Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Let's Hear it for Horace

With only two years to go I've been worrying about who to pick for my world-famous Jerk of the Decade award. Now, at a stroke, my problem has been solved. Step forward Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary to the Swedish Academy, which awards Nobel Prizes for, among other things, literature. Horace the Swede says American literature just isn't good enough, not a patch on European. 'The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.' This would explain some recent eccentric awards.... Well, Mr Engdahl is plainly a Grade A jerk and I can't imagine anybody coming up with anything more jerkish in the next two years, so yes, Horace, you are the Jerk of the Decade. (If, as chief and only judge, I may put in a personal word - it was that 'big dialogue of literature' that stitched up the deal for Horace. The language of the bullshitter changes little down the ages.)


  1. What an idiot. Knee-jerk anti-Americanism had to have led him to make such misinformed comments. We have *great* writers here, and anyone who reads contemporary fiction and lots of it can tell him that. Our best literary books are not often on the best-seller lists, it's true, but that's only because genre fiction is still the comfort reading of the masses.

    Still, every year I read at least one or two new books that blow me away because they're SO good, the authors are so gifted. "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" is this year's, and it's one of the first times Oprah has picked a *really* literary book for her readers. I'm so happy they're gonna get some truly good fiction.

    But of well-known, living American writers, we have people who can stand with anyone currently writing in Europe:

    John Updike, Philip Roth, J.C. Oates, David Guterson, Ursula LeGuin, Amy Tan, Edward P. Jones, Cormac McCarthy, Cynthia Ozick, Ivan Doig, Louise Erdrich, Richard Russo, Michael Chabon, Andrea Barrett....God, these are just the first ones off the top of my head.

    As for the short story -- I often read anthologies of short fiction from around the world, and the American short story continues to dominate the field. We just have incredible writers in that form, from Charles d'Ambrosio to Sherman Alexie, Mary Gaitskill to Francine Prose, Dave Eggers to Lorrie Moore. Take a gander at any issue of The New Yorker and there they are.

    The only valid point the man makes is that we don't get much translated world fiction here. That is absolutely true, and I know it well because I'm currently writing an article on global fiction translated into English. Turns out only 3% of the world's books ever get translated into English. On the other hand, in my brief experience trying to read some of that 3%, a lot of them are sub-standard. Most of these works could not stand shoulder to shoulder with a good American novel. A few, yes. Not most.

    Horace, get your head out of the sand. I've got some books I'd like to lend you!

  2. Susan, just put it down to the fact that he's a Swede, they spend their entire lives pretending to be perfect, hence suicide rate. In Goteborg, not far from the Volvo plant, there's a steep hill, known to the locals as suicide leap, the ambulances hang around the base, just on the off chance. If you know any Norwegians, ask them what they think of the Swedes (I was foreover, best man, at a Norwegian wedding, the bridegrooms brothers were both married to Swedish lassies, I spent the entire day avoiding diplomatic incidents)
    Wish you had not mentioned McColl-Smith earlier in the day, not that popular north of the border.
    PS, if you visit New York in the next few days and happen to troll down Wall St for gods sake keep looking up.

  3. Literature is not a dialogue, it's a monologue. Literary critics aren't a part of literature, they're just parasites.

  4. Susan, you left out Tom Wolfe, a master of the English language.

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