In the Guardian this morning, John Sutherland writes about the selection of Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio as the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature. Or rather, he writes about the New York Times article on the anouncement, which, Sutherland confidently asserts, is a barely-concealed howl of outrage that the prize did not go to the great American writer . . . well, he does’t say which one the Times is outraged about. Read the article for yourself and see if you can match Sutherland’s sensitivity to nuance.
As I — in my limited, parochial, American way — read Alan Cowell’s piece, he is trying gently to indicate that there is no universal agreement among the French themselves about Le Clézio’s stature — but then, that’s par for the recent-Nobel-in-literature course. In fact, that’s par for the whole Nobel-in-literature course: read over the list of laureates and your responses are likely to be equally divided among “Of course,” “Hmmmmm,” and “What??” John Steinbeck but not James Joyce? Pearl S. Buck but not Jorge Luis Borges? William Golding but not Marcel Proust? Please. Leaving politics aside — and Borges was denied the award for his politics, just as Auden was denied it for having had some supposedly critical things to say about Dag Hammarskjöld — trying to figure out in the midst of a writer’s career what future generations will think of him or her is simply a mug’s game. Which is the chief reason why I think the literature prize is the least meaningful of them all.
But let’s forget all that, especially since Sutherland does: like many critics, his real interest in in The Larger Question. (He hasn’t even read anything by Le Clézio, though he’s ready to proclaim that the one book he has ordered is a “masterpiece.” Nice to know that kind of thing in advance.) So, what is The Larger Question? It’s something that “one can confidently have an opinion about”: “Has America got too big for its cultural boots?” I don’t need to tell you the answer, but I’ll mention Sutherland’s evidence for it: “Our screens, large and small, have been Americanised. Our popular music. Our bestseller lists increasingly feature American, not home-grown blockbusters.”
By the way, is the second point true? I was thinking that the UK has traditionally done fairly well in the music industry. Think about it: the Beatles, the Stones, the Bee Gees, Amy Winehouse, Madonna — all Brits! But more to the point, I wasn’t even aware that America wrote books or sang songs or made movies. And, supposing we grant America’s outgrown boots, what should America have done or not done? Write fewer books? Write lousier books? What? I’m serious: if there are too many American books on the British bestseller lists, and if (as Sutherland clearly believes) that is simply America’s fault, what is, or should have been, the remedy? I eagerly await clarification on this essential matter.