If you've been reading any book news or book blogs in the last day or so, you will inevitably have come across the literary brouhaha over the remarks made by Horace Engdahl, secretary of the Swedish Academy that awards the Nobel Prize of Literature (which should be announced shortly). You can read the full story here, but the gist of the controversy is Engdahl's claim that, "The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining." The comments were made in the context of Engdahl explaining his theory for why most of the past winners were European.
Now, I love literary spats, so following the debates and impassioned defenses of American literature has been very entertaining - and has more than once led me to adding another writer to my neverending to-be-read list. My own personal opinion is that it's impossible and rather naive to sum up any country's literary culture so succinctly, (though it's certainly a surefire way to get publicity) but if his comments do make readers stop and think about the last time they may have read (or not) a work in translation and decide to expose themselves to some international writers outside of their geographical comfort zone, well then, that would be terrific.
I've always been a fan of reading writers from different countries because I love travelling and there's no better way to explore a country than through its literature. And my Dewey picks have always reflected this. But in light of this debate, as I was putting together my list of favourite fall reads, I was taken by how difficult it is to determine what exactly constitutes literary nationalism anyways. For example - Michel Faber's latest book, The Fire Gospel is on my list. Faber was born in the Netherlands, grew up in Australia and now lives in Scotland. So is he Dutch? Australian? Scottish? Dutch-Scottish? Or how about Randa Jarrar? She was born in Chicago and now lives in Ann Arbor. But she grew up in Kuwait and Egypt before moving back to the U.S. and her new novel, A Map of Home completely reflects her Arab heritage and experiences. If she's American, she's certainly not isolated or insular. We are all - writers and readers alike - such a wonderfully complicated, ever-changing, marvellously messy mixture of all of our accumulated ancestral and literary influences. Isn't that what cultural globalization is all about?
However if anyone is counting, my list includes two Canadians (one of whom lives in the U.S.), a Kiwi, a Norweigan, a Swede, four Brits, one German (who lives in Austria), one Hungarian, one Russian and the before-mentioned Faber and Jarrar. The important thing is they have all written wonderful (and wonderfully different) books that I can't wait to get out on the road and book talk about. I should add (because I represent a lot of different publishers, some of whom have their own distinct websites separate from Random House) that I'll be also be plugging Damon Galgut's terrific novel The Impostor (he's from South Africa) and the moving Journal of Hélène Berr (she was French). For those who won't get a chance to see the Deweys in person, do check out our lists posted as they become available, on the right hand side of the blog. Lots of great reading recommendations for you and your patrons - no matter where you hail from or live.