Writer: Americans Don't Deserve Nobel In Literature

Guy Raz, talks with Alexander Nazaryan about his rant in Salon.com, excoriating the American literary world. He explains that Americans don't deserve a Nobel Prize because their work is too interior. Nazaryan is on the editorial board of The New York Daily News.

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GUY RAZ, host: The Nobel prize in literature of course did not go to an American. Nineteen ninety-three would be the last time, when it went to Toni Morrison.

And critic Alexander Nazaryan says it's our own fault. Our literature doesn't deserve it, and he said just that in a recent article in Salon.

Alexander Nazaryan, welcome to the program.

ALEXANDER NAZARYAN: Hi, thanks for having me.

RAZ: Can I be forgiven for never hearing of Tomas Transtromer?

NAZARYAN: Absolutely. You'll be with a vast majority of American readers and probably readers outside of Sweden.

RAZ: Probably readers outside - around the world, right?

NAZARYAN: Yeah, I think they all went to Wikipedia this morning....

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NAZARYAN: ...and tried to learn how to spell his name. And that's not said to criticize his poetry. It's pretty clear, though, that nobody had any clue.

RAZ: Let's talk American writers for a moment. Because I think it was about three years ago that the head of the Nobel Literature Committee essentially said, America isn't producing any good work and that the best writers are European. So have they gamed the system against us?

NAZARYAN: Well, I don't think it's quite a conspiracy. But a lot of people were outraged when he said that. David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, being one of the more prominent critics. Adam Kirsch wrote in Slate what I think was a very reasonable and angry piece criticizing the permanent secretary for saying that.

But the truth is his words, I think, struck a chord and one that wasn't false about what's happened to our literature in, I would say, the last three decades.

RAZ: So what is wrong, in your view, with American writers right now?

NAZARYAN: We've become a nation of literary narcissists. Part of that comes out of the write-what-you-know tradition, which I think must be taught in every single MFA program. And then, don't try to assume characters who are unlike yourself. So, for example, you know, if you are a white male, write from the perspective of a white male. Don't write like William Styron did from the perspective of a slave and for which he got pilloried for, in "The Confessions of Nat Turner."

I'm not saying that's a great book. But I think David Foster Wallace, in 1997, in an essay for the New York Observer - pretty brutal takedown of an Updike novel, comes up with this term the great male narcissist, which is a writer who's purely inward-looking and just unwilling to engage with the world.

And I think today, every writer - regardless of gender or ethnicity - the majority of writers are great male narcissists. And I talk about Juvela Heery(ph) and Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Franzen - I don't see big political, social engagement in their works. I see narrow concerns, not a lot of cultural criticism of the sort that, for example, John Steinbeck does in "Grapes of Wrath."

Or even, you know, John le Carre does in some of his finer spy fiction, which, to tell you the truth, is much more intelligent than what comes out of many American writers today.

RAZ: I mean you say writers are encouraged to write from their perspective and to write what they know. But how should they sort of be thinking about writing differently? I mean, what would they write?

NAZARYAN: Well, first of all, I think you have to have experience. Hemingway, of course, wrote from the viewpoint of many times his own self. But he'd done a lot of things. He'd been to war. He lived in Paris. If he'd just gone to college and then to a writing seminar and then moved to Brooklyn, I don't think he could've written "The Sun Also Rises."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAZ: And that's - you're essentially saying that is who is writing novels in America today.

NAZARYAN: That's the vast majority. Not everybody. There are really wonderful writers who are outside that. And there are writers within that sort of mainstream culture who are doing interesting things. But I think the vast majority of writers are almost afraid of imagination. And that, to me, is frightening, because many of our great works are founded on this immense leap of faith.

Imagine if Cervantes said, well, this is crazy. A guy goes around chasing windmills and wearing a pot on his head - this is - nobody is going to buy this.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NAZARYAN: You know, I'll just write about my childhood or something.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAZ: That's Alexander Nazaryan. He's on the New York Daily News editorial board. He writes on literature and culture for a variety of publications. His essay on the Nobel Prize for Literature was published at Salon.com.

Alexander, thanks.

NAZARYAN: Thank you very much.

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