Friday, July 13, 2007

Empire and Foundation: A Solution for A. N. Wilson

by Ken Houghton

In response to point (4) of this Cheryl Miller post at The American Scene which links to this piece:
I can't be the only one who finds Wilson's piece incredibly self-indulgent, even for the Torygraph.

He buries his lede ("the panel...has been swayed by non-literary criteria") which is CritSpeak for "your literature does not fit my politics."

And if the criterion really is English literature (which, notably, it is not for the Nobel), why does he spend most of the piece ranting about Canetti and Boll?

Wilson doesn't like Seamus Heaney or Toni Morrison. We get it: he's Very English, and can't abide the Irish (even if he is Northern) Heaney or the Black American Female Morrison invading his territory. (What does he think of the Jewish Bellow or the semiliterate Steinbeck, who was assuredly a poorer writer than Pearl Buck by his own [meaning A. N. Wilson's] criteria?)

Let's do some details of the 103 winners to date (since 1901):
  1. There are 23 writers whose sole language is English
  2. There are three more, two of whom are Irish, whose writing languages include English (Samuel Beckett, the Wilson-maligned Heaney, and Joseph Brodsky).
  3. This one more (Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose language was Yiddish), who lived a significant amount of time in English-as-first-language countries.

That produces a total of 27 writers (out of 103), including Derek Walcott (Saint Lucia) and V. S. Naipaul (Trinidad & Tobago) from whom to choose.

There is, of course, the other complication: the Nobel tends to be given near the end, not the beginning or even the middle of a career. (Until Saul Bellow [1976], no U.S. winner published a novel after winning the Nobel.) In the case of the British, that leaves the long gap from William Golding (1983) and Harold Pinter (2005) in which many died but none were chosen, which mayhaps explains part of Wilson's bitterness toward Heaney [1995] and the ignoring of Naipaul [2001] and the three Africa-based writers in English (Soyinka, Gordimer, and Coetzee).

So it's really too soon for Lawrence Norfolk (my personal pick) or Kazuo Ishiguro or Ian McEwan, and probably even Christopher Priest or any of the other writers listed in that first Best Young British Novelists by Granta the year Golding won the Prize.*

But we can still put together a Writers-in-English syllabus, covering, say, 1875-1960 that looks like this:
  1. Rudyard Kipling
  2. George Bernard Shaw
  3. William Butler Yeats
  4. Sinclair Lewis
  5. William Faulkner
  6. Samuel Beckett
  7. Saul Bellow
  8. Derek Walcott
  9. Toni Morrison
  10. V. S. Naipaul
  11. J. M. Coetzee, and
  12. Harold Pinter

There might need to be some changes to the order, but very few. (Bellow after Faulkner, Naipaul before Walcott, and probably close with Beloved.) It's a fairly clear lineage from empire to privilege to the rise of America to the expansion of opportunity and democracy.

Anyway, Ms. Miller, that's my answer. Or is that the problem Wilson is having?

*Norfolk is included in the 1993 Best of Young British Novelists volume. Given that Lempriere's Dictionary was published in 1991, and that he was twenty at the time of the first volume, we have to concede that he was included as soon as was reasonable.

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