Nobel controversy: Are writers hurt by financial support?

Nobel judge Horace Engdahl lamented that today's writers, who often participate in writers programs and sometimes receive grants, are 'cut off from society'. He praised an era when 'writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries and waiters to make a living,' saying that in this way writers 'fed themselves, from a literary perspective'.

Jacques Brinon/AP
A bookstore employee adjusts books by French novelist Patrick Modiano on display in Paris.

French writer Patrick Modiano may have won this year’s Nobel Prize for literature, but Nobel judge Horace Engdahl has thrown himself in the spotlight due to controversial comments suggesting financial support for writers is harming literature.

Speaking about the proliferation of writing programs and grants, he told French paper La Croix, “Even though I understand the temptation, I think it cuts writers off from society, and creates an unhealthy link with institutions. 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.”

Engdahl lamented the “professionalization” of writers, which he said isolated writers from the world they write about and the people for whom they write. 

A member of the Swedish Academy, Engdahl is one of 18 judges who chose Modiano as this year’s winner for the Nobel Prize for literature.

As some pieces have pointed out, the literary figure who has criticized the “professionalization” of writers is himself an editor and critic as well as a professor at Denmark’s University of Aarhus in addition to his duties at the Swedish Academy.

Engdahl had more to say about the problems he sees in modern literature.

He slammed novels that “pretend to be “transgressive,” but are not. “One senses that the transgression is fake, strategic,” he said. “These novelists, who are often educated in European or American universities, don’t transgress anything because the limits which they have determined as being necessary to cross don’t exist." 

He praised Asian and African writers but warned that assimilation and Westernization may taint their work.

It is on “our western side that there is a problem, because when reading many writers from Asia and Africa, one finds a certain liberty again,” he told the French paper. “I hope the literary riches which we are seeing arise in Asia and Africa will not be lessened by the assimilation and the westernization of these authors,” he added later.

Engdahl, not surprisingly, is no stranger to controversy. 

In 2008, he derided American writers and readers as “too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.... That ignorance is restraining.”

He was lambasted for his remarks then and reaction has been swift this time as well.

“Engdahl’s bracing remarks reflect quite a lot of informal comment within some senior parts of the literary community, especially those grey cadres that are anti-American,” Observer critic Robert McCrum told the UK’s Guardian. “At face value, these comments are an odd mixture of grumpy old man and Nordic romantic. I’m not sure that the author’s garret is the guarantor of excellence.”

The LA Times’ book critic David Ulin also responded to Engdahl in a piece for the LA Times, refuting his criticism.

Grants and institutions don’t cut writers off from society, as Engdahl claimed, but rather connect them, Ulin argued.

“[I]nstitutions put us in touch with a community of readers and writers, many of whom think differently than we do,” he wrote. “Literature does not, cannot, exist in a vacuum, and one of the benefits of having to work for a living is that it gets writers in the mix.

“This is where Engdahl reveals his biases, by suggesting that there is only one way for writers to engage. It’s backwards, ignorant, a perspective defined by the romantic notion of the garret, of the starving artist, the idea that literature, that creativity, might somehow remain pure.”

Writers need not be waiters, taxi drivers, or secretaries to remain authentic, he added.

“Artists are not ennobled by poverty any more than they are ennobled by money. They are ennobled by art.

“But more to the point,” he added, “it’s time to move beyond these antiquated attitudes and recognize that what makes writing authentic is not the writer's circumstances but rather what he or she has to say.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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