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The Real Reason American Authors Don't Win Nobels

The Nobel Prize committee's top member and permanent secretary, Horace Engdahl, told the Associated Press Tuesday that American literature can't compete with the rest of the world: "The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. ... That ignorance is restraining."

The reaction in the U.S. has been to accuse the Nobel committee of either an anti-American bias, which the A.P. report suggests, or of simple ignorance.

"Such a comment makes me think that Mr. Engdahl has read little of American literature outside the mainstream and has a very narrow view of what constitutes literature in this age," said Harold Augenbraum, who heads the National Book Awards. "I'll send him a reading list."

But there's another explanation for the paucity of American Nobel winners. The committee doesn't oppose Americans--they oppose postmodernism, which has dominated American literature since the 1960s. This would explain the exclusion of not just Americans, but of prominent non-American postmodernists like Salman Rushdie and Umberto Eco. It would also partly explain Engdahl's statement: Anyone can see that the U.S. participates in a "big dialogue of literature"--the issue is that it isn't a dialogue he thinks is worthwhile.

After all, the American authors who have been denied the prize have something far more significant than their nationality in common: Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, and William Burroughs are all leading figures in the postmodern tradition. Postmodernism has been central to American literature for decades. David Foster Wallace, whose death last month at age 46 rocked the literary world, could not have been more postmodern.

The only exception to the Nobel committee's apparent embargo on postmodernism has been the Turkish writer Orham Pamuk, who won in 2006. However, Pamuk, who writes politically-charged novels about his country's history of government and social oppression, may have won despite his postmodern style rather than because of it. Most of the recent laureates have written politically-oriented fiction protesting their oppressive, non-Western societies: Doris Lessing from Zimbabwe, Gao Xingjian from China and V.S. Naipaul from Trinidad, for example.

Why does the Nobel committee reject postmodern literature? Is it because postmodernism is somehow intrinsically, almost uniquely American, and simply does not resonant with readers in Europe? Or is the answer political. Postmodernist works are rarely political, owing to their treatment of objectivity and truth as a falsehood. Postmodernists typically don't attack or defend any political or social ideologies--they reject the entire premise. Whatever its virtues, the Nobel committee's clear preoccupation with politically-oriented literature stands in the way of recognizing postmodernist authors.  

--Max Fisher