Nobel Judge Discusses the Killing of Western Literature

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There was an article in The Guardian yesterday about the slow death of Western literature from a Nobel judge’s perspective. According to the author of the article, Allison Flood:

“Western literature is being impoverished by financial support for writers and by creative writing programmes, according to a series of blistering comments from Swedish Academy member Horace Engdahl, speaking shortly before the winner of the Nobel prize for literature is awarded.”

 

Engdahl also criticizes the use of grants for writers. “Previously, writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard – but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective,” he said in an interview with French paper La Croix.

These comments have sparked loads of angry responses, especially on the Western side. But Engdahl brings up an interesting point. In America, there are many resources for writers. Our society tends to encourage its artists. That kind of courage to pursue dreams is what most of us would call the American Dream. Blazing forward as an individual with the guts to go after what we want (regardless of poverty and consequences) might be frowned upon in other places, but here it’s a celebrated quality. Those pursuing this dream have access to grants and courses galore to support them in their quest for creativity. As a writer, I can appreciate how this support makes a positive difference in many lives. There are writers out there who can’t afford to quit their jobs or take writing classes. Some of those writers have amazing talent. The world would benefit from the words of those writers. Without the grants, those writers might never get to share their literary prowess with the rest of us.

However, there is a down side to that support. Enabling writers to quit day jobs to spend time with a laptop can limit life experience. In times past, the writing community knew that the best way to write well was to spend time in the world, to learn about new and unique things, to watch people and their interactions. The best writers were those who truly understood people and had enough life experiences to make the writing interesting. Today, the viewpoint on this has shifted for many writers. We see more encouragement of shutting oneself off in a home office, banging away at the keyboard for hours alone. It’s true that you can’t write if you don’t show up, sit down, and type. But isn’t there a way to do that without shutting ourselves off from the world?

Personally, I feel that there needs to be a middle ground. We need life experiences to fuel the fire of our writing. Going out into the world, throwing ourselves into strange situations, and really paying attention to the lives around us are all necessary for interesting writing. But, as a person with pathetic self-discipline, I do need to shut myself off from the world to write sometimes. I’m easily distracted by conversations and tangents. While I can’t spend my life shut inside with my family (I’d probably go nuts anyway), I do need periods of time where I am cut off from others in order to keep my butt in the chair.

Is our society’s support of writers killing literature? By helping to give writers resources, are we limiting their life experiences? Will those missed experiences make a difference in Western literature? What do you think?

Read the full article in The Guardian here.

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14 comments

  1. But Engdahl told the French paper that his comment had been misinterpreted. “Everyone reacted as if I’d said that the major American writers had no chance of winning the Nobel. I said nothing of the sort; I didn’t say that there were no worthy American writers. I said that American literary life, American criticism and teaching were limited today by too narrow an access to world literature, because the number of translations and their reach in the US is feeble. Everything is focused around their [US] writers and their language, like a hall of mirrors which reflects a perpetual, infinite image of America.”

    That is what he said.

    I think you will find it was the unspoken implications of his comment that irritated the American side of the argument.

    Namely that a society with such an introverted focus is inevitably more susceptible to developing a disparaging and self-righteous attitude towards authors who do not conform to their preconceived ideas (normally formed in education) of what constitutes great literature. I believe Engdahl’s comments were aimed more towards current teaching trends than writers per se. As I understood it, he was simply pointing out that if all the books and works that American children are taught to aspire to are of a similar ilk and written by older Americans, you run the risk of blinkering an entire generation.

    Clearly a proportion of the American people did not appreciate his observations. Personally, I would more be interested to know if he is actually correct, in terms of the curriculum for American students. If he is not, then for me his whole argument falls at the first hurdle.

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    1. Exactly. He did not indicate that they would never win. His comments had to do with the way that the writing life is approached in our country. Do we coddle our writers too much? That was the point. We are trying to support the arts, but Engdahl points out that our “help” may actually be a hindrance.

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      1. “A lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can,” said Kureishi, according to the Independent, which sponsors the festival.

        “A lot of them [students] don’t really understand,” said Kureishi. “It’s the story that really helps you. They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: ‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.'”

        Hanif Kureishi – University Professor, whose debut novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, won the Whitbread first novel prize.

        http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/04/creative-writing-courses-waste-of-time-hanif-kureishi

        Additional references: http://journograds.com/2014/06/11/can-creativity-be-taught/

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      2. That’s a pretty good point. You can teach students to never end a sentence with a preposition, but can you teach them imagination? Writing stories is easy. Writing great stories is not always easy. In my personal experience, I have only had one creative writing professor who cared more about the story than prose. The rest of them have revised submissions for grammar, then spit out a grade. Most of them weren’t even revising it themselves, they submitted my writing to a grammar checker (which puts in automatic corrections). I’ve seldom had comments regarding the story itself. So, I can see Kureishi’s point. Our classes aren’t necessarily helping us become better writers. They might be helping us to recognize passive voice, but not to create a journey for the reader.

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  2. I think all kinds of artists have sought support from patrons since the beginning of time, AND there are plenty of writers throughout history who’ve holed themselves up and created brilliant literature. So I don’t think this argument holds much water.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I read this article too. I agree. There are some people that shirk experience to write not realizing that their life experiences give them the fodder they need for their writing. But I don’t believe every writer out there is like that. I don’t know anyone who has quit their day job to write a novel. I certainly haven’t…lol

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    1. I suppose it’s a give and take. I know some writers who focus on the perfection of mechanics. They sit behind a door, alone, to compose. They feel that going outside would be a distraction. I know some other writers who focus less on mechanics and mostly on freedom. Life is the inspiration, they are inspired by living, and the writing will come if it’s meant. Ideally, it’s probably best to flirt with both sides of this mentality. Live life to keep your writing fresh and real, but have the discipline to actually sit down and write something.

      I do know people who have quit their day jobs to write, but I don’t know anyone who gets any sort of government aid for their writing. That was something that surprised me when I read the article. Are there truly people out there who get paid to be stay at home artists? I’m sure there are, but I don’t know any of them. The full-time writers I know are either taking every freelance opportunity that comes their way or they’ve managed to publish something for a decent sum and write at home off of that paycheck.

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    1. That is so true. Balancing the two can be tricky. Most of us tend to be either super independent or on the verge of needy. I often find it hard to ask for help, but it is something I’m working on improving in my life. I need to learn to trust others, to ask for what I need, and to accept help. This post helped to remind me to keep the balance.

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  4. I wonder whether Engdahl is lamenting a weakness in American letters that comes from softness. Americans had a grittiness in the past, even privileged people like Fitzgerald and Updike, so that the writing resonated. My observation is that the last American in this line was Carver – I’m sure I am wrong, but I haven’t found anyone I like better since. (I have a few favorite individual stories and I do like the “new western” writers like McCarthy and Proulx). I’ve also felt that there are very few voices right now that sound truly distinct. Most of the fiction I read sounds the same. Are we perhaps afraid to take chances because we fear being passed up for the easy money or won’t make an ‘A’ in our MFA program?

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    1. Both valid questions. I agree with you on all points, and I think these two questions bring up truth about the mentality behind writing these days. I wish it would not be so, but it seems to be the trend.

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