Demise of the Prize?

Outmoded nationalism should not interfere with global contemporary literature

It’s no surprise that the Swedish Academy awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for literature to a Frenchman, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio. After all, Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Academy, noted just recently that Europe is “the center of the literary world” and claimed that American writers are far too insular, brainwashed by their own cannibalizing pop culture to produce any literature worthy of the Nobel Prize. Not since Toni Morrison nabbed the honor in 1993, it seems, has an author from our shores been able to extricate him or herself from oppressive American groupthink in order to produce something worthy of such accolades.

While most of us thought that the purpose of the Nobel Prize was to recognize exceptional individuals—regardless of nationality—apparently, Engdahl has been keeping score. And although he toned down his statement in light of sharp criticism from Americans and insisted that the prize “is not a contest between nations but an award to individual authors,” his declaration of Europe’s literary hegemony reveals a subtextual but unmistakable nationalism—or at least, regionalism—in the consideration of today’s arts and letters. French president Nicolas Sarkozy did not mind; crowing yesterday over Le Clézio’s success, he called the win “an honor for France, the French language, and the French-speaking world.”

Several aspects of Engdahl’s and Sarkozy’s opinions are disturbing. We should ask ourselves if it is possible to continue to evaluate literary achievement on a common and universal metric without in some way disadvantaging writers from nations with newly emerging literatures. And even if the question of abstract “fairness” seems irrelevant to the ultimate goal of the Nobel—which is to recognize superior lifetime achievement in the field of letters—that irrelevance renders the question of whether or not one can assign a national identity to any contemporary writing no less interesting.

The very act of tying an author or a body of literature to a particular nation has become problematic in an age of migration. The intranational, intracontinental, and intercontinental movements of people have increased the number of “global citizens” and diluted many claims to a pure, national identity. Le Clézio is hardly an unambiguous “Frenchman”—although born in Nice and of French descent, he moved to Nigeria when he was eight, punctuated his life with long stays in Mexico and South America, married a Moroccan woman, and now splits his time between Nice, New Mexico, and Mauritius. He has also written extensively in English.

This might be a troubling idea for countries that have a historically strong dependence on a sense of national identity. Such is the case for France. A nation whose modern history is referential to notions of universality and brotherhood, France’s colonial history echoed a desire to spread French culture—and not just French power—around the globe. That French-language citizens of former colonies might hesitate to pledge allegiance to France would surely disturb many proud readers (like Sarkozy). Yet the nature of the Francophone world—and our entire world today—is such that multicultural immersion often trumps mere linguistic links.

Le Clézio is just one example of a new breed of writers that cannot be tied to one nation—and who make M. Engdahl’s running tally seem especially ludicrous. More and more, the literary world will be confronted with authors writing in multiple languages and combining genres tied to different regions. In order to accommodate emerging literatures and appreciate the global citizen-author, intellectual leaders must indicate a willingness to shrug off literary nationalism and revise their mantra: how about “liberté, égalité, hybridité”?

Emma M. Lind ’09, a Crimson editorial chair, is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House.