We’ll Make Our Own Luck, You Dumb Swede!

By Neal Comment

horace-engdahl-headshot.jpg(What, none of you have ever seen Summer Rental?)

Until yesterday, most Americans had never heard of Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize-distributing Swedish Academy; it’s not as if the literary historian and critic has ever had a book published here. Maybe that’s why he told the Associated Press that America’s authors probably won’t need to worry about booking flights to Stockholm any time soon: “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular,” Engdahl said. “They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.”

We’re not entirely sure how Engdahl makes the leap from American publishers not cranking out more world literature in translation to American novelists not being as good as their European counterparts, but then Engdahl’s grasp on reality seems a bit shaky in other ways. Like when he explains what a literary paradise Europe is because “it is only here where you can be left alone and write, without being beaten to death.” Try telling that to the family of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who was shot by a religious fanatic who then proceeded to nearly cut the head off his corpse, all because he didn’t like van Gogh’s film about violence against women in Islamic societies. (Well, okay, technically van Gogh wasn’t a writer, and he wasn’t beaten to death. But still.)

The AP gets New Yorker editor David Remnick and National Book Foundation president Harold Augenbraum to stand up for American letters, and we could all think of an author or two worthy of consideration, but, really, apart from the $1.3 million, does it really matter what the Swedish Academy thinks?

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. (There are possible exceptions, primarily foreign-born authors like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Joseph Brodsky. And we freely admit we’re guesstimating here; any insights from people who’ve actually published Nobel laureates and can check the numbers would be most welcome.)