I do sometimes get depressed about how my own particular culture is ignorant of and insular from the rest of the world. Of course, Just looking at the relative sizes of countries, it’s just as easy for most Europeans to visit another country as it is for us to visit another state. And it is hard to outgrow a prejudice without personal experience to counteract it. If you never meet a for-real French person, how do you know they aren’t all snobby and rude? However, much as I can understand US pride and US ignorance and US inward-focused narrowmindeness, that doesn’t mean i like it. I deal with it, I try to educate and eliminate it where possible, and I hope for future understanding.
For myself, I would not consider this cultural background a disadvantage. I know it’s there, but I would not say it handicaps me in my own life. perhaps it’s arrogance, but I’d like to think I’ve grown beyond the prejudices of my upbringing. in particular as a writer, I’d like to think I have a little perspective and a little objectivity and a little observational prowess. I’d like to think my upbringing does not keep me from being a good writer.
According to Horace Engdahl, permenant secretary of Nobel’s Swedish Academy, that’s virtually impossible for most of us US citizens. Evidently (and unbeknownst to me) US writers are “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture,” dragging down the quality of their work. “The U.S. 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.”
I can accept that the majority of Nobel Prizewinners are European. I can accept that some, even many, people feel that Europe is still the center of the literary world. They have an intense and continuous history of it – of course they have extensive skills to draw on. But I don’t think our own history puts us at that much of a handicap. I don’t think we are too insular, or too ignorant. I think we do participate, fairly actively, in the literary world (note, world, not immediate insular community). Yes, we do have some shoddy writers, but so do all countries, even those in Europe. That doesn’t mean we can’t, or aren’t, producing grade-A literature.
Let’s take the three books I’m reading right now (yes it’s three, yes I read a lot). The first one, the fluffy one, is a sci-fi novel by C. J. Cherryh. This one happens to be about humans interacting with two different groups of aliens, one of which has a very Oriental flavor. It’s not the most profound literature, but the topic seems…oddly appropriate. Someone from the US can imagine the way humans might interact with not only a different culture but a different biology in a realistic way? I would not call that insular or ignorant. Another book I’m reading is The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya. She’s Russian. It’s translated. I guess it’s one of those random outliers of a book that made it into the US literary scene, even though it’s translated and deals with post-apocalyptic Russia. Because obviously, we don’t translate enough. The third book I’m currently reading (dare I say involved with?) is The Breif Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. It’s awesome. If you haven’t read it, go out and buy it, because you will want to read it again. Diaz is a Dominican-American writer who often writes about the immigrant experience. He’s very insular – he only writes about the DR or the US. I wouldn’t call him ignorant though, especially considering the footnotes, which are almost as playful as those in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, but are also far more informative and factually based.
I’m sure Mr. Engdahl is getting his fill of criticism over this interview, and I wouldn’t mind the US losing the Nobel Prize for Literature to someone worthy. But if no US writer makes it on to the short list this year, after this particular interview? That smacks of insularity and ignorance.