Literature's Nobel Prize and the case – or not – for insularity

Has the perceived value of empathy and compassion begun to pale before our concern that literature must engage with the world?

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    Diana E. Sheets wonders: In today's world, must an American author become an enemy of the state in order to qualify for the Nobel Prize in Literature?
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I drag over the floor of the world like a grappling hook.

Everything I have no need of catches on it.

Tired indignation, glowing resignation.

Recommended: Man Asian Literary Prize: the nominees for 2012

The executioners gather stones, God writes in the sand.

[Excerpt from “Postludium” in Tomas Tranströmer Selected Poems, 1954-1986

Edited by Robert Hass, The Ecco Press]

Awarding the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature to Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, the eighth European recipient over the past ten years, will raise a chorus of complaints about European provincialism. The Swedish Academy praised his “condensed, translucent images” that provide us with “fresh access to reality.” A reader need not be trained as a poet to understand Tranströmer’s emphasis on the universal themes of death, nature, and history edged with memory, as it were, against the Scandinavian landscape.

For the Swedish Academy, its selections frequently rest upon a perception that the recipient represents a voice of freedom or protest or resistance against the tyranny of brutish authority. Certainly, the selections of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1970), Toni Morrison (1993), Gao Xingjian (2000), Orhan Pamuk (2006), and Herta Müller (2009) appear to have been guided by these precepts. For America, the reigning superpower though functioning these days under duress, this poses an inordinate handicap in the selection of its writers for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Who among us has suffered the travails of Solzhenitsyn or Gao?

This operative assumption presumes that unless an American author has become an enemy of the state, in today’s nomenclature a metaphorical if not actual victim of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, their words and their stories are of diminished value.

The second problem facing all writers these days in their quest for the Nobel Prize in Literature is not a peculiarly American one. It is the vexing problem of the “politics of virtue,” those sanctimonious moral standards driving both style and content that determine what is praised and shunned throughout the global literary community. Consciousness, identity, and memory, the perceptions that shape our subjective view of how we think, feel, and act, are the determinants of virtue.

But what if the great contributions of literature are no longer about self and interiority, but about a global civilization under distress? What if ugly realism dictates what will constitute the lasting value of literature because of its ability to assist us in understanding and responding to our world? Empathy and compassion, our thoughts and feelings, what if these human sentiments pale before the concrete necessities of Realpolitik and literature’s need to engage with the world?

The third challenge undermining the nurturance of great literature is that we are losing our ability to conceptualize imaginary worlds through the written word as a consequence of our diminished reading capability. Publishing conglomerates promote what sells. They no longer nurture aspirational readers hungering to understand their world. Both the genres and the literary selections, although they may be clever or well plotted or morally redemptive, never challenge the assumptions of the reader. The result is a literary sameness nurtured by MFA programs with the result that stories no longer communicate anything meaningful with a readership thirsting for knowledge. The literary writer now resembles the genre writer, each narrowly focused on his or her target market. But great literature refuses to be constrained within genres or by writing programs. Above all, it requires engagement with the world while challenging our assumptions.

The result is that heroism these days is no longer solely defined by a writer’s resistance to governmental tyranny. Tyranny knows many forms. It might be reflected in the prosaic selections by the Nobel Committee, publishing conglomerates, and MFA programs, institutions that exercise the power to determine what will be celebrated or neglected. These days the writers selected for publication and particularly those writers upon whom prizes are conferred rarely advance the cause of literature though they prey upon our emotional needs and our quest for social justice. Where once a writer had a calling, now, he or she has a career that necessitates endless marketing. Truths are nary to be found in their words, and we as readers suffer the consequences.

This jeremiad is not about the selection of Tomas Tranströmer. Let history judge his poetry and its universality or insularity. His poetry has been shaped by an earlier era when writers tried to communicate thoughtfully with their readers. Rather, the argument here is that literature today seldom has anything meaningful to say about our world and those essential truths that, should we choose to recognize them, have the potential to alter our destiny.

Diana E. Sheets has published two novels, "American Suite" and "The Cusp of Dreams." Her essays on literary criticism and political commentary may be found at www.literarygulag.com.

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