Sarah Churchwell: Great literature knows no bounds – in time or place

Let's not categorise books according to the social identity of their authors
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The Independent Online

Horace Engdahl, the then permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, last year pronounced that Americans wouldn't be winning the Nobel Prize for literature any time soon: "Europe still is the centre of the literary world," he declared, dismissing Americans as "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture."

Now the Swedish Academy has a new permanentsecretary, Peter Englund, and a newly enlightened perspective. It has occurred to Mr Englund that perhaps the problem was not with American insularity, but with European insularity, as he has conceded this week that perhaps the Nobel Prize has become just a teensy bit Eurocentric, seeing as how with the exceptions of J. M. Coetzee and Orhan Pamuk, all of the winners of the last 15 years have been European citizens.

I don't want to be ungracious, and it is reassuring to hear that the Nobel Prize, which for good or ill remains the most prestigious literary award in the world, is prepared to acknowledge, however grudgingly, that it is possible – if unlikely – that great literature could be found somewhere other than in Europe. "In most language areas," Englund carefully explained, "there are authors that really deserve and could get the Nobel Prize and that goes for the United States and the Americas, as well." Really?

As an American literary critic I'm much obliged to Mr Englund for granting that American literature is not a category error. My question for him is this: which language areas don't have authors who deserve the Nobel Prize-and how do you know? Talk about being avant la lettre.

The idea that any nationality, region, or language is prima facie incapable of producing great literature is an absurdity that should be clear even to the Swedish. The most remarkable thing about this argument is that there are apparently intelligent people who think it is arguable, who believe, as Mr Engdahl did, that European literature is sophisticated and global, whereas American literature is crass, self-regarding and insular. You know, just like Americans.

An analogous debate swirled the last few weeks around the Booker Prize shortlist, demanding whether it was objectionable that all the shortlisted novels could be called "historical." Why? Do we prefer our novels ahistorical? Anachronistic? If they have to be about The Way We Are Now, then Trollope already wrote that one. And anyway, we don't want to be insular, inward-looking, too "sensitive to trends in our own culture." Or maybe that's acceptable when it's European. There are no temporal perspectives that are by definition incompatible with great literature-or sufficient to guarantee it, either.

Stereotypes, generalisations and categorical thinking are not the foundations of literary criticism. These kinds of false syllogisms are why so many men are able to conclude that they have permission to ignore literature by women tout court – based entirely on stereotypes about what women are "supposed" to be writing about. (Perhaps this kind of thinking has something to do with why women have won the Nobel Prize for Literature 10 times in 108 years.)

These debates about which kinds of people have the capacity to produce great literature are not just parochial, chauvinistic, and imbecilic. They are also the reductio ad absurdum of our deplorable habit of categorising books according the social identity of their authors.

If we are judging literature according to the nationality of its author, declaring that those writing about their own nation and moment, or from a position of imperial power, are disbarred from writing great literature, then we shall have to dispense with Jane Austen, all three Brontë sisters, Thackeray, Trollope, George Eliot, Dickens, Kipling and Hardy. If historical writing need not apply then wave goodbye to Shakespeare. If it has to be global in its sweep and eschew insularity, then I'm afraid Virginia Woolf is out.

Judges shouldn't be insular – but great books can be. Just ask Robinson Crusoe. The Great Gatsby is about America, its trends and mass culture – does that make it less of a masterpiece? Moby-Dick is about America and whales. There are no ideas, topics, themes, perspectives, or identities that are a priori excluded from the literary. That's the great thing about great literature: it can be about anything, and by anyone – as long as they can write. Bleak House is about a lawsuit (and believes in spontaneous combustion). Clarissa is about dying of outrage. Tristram Shandy is about hobby-horses and shaggy dog tales. Gulliver's Travels is about talking horses, for God's sake.

Literature is not about which language you speak, it is about your way with words. It is not about where you come from, but what you can see from where you are. None of us can read every language or know every culture. But we should acknowledge that the ignorance is ours, and embrace surprise and edification. For all I know there is great literature being produced in Antarctica – or even in Sweden. I look forward to being convinced.

Sarah Churchwell is senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia