Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Mini-Rant Prompted by the Nobel Prize for Literature

By now you are probably aware that the most recent recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature is J.M.G. Le Clézio.

Thanks to my beloved mentor, I am one of the apparently few Americans who'd heard of Le Clézio before last week. But frankly, I'm less concerned with the implications of this choice and the bewilderment it seems to have provoked among American writer-bloggers than I am about other things that point to some grains of truth within Nobel juror's Horace Engdahl's much-criticized comments about the "insularity" and "isolation" of the United States and its writers.

I'm far less bothered by the collective "Who?" that greeted the Nobel Committee's announcement this year, for example, than I am by the fact that the same bemused question met an instructor's reference to another French writer (Stendhal) in my own (American) MFA program.

And I'm much less troubled by the paucity of American readers-at-large who would be able to read Le Clézio in the original (since only a tiny fraction of his books is available in English translation) than I am by the honors students in a program I used to teach in at Harvard who tried to petition their way out of a very light "foreign literature" requirement for students who weren't studying a "foreign" literature as part of their program specializiation (for instance, those focusing on the United States and/or Great Britain, rather than those choosing to concentrate on France, Germany, Latin America, or a host of other options).

These students had among their champions a colleague of mine who proclaimed at a departmental meeting: "If that requirement had been in place when I was a student here, I wouldn't have graduated." My take at the time: Either we have a requirement, or we don't have a requirement. But listing requirements in a program catalogue without enforcing them, and worse, without asking students to demonstrate how they've synthesized this "other" work into their larger course of study--whether we were talking about the "foreign literature" requirement or the "foreign history" requirement (subsequently renamed the "America in the World" requirement), as this colleague and too many others were perfectly willing to let the students do, incensed me. (The long battle that had to be waged to get that "America in the World" requirement organized would be evidence enough to support Engdahl's comments, but that's another story.)

If we don't expect undergraduates and graduate students who are specializing in literary studies of various sorts to go beyond their own comfort zones and to graduate having looked outside themselves, their own time periods, and their own countries, how can we expect it of anyone else?


Anonymous said...


If people don't know who Stendhal is, then really it's no wonder that the world sees American literature as out of touch.

I am an American living abroad right now, and I have to admit, my first reaction to Engdahl's remarks was that they were pretty inane. And of course, the Nobel Prize isn't the be-all end-all of literary quality so my inclination was just to tune him out. But as the week has gone on I have been struck more and more by the truth that there is underneath it all. It's sad to say, but we're out of touch!

Well said Erika.


Erika D. said...

Thanks for the comment, Dave.

emilydixieson said...

Lazy in scholarship, too? We Americans are getting lazy about Everything!

Erika D. said...

And thank you, EmilyDixieson.

John said...

I like your mentor a LOT!

Erika D. said...

Yes, he's pretty extraordinary!