Friday, October 03, 2008

Nobel Noise and Sales

Slate joins the American backlash against Horace Engdahl, the Nobel Prize juror who called American literature "too isolated, too insular." Adam Kirsch argues that, well, Engdahl is wrong, and furthermore, he's merely continuing a long run of the Nobel committee dissing America:
Just look at the kind of American writer the committee has chosen to honor. Pearl Buck, who won the prize in 1938, and John Steinbeck, who won in 1962, are almost folk writers, using a naively realist style to dramatize the struggles of the common man. Their most famous books, The Good Earth and The Grapes of Wrath, fit all too comfortably on junior-high-school reading lists. Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Prize, in 1930, wrote broad satires on American provincialism with nothing formally adventurous about them.

Such writers reflected back to Europe just the image of America they wanted to see: earnest, crude, anti-intellectual. There was a brief moment, after World War II, when the Nobel Committee allowed that America might produce more sophisticated writers. No one on either side of the Atlantic would quarrel with the awards to William Faulkner in 1949 or Ernest Hemingway in 1954. But in the 32 years since Bellow won the Nobel, there has been exactly one American laureate, Toni Morrison, whose critical reputation in America is by no means secure. To judge by the Nobel roster, you would think that the last three decades have been a time of American cultural drought rather than the era when American culture and language conquered the globe.

While griping about not winning awards seems a bit ridiculous given American cultural hegemony, it's tough to argue with Kirsch's argument. Especially when he goes on to talk about the obscurity and (some would argue) mediocrity of recent European winners.

This got me thinking about literary awards and their impact (or lack thereof) on book sales. A while ago, Max at The Millions noted that the Nobel Prize is the only literary award to impact sales in any noticeable way, as customers would come into the bookstore the day it was announced looking for books by the winner. That doesn't happen with the National Book Award or the Booker. Of course, as we know of all statistics, they don't tell the whole story. As Galleycat points out:
"It seems, at first glance, that the only impact of the Nobel on American book publishing is a possible uptick for the non-American writers who win it; when you look at the Americans who've received the medal, from Sinclair Lewis in 1930 to Toni Morrison in 1993, our general impression is that they tended to already sell strongly by the time Sweden recognized their greatness."
Of course the sales went up, it was the first time most Americans had heard of recent Nobel winners like Elfriede Jelinek and Dario Fo. (It's telling that right now at the Millions, they're trying to guess the nominees of the National Book Award. Guessing the next Nobel winner would be considerably harder.) The Nobel had done something that the American and British awards tend not to do, bring a new writer to our attention. Should we be reading more world literature? Yes. At the same time, one could argue that, to an extent, the diversity to be found in American literature makes up for this. American literature, in its own weird way, is world litearture. It encompasses dozens of cultures - all of them American - and ranges across styles and genres. Junot Diaz, Marilynne Robinson, Colson Whitehead, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Lorrie Moore, Sam Lipsyte, Dave Eggers, Aimee Bender, Chuck Pahlanuik, Jonathan Franzen, Kate Christensen, George Saunders, Joan Didion, and Tom Drury are all American authors. They offer an incredibly diverse picture of the world, whether the Nobel committee ever recognizes it or not.

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