Is American Fiction Too Provincial?

From Public Books:

Autumn brings the peak of the literary prize season: winners of the Booker, the National Book Award, the Women’s Prize, the Prix Goncourt, and the Nobel will all be announced by mid-November. American authors and books will be contenders for almost every award, large and small, for which they are eligible. That makes this an auspicious moment to revisit two persistent questions about American literature: Is it really a key part of the global literary system? And is the answer to that question the same for its “serious” and its mainstream forms? We can see the doubts behind those questions most clearly in a recent literary controversy, one that seems to have grown at once more and less relevant in the 12 years since it took place.

Autumn brings the peak of the literary prize season: winners of the Booker, the National Book Award, the Women’s Prize, the Prix Goncourt, and the Nobel will all be announced by mid-November. American authors and books will be contenders for almost every award, large and small, for which they are eligible. That makes this an auspicious moment to revisit two persistent questions about American literature: Is it really a key part of the global literary system? And is the answer to that question the same for its “serious” and its mainstream forms? We can see the doubts behind those questions most clearly in a recent literary controversy, one that seems to have grown at once more and less relevant in the 12 years since it took place.

Readers with longish memories and a taste for the absurd will recall the 2008 incident with Horace Engdahl, who was then the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy and is now a central figure in the Academy’s recent #MeToo and corruption scandals that canceled the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature. In the run-up to the 2008 award announcement, Engdahl explained that American authors were not competitive for the prize, because they were “too isolated, too insular” and didn’t “participate in the big dialogue of literature.”

The results of this claim were a good deal of hand-wringing among American authors and readers, some sympathetic head-nodding both here and abroad, and no noticeable change in the prize’s national distribution. (There have been two American laureates since 1978: Toni Morrison in 1993 and Bob Dylan in 2016.)1 On its own, the incident isn’t worth much attention today; it represented a passing amalgam of ignorance, publicity seeking, and the combination of arrogance and fallibility that James English diagnosed in these pages in his coverage of the Academy’s recent (and more serious) woes.

But the idea that American literature could be or should be (or perhaps already was) more deeply intertwined with the world outside the United States wasn’t unique to Engdahl. Scholars have repeatedly argued that what we call American literature has been bound up with other literary traditions (and markets) for centuries, and that contemporary US fiction has been especially explicit in its treatment of the world.

Domestic readers, meanwhile, have always made successes of at least some American-authored books set outside the US, of novels by writers who immigrated to the States, and of imported fiction largely divorced from American culture. Yet the nagging sense that American literature is at least a little provincial, a little self-absorbed in comparison to other nations—that Engdahl was a broken clock enjoying one of its twice-daily minutes of accuracy—has remained hard to escape.

Part of the problem is that it is difficult to say what is the normal or correct amount of national introspection. Danish authors, one presumes, write about Denmark more often and more deeply than do others. We don’t generally consider this a problem. And the United States naturally looms large in the imagination of writers around the globe, as do other wealthy, influential nations. So, we should expect differences from country to country and probably some overrepresentation of the United States across the board, especially in recent decades.

Link to the rest at Public Books

The short answer to the question in the title is “No”.

American fiction is American fiction. Swedish fiction is Swedish fiction.

Most purchasers of American fiction are Americans. Most purchases of Swedish fiction are Swedes. Swedes think Americans are weird. Those Americans who think of Sweden (a small minority) think Swedes are probably OK, particularly the blonde ones, but may not like that pickled herring stuff so much.

Nobel prizes are distributed according to the opinions of a small group of Scandinavians appointed by their nation’s parliaments (Norway) or elected by a self-perpetuating board that tends fill vacancies with other people just like themselves (Sweden).

The Nobel Peace Prize winner is selected by five Norwegians appointed by the Storting AKA the Norwegian parliament. The winner receives the prize each year in Oslo.

Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded by the Nobel Academy, established in 1786 by Swedish King Gustav III.

Visitors to TPV will all remember that Gustav III was a strong proponent of enlightened despotism. (PG note: Is that an oxymoron?)

Gustav III, the enlightened despot, came into power in 1772 via a coup d’état which ended Swedish parliamentary rule (generally referred to as “The Age of Liberty”). Thereafter, Good King Gustav spent a lot of public money money trying to forcibly annex Norway with Russian help.

In 1789, Gustav III helped organize a bunch of other kings who sent soldiers to to Paris to put down a popular uprising against the French monarchy and return his buddy, King Louis XVI, back to his rightful place on the throne.

In 1792, while Gustav III was attending a masquerade ball, he was shot and killed by someone who didn’t like him.

Wouldn’t anyone want their child to grow up to be just like Gustav III, the creator of the Nobel Prize for Literature?

But PG digresses.

The Swedish Academy, AKA Svenska Akademien, is composed of 18 members whose tenure is for life. (Gustave III thought the Swedish expression De Aderton – ‘The Eighteen’ – had a fine solemn ring to it. (Say it slowly, De . . . . . . Aderton . . . . and you’ll understand what GIII was talking about.))

The Swedish Academy publishes two Swedish dictionaries. The Swedish Academy meets for a ritual dinner every Thursday evening at a restaurant they own in the heart of the old town in Stockholm. (PG doesn’t know if pickled herring is a regular part of the festivities or not.)

The current Academy consists of 18 writers, linguists, literary scholars, historians and a prominent jurist. PG couldn’t find out how old the members are. Since they are appointed for life and get a free dinner every Thursday, PG suspects there is a high proportion of geezers and geezerettes.

Speaking of which, The Academy didn’t include any women until in the early 2010’s, but reports that, as of today, 1/3 of its current members are women. (A sexual harassment and rape scandal and ensuing cover-up attempts involving Academy members and at least one of their spouses in 2018 created a lot of openings).

(PG is of mixed blood, but the largest percentage of his blood is Swedish, so he’ll leave off with the anti-Swedish scorn in this post now.)

So, if American Fiction were not so provincial, more American authors would be selected as prize winners by 18 Swedish members-for-life who run The Swedish Academy?

And, if American Fiction were not so provincial, more American authors would be selected for the Man Booker Prize, awarded by five British Judges?

And, if American Fiction were not so provincial, more American authors would be selected for the Le prix Goncourt (self-explanatory)?

PG will end with three final questions:

  • What percentage of the American public worries about whether American Fiction is provincial or not?
  • What percentage of the American reading public worries about whether American Fiction is provincial or not?
  • What percentage of the American reading public cares about who wins any prize at all, foreign or domestic?
  • (Bonus Sub-question – What percentage of the American reading public who don’t live within 50 miles of an ocean cares about . . . .?)

11 thoughts on “Is American Fiction Too Provincial?”

  1. I’ll pay attention to the opinion of literati…
    …swedish…
    …british…
    …or manhattanite…
    …two weeks after the asteroid impact.

    It is eye-rollingly amusing that a bunch of self-important ivory tower types from a homogeous country of 10million think anything from a heterogeous, continent wide country of 330M and a hundred cultures might be “provincial”.

    • Actually, it’s quite true: Americans are provincial.

      That’s using the generally accepted (but never written) definition of provincial to mean ‘not hip enough to slavishly imitate the French’.

      Frankly, that sort of provincialism is one of the things I like best about Americans.

      • America at its best has always been about “do your own thing”.
        A frontier society looking for challenges.
        (Kennedy got that right with the moon program.)
        About building and exploring.
        About the future, not some grandiose imperial past or past grievances.
        It used to be a country of individuals, not ethnicity.
        We’ll have to see if that survives.

  2. Your arguments regarding American provincialism, are just so… provincial. 🙂

    EVERYONE is provincial. You can’t help but be focused on your own tribe no matter if it’s 50 people or 300 million.

    • Well, some aren’t provincial as much as parochial.
      Especially the literati.
      Even more so, the presentists.
      And since we’re talking Swedish Academy types, might as well add chauvinists and sexist.
      Not really worth the air they consume.

  3. Personally, I interpret the “complaint” of being provincial differently and my reaction is different because of it. Equally personally, I think the OP misunderstood the original remarks and what international communities were saying.

    While I agree wholeheartedly with PG’s view of the general worthlessness of (almost) any prize, I don’t think the question of “being provincial” is akin to “being simply uber local”. Instead, it is really about whether US fiction welcomes voices that are not part of the melting pot zeitgeist. People may say “too provincial” when they talk about a locale, but what they really mean is “not cosmopolitan”, “too isolated”, or more reminiscent of dueling banjos at the start of Deliverance than of a soundtrack by John Williams. Borderline “ignorant” and some would go further and say “not woke in the slightest” i.e. asleep at the wheel and having no concept of anything than their own hidden bigotry. This is not a “new” lament of the US nor of its literature. Hence why many of the international prizes reflect voices that are decidedly NOT American in tone or even locale quite often. Where they do is often for voices critical of the American experience.

    I said above that I feel like prizes are “almost” worthless and if we were talking about actual arbitrage of “quality”, I would make that unqualified. Some of the biggest winners were also some of the biggest crap I’ve ever read. Literary masturbation for elites who could pat themselves on the back and pretend they understood any of the edginess in the writing about poverty before returning to their 5 bedroom houses or Manhattan apartments.

    And yet.

    Every year when prize lists are established, and 6 or 7 books that almost nobody has ever heard of make the list, suddenly every librarian and bookstore owner gets asked for copies. Sales jump from “ho hum” to “midlist” levels, or higher if it’s accessible, and definitely higher if it wins. People hear about it and give it a try, even if only to put it on their TBR pile and never get to it or leave it on their coffee table.

    And yet.

    I find myself drawn to genre lists. They suffer from the same biases as every other list or award. But for mystery, I am more than willing to try every winner and nominee for an Agatha, Edgar, Shamus, Macavity, or Hammett. Those lists CAN be huge for newbies and midlisters. Probably mean nothing for bestsellers already.

    I think the awards generally can open extra doors for you, if you weren’t already white and male, and thus were already open. In that vein, I’m often curious if it is the same division that faces self-published and traditionally published. Does the “division” matter or does it all come down to whether you are invited “in” or not?

    P.

    • Instead, it is really about whether US fiction welcomes voices that are not part of the melting pot zeitgeist.

      I suspect American consumers don’t give a hoot what US fiction welcomes. They don’t even know who US fiction is. They don’t care enough to find out.

      Consumers buy what they like. I doubt there is a material interest in the outlying provinces, and likely no interest in the displeasure of provincials who write about books.

    • Thoughtful comment, P. Thank you.

      If the question is whether traditional New York publishers are too provincial, I think a great many American readers would answer in the affirmative. It’s a highly homogeneous group – racially, educationally, geographically, etc.

      As I’ve mentioned elsewhere traditional New York publishers are not independent organizations. The majority are wholly-owned subsidiaries of large media conglomerates headquartered in other countries. Some of the management of these media conglomerates are provincial in their own way.

      As I’ve mentioned in another post, we’ve just witnessed the firing of the CEO of Macmillan by the owner of Macmillan, a large German media conglomerate owned and controlled by a single somewhat secretive family in Stuttgart.

      • Where the statement misses the mark is with authors, who come from all walks of life, with a diversity of backgrounds, interests, outlooks, and output unmatched by the literzry establishment anywhere else on the planet. Period.
        In today’s environment, the failings of the multinational-controlled BPHs are irrelevant.

        To fully appreciate american fiction you have to delve into the small press, coop, comics, and Indie publishing worlds. Plus the infinity of non-commercial fiction online and off.

        None of which the Swedish Academy or literati on either side of the world bother to acknowledge.

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