Adam Kirsch, my favorite book critic at the now-defunct New York Sun, has landed at Slate. It doesn’t say if he’s going to have a regular spot there, but I hope that’s the case. I also hope he’s given as much range in his assignments as he was at the Sun.
Kirsch’s first post-Sun item is on the idiocy of Horace Engdahl, that Nobel literary judge who recently remarked that American writers are too insular to measure up on the world stage. Sez Kirsch:
As long as America could still be regarded as Europe’s backwaterâ€”as long as a poet like T.S. Eliot had to leave America for England in order to become famous enough to win the Nobelâ€”it was easy to give American literature the occasional pat on the head. But now that the situation is reversed, and it is Europe that looks culturally, economically, and politically dependent on the United States, European pride can be assuaged only by pretending that American literature doesn’t exist. When Engdahl declares, “You can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world,” there is a poignant echo of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard insisting that she is still big, it’s the pictures that got smaller.
Nothing gives the lie to Engdahl’s claim of European superiority more effectively than a glance at the Nobel Prize winners of the last decade or so. Even Austrians and Italians didn’t think Elfriede Jelinek and Dario Fo deserved their prizes; Harold Pinter won the prize about 40 years after his significant work was done. To suggest that these writers are more talented or accomplished than the best Americans of the last 30 years is preposterous.