thirties publishing foeign authors. Absoluely true and regettable at the present time when so few foreign works.”
One of the few authors interviewed who recognized Mr. Le Clezio's work was Adam Gopnik, an American author and staff writer for the New Yorker—and even he said he didn't feel qualified to offer an opinion.
"I can tell you that he's a highly charismatic, even a glamorous, figure in France, and a very ‘French’ literary figure at that, very much in the tradition of André Malraux: a world traveler and essayist, the writer as global voyager and man of the world, not as novelist alone," Mr. Gopnik said in an e-mail.
Francine Prose, president of the PEN American Center, a writers’ association, suggested the selection of an author she didn't recognize was surprising—particularly against the backdrop of the heated debate surrounding Mr. Engdahl's comments. Contrary to his accusation of insularity, she said, Americans are a major part of the world conversation.
"It seems like a peculiar choice," she said. "It's not as if none us here have heard of a French writer. There are many Europeans who are widely read here."