Last week, Adam Kirsch, poet, critic, and former arts editor for The Sun (RIP: 2002-2008) posted an article on Slate critiquing the Nobel Committee’s open bias against American authors, and in particular, academy secretary Horace Engdahl, who remarked last year that “the US 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.” In response, New Yorker editor David Remnick had some thoughts of his own: “You would think that the permanent secretary of an academy that pretends to wisdom but has historically overlooked Proust, Joyce, and Nabokov, to name just a few non-Nobelists, would spare us the categorical lectures.”
Remnick, 1, Engdahl, 0. (Fun aside: in 1913, before electing to publish all of In Search of Lost Time, André Gide initially advised Gallimard to reject Du côté de chez Swann, a decision he later considered one of his life’s greatest regrets. At least some people figure things out before it’s too late). As Kirsch points out, while it is true that American readers overwhelmingly neglect literature in translation, Engdahl’s comment reflects a wider ignorance about American literature, and particularly writers who do ‘reach across the aisle’ and engage in the global literary scene. While Kirsch’s article turns into a paean to Phillip Roth — I wonder how the liver scene in Portnoy’s Complaint reads in translation — he does note that most of the giants of contemporary American letters — DeLillo, Updike, Pynchon — will more likely than not never be recognized by the Nobel Committee. Accordingly, French writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio was awarded the prize this morning.
But does the Nobel anti-American bias extend beyond literature?
Recent events suggest that it might. On Monday, the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology was given to French researchers Luc Montagnie and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi for their 1983 discovery of the HIV virus, and to Harald zur Hausen (they can award up to three at a time) for uncovering the link between the human papiloma virus and cervical cancer. Conspicuously excluded, however, was American scientist Robert Gallo, who also played a key role in discovering the HIV virus, and in 1984, entered into a controversial and protracted legal battle over the breakthrough. It took three years of messy litigation before French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac and Ronald Reagan finally agreed to share credit for the discovery, supposedly putting to rest issues of royalties and intellectual paternity. But unfortunately, the decision to exclude Gallo has already reignited one of the most sensitive — and some would say tasteless — medical controversies in recent years, and consequently, has elicited a range of responses from the scientific community.
Here’s an op-ed from New Scientist arguing that Gallo did not, in fact, deserve the prize.
According to New Scientist, Gallo not only discovered the virus a year after the French did (an fact nobody disputes) but also used cultures that had been contaminated by the French’s own virus, a mystery that remains unresolved. The verdict on Gallo? Rosalind Franklin, he is not.
So while I’m not convinced that the Nobel Committee is unequivocally anti-American, at least in terms of literature, the Committee would do well to heed the words of their founder, Alfred Nobel, and recognize those who have “conferred the greatest benefit on mankind,” regardless of how myopic where ever they come from may be. Because really, how many sprawling, baseball-oriented historical novels does one have to write before somebody throws them a Nobel Prize?