Double Standard for the Nobel?

Recently, I’ve run across a number of blogs, commentaries, and the like about the Nobel Prize for Literature, which has been awarded to a well-established French writer, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, whose work is less known outside France. Interestingly enough, the Swedish Academy praised Le Clezio as an “author of new departures, poetic adventure… explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization.”

According to public information, the new Nobel Laureate has published more than 40 essays, novels, and children’s books, where he has written of exile and self-discovery, cultural dislocation and globalization and the clash between modern civilization and traditional cultures.

At the same time, a noted critic of American fiction, Horace Engdahl, who is also the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, has suggested that it is unlikely that the U.S. will produce a Nobel Prize winner because American writers are “too insular, too isolated” and “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture.”

Now… I have nothing for — or against — Mr. Le Clezio, because I have to confess that I’ve never read any of his work, partly because there aren’t any French bookstores in Southwestern Utah and because his work is largely untranslated into English.

But I have to ask, “To which American writers are you referring, Mr. Engdahl?”

I have written all the themes claimed as reasons for awarding the Nobel to Mr. Le Clezio, and there are several handfuls, if not more, of talented American writers who have also done the same. All of us have written well outside contemporary U.S. culture, while at times also dissecting that very culture and contrasting it to alien cultures. Many have produced a larger body of work than Mr. Le Clezio, and certainly a writer like Ursula K. LeGuin, for example, has more than transcended her “own” culture. Or is the problem that all those who might nominate American writers only select those who are in fact “insular,” rather than nominating from the F&SF community, where writers usually do go well beyond the parochial?

Of course, I’m just a “genre” writer, but I do find it most interesting that what I — and others also classed as such — write fits into the description of what it takes to win a Nobel Prize for literature, at least according to the press releases of the Swedish Academy, while those who are praised and acclaimed by “mainstream” U.S. critics are dismissed as “too insular” by those associated with the Nobel Prize selection and administration.

That leaves us F&SF “genre writers” damned either way, it appears.