What Is Wrong with American Literature? (Or Why Bob Dylan Was Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature)

Last week I shared with you some of my thoughts about finding the proper entry point into a story. This week I want to examine in broad strokes why I think American literature of the last fifty years has lost the power to impress the world.

In 2008, Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, in reference to why American writers were not being considered for the Nobel Prize, said: “the U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” So now Bob Dylan, who is not a writer in the sense that most of us think of writers, wins the 2016 Nobel for Literature. Why? How did this happen? What is the purpose behind the Academy’s decision (for surely there is a purpose)?

I think we should begin with Engdahl’s 2008 claim. Do most American writers tend to write about America as if America is the world, as opposed to European, African and Asian writers who write from a more global perspective? I do think there is some truth to that assertion. But I think the problem for American writers goes much deeper. With the exception of literature that comes out of a specific cultural ethos (Afro-American literature, Latino literature, etc.), the most noticeable trend in American literature has been what I call ‘the literature of angst and malaise.’ This has been the literature that gets the most ‘literary’ notice and which has dominated our discussions about who is among our top novelists. This literature is distinguished by a bleak sometimes dark vision of America (there is a pervading sense that the world is a lonely, dangerous place and we are filled with doubts and generally unhappy and this is a fate from which we cannot escape, a fate, moreover, which has intensified with the development of technology); the tone is often ironic, cynical, sometimes satiric (or even sarcastic); and while the characters may range from the urban/suburban landscape (Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road) to the rural South (Cormac McCarthy), the novels rarely balance pessimism with optimism; there is almost never redemption. And though certainly there are exceptions to this, the general character of our national literature since the mid-1960s has traveled down this path of exploring a fractured world where on a psychological level we are all plagued by existential angst that leads to an overwhelming despair that infects not only who we are but also the very landscape we inhabit. This literature of malaise flows out of John Updike, and every writer of note since has embraced some if not all aspects of the world as Updike saw it. DeLillo, Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Yates, McCarthy, Richard Ford, and the next generation as well: David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, George Saunders – all share a similarity of vision and even technique. In some respects, our writers have been writing the same novel, again and again, for the last fifty years.

That is why I believe the Academy will continue to snub these writers as a group. That is why American writers will not receive the Nobel for Literature until and unless they can travel a different creative path The rest of the world is not interested in this particularly bleak American vision. So with the exception of Morrison, whose works possesses a redemptive even spiritual quality that is lacking by the vast majority of the works produced by ‘the literature of angst and malaise.’ The only writer who might have broken out this dead-end trap was David Foster Wallace.

Wallace wanted to write “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction.” He recognized that we live in dark times but he said in a 1991 interview with Larry McCaffery, an English professor at San Diego State: “do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?” But Wallace died before he could blaze a new path.

I think in giving the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan, the Swedish Academy wanted to honor the work of an American, probably for geopolitical reasons, but when they examined the list of American writers who were submitted for the prize, all of the traditional writers were firmly in ‘the literature of angst and malaise’ camp.

Whatever you want to say about whether the lyrics of Bob Dylan are poetry or not, taken as a whole, his creative oeuvre certainly contains a greater degree of redemptive optimism than the vast majority of the literature produced by American writers. I think the reason the Academy chose Dylan was to say, “Wake up you American writers, stop writing the same damn thing and explore a different path, a more optimistic path, a more human path, a more global path.” I think America is being admonished by the Academy for heading down a dead-end path as far as literature is concerned and not recognizing that we (meaning those who continue to write novels that reflect a dark world filled with doubt and angst and existential crisis without even the possibility of redemption) are, in fact, at a dead end.

I remember reading one of David Foster Wallace’s essays (which one escapes me); and he wrote that he thought it was possible to strike a more redemptive note in literature, but he also felt that to do that, a writer had to embrace with absolute sincerity the path to redemption. That is a tall order these days, just as it has been a tall order for the last fifty years.

Next week I’m going to examine three American writers who are central figures in the ‘Literature of Angst and Malaise’ school of writing to assess how much truth there is in Horace Engdahl’s claim.

Peter Damian Bellis is the author of One Last Dance & Other Stories (1996), which was a 1997 Minnesota Book Award Finalist, and The Conjure Man (2010), which made the informal long list for The National Book Award in 2010. He is also the publisher of River Boat Books.

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