Acknowledge American writers

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Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio is likely not a name you had heard before Thursday — or even before reading this sentence. But, my apologies, I already have moved ahead of myself by bombarding you with a Frenchman you are almost certainly unacquainted with before jumping to the derisive comments made by the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy. Let me start again.

The Swedish Academy, a group of 18 Swedes, have fought (with pens) for “the purity, strength, and sublimity of the Swedish language” since 1786. They decide each year who will receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, a decision that has never been without criticism.

However, this year’s controversial message was more overt than normal. Horace Engdahl, the Academy’s permanent secretary (i.e. its ringleader), spoke with the press less than two weeks before the announcement of the prize saying: “you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world ... not the United States.”


He went on — and do allow me to exaggerate — to call American authors self-obsessed, isolated and lost in their own country, and too bent on English as the only language for literature. While this statement upset more than a few authors and publishers both in and out of America, it was clear from Engdahl’s statements that the chance of an American bringing home the literary bacon this October was slim.

True to his word, the prize, when announced Thursday morning, was given to Le Clézio, a figure that it turns out only 18 people in America have ever read.

Why does this matter at all, save to the publishers of Le Clézio, who are readying new printings for the French bourgoise to add to their shelves of other unread yet believed to be important books? Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe Le Clézio is just the next author to be added to the list of Imre Kertész, Vicente Aleixandre, Frédéric Mistral, Frans Eemil Sillanpää, and the many other Nobel Laureates in literature whom you have (probably) never heard of, let alone read.

Or, possibly, Le Clézio is a good choice and should be heralded as a deserving laureate. I just finished reading a volume of his short stories, The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts (La ronde et autres faits divers), and it is composed of strong pieces, focused on a desperate humanity. They are broad and certainly applicable to more than just French culture. These stories are compelling literature, and while I will not pretend to be familiar with his entire body of work, these are an indication of admirable prose.

But then, I cannot conclude without asserting that an American deserves to be recognized by the Swedish Academy. Not since the 1993 award to Toni Morrison has the United States been recognized for its literary talent. Several American writers are consistently named as possibilities for the prize, all authors who are producing globally significant work.

For now, we American readers have more Le Clézio translations to look forward to in the coming months, and if we need something more culturally insular in flavor, the National Book Award winners will be announced next month. In this case we can be certain that each selection will be excessively Americanized, able to suit our society’s tastes. Hopefully in the next decade, though, we will see the Swedish Academy palate change to make a more Coca-Cola- and McDonald’s-infused awardee.