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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?

By Diana E. Sheets / October 14, 2011

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?


I drag over the floor of the world like a grappling hook.

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Everything I have no need of catches on it.

Tired indignation, glowing resignation.

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.


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